If you’re feeling (as many are) that The Walking Dead has just about played out anything interesting about zombie horror, Netflix’s recent South Korean acquisition Kingdom attempts to breathe some fresh life into the genre by crossing it with a little historical fantasy, martial arts, and political drama. The result may not reinvent any of those genres, but the mix proves surprisingly refreshing.
Set in medieval Korea, the show opens with a reveal that the king of the Joseon dynasty has died. Desperate to cling to power, his widow and his closest advisor (the queen’s father) conspire to cover up the death, insisting to the world that the king is still alive, if very sick and unable to entertain visitors. When they order a doctor to heal the king with something called a “resurrection plant,” it reanimates the body as a mindless, bloodthirsty monster that they must keep chained in his bedchambers, fed periodically with the sacrifice of innocent handmaidens and others who get too curious.
If anyone discovers that the king is dead (or undead), next in line to the throne will be his son with a prior wife, Crown Prince Yi-Chang (Ju Ji-hoon). However, the young queen is pregnant, and if she can keep the ruse going for another month, her child (assuming it’s a boy) will supersede Yi-Chang as primary heir, allowing the queen to rule as his regent until he comes of age. Yi-Chang finds all the secrecy suspicious and sets out to prove that his father has died, both as a power play to put himself on the throne and as a simple matter of survival. When the queen and her father declare him a traitor and order him executed, Yi-Chang flees the capital and attempts to track down the doctor who tended to the king.
Before long, a zombie epidemic breaks out and spreads across the land. On his journeys, Yi-Chang collects a small coterie of supporters, including his loyal bodyguard, a non-nonsense nurse (Doona Bae from Netflix’s Sense8), an outlaw with a mysterious past, and an ineffectual local magistrate. Together, they must save his people from the scourge of the undead while working to uncover the conspiracy back home at the palace.
Season Verdict / Grade: B+
By adding in a layer of complicated political intrigue, Kingdom quickly sets itself apart from most other zombie dramas, which tend to focus more on the immediate needs of surviving monster attacks. This series has a lot more going on than just that. The period setting is pretty novel for this genre, and the show’s production values are very high, with lovely photography and some entertainingly crazy costumes. (I have no idea whether all the silly hats are historically accurate, but they’re fun to look at.)
The show also breaks from the traditional George Romero depiction of zombies. These are the ferocious, running zombies you’ve seen in movies like 28 Days Later, not the slow and lumbering type. Their attacks hit quick and hard, which adds a great deal of tension to the frequent action scenes. Victims reanimate almost immediately, with herky-jerky movements common to Asian horror.
Moreover, the story builds its own mythology with new rules for the undead, including that they’re only active at night, and run away to hide during the day, during which time their bodies appear completely lifeless. This gives the living characters a respite and time to strategize, but also puts a suspense-building countdown clock on when the next attack will occur.
For all that, the show is still a pastiche of a lot of different sources that all feel familiar. The particular combination may be a change of pace from American TV, but I’m not sure that it breaks new ground in any single area. Some of the comic relief is a bit too broad for my taste.
Nevertheless, compared to the slog that The Walking Dead has become, Kingdom may just restore some faith in the zombie genre for fans who’ve almost given up on it. With just six episodes in the first season, it’s a quick binge, though be warned that it ends on a cliffhanger just as the story really picks up steam. A second season has been confirmed and will begin production shortly.