[Movie Review] #Alive delivers cathartic thrills and real pathos
I’ll say this upfront—I’ve never watched a zombie movie before. I know, I know. But I’m not much of a horror fan, and in general I lean toward psychological horror that traffics more in dread and suspense, and less in gore and hacking off body parts. But the trailer for #Alive caught my interest, because it seemed to promise Park Shin-hye as I’ve never seen her before. So I girded my loins and jumped in.
#Alive is a zombie film, the feature debut of director Jo Il-hyung, adapted from the script of Alone, an upcoming American horror movie. (And yes, that annoying hashtag in the title does end up making sense.) The story begins with OH JOON-WOO (Yoo Ah-in) waking up alone in his family’s apartment, starting his day only to find he’s in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
He soon loses touch with his vacationing family as cell and internet connectivity break down. Barricading himself in his home, he tries to survive until someone rescues him. He spends the next days battling hunger, isolation, fear, and the zombies that have taken over his apartment complex. He’s at the end of his rope when he encounters YOO-BIN (Park Shin-hye), another resident who’s trying to survive.
I appreciated that Yoo-bin is far smarter and more resourceful than Joon-woo, when it comes to both scraping together food and water, and defending herself from the infected with booby traps and weapons. Usually when we get these last-man-alive stories, the hero tends to be the mastermind of his own escape, but here, it’s Yoo-bin who provides the smarts, the badassery, and the lion’s share of the bravery.
I loved seeing Park Shin-hye as Yoo-bin, who is so different from her usual naive and soft-hearted heroines, falling in love with men who treat her with various degrees of condescension. She definitely gets a chance to stretch her acting chops here; she even has some action scenes, which she pulls off with calm and deadly violence. My only complaint is that Yoo-bin is the far more interesting character; I wish we could have started the movie with her, instead of Joon-woo. I’d have enjoyed viewing this story from her perspective.
The plot is straightforward, but it resonates differently now than it was likely intended to when the movie went into production. Horrifying as the imagery of people biting out each other’s jugular veins is—especially to a wimp like me who normally doesn’t watch this type of stuff—it was more chilling to reflect on the ways this reminds me of our current situation. (That opening sequence with mutating cells and viruses that look a little too familiar was rough to watch.)
There’s no escaping the parallels to the feeling of being in lockdown, carefully calculating when you need to go out next to buy food, wondering who in your vicinity might be carrying the infection. For these characters too, technology is a precarious connection to the outside world that can provide solutions for immobility and isolation. Joon-woo spends his first few days glued to the TV, listening to broadcasts about how the disease is spreading quickly in densely populated areas. Most striking now: the zombie virus doesn’t immediately become apparent after a person is bitten, which means they seem totally fine and not-dangerous until they… don’t anymore.
Then there’s the way that people who must be saved so easily turn into bodies that need to be disposed of, although here there’s the awful extra stage when they turn into monsters. (Even that isn’t a judgment the film allows us to easily make, forcing the viewer to ask what value people’s lives hold once they’re infected and unable to resist harming others.)
There’s also the feeling of inevitability, the literal wave of infection that advances on the protagonists in the form of lurching undead bodies, but is burned onto the insides of our collective brains as the graphs we watched climb with dizzying speed in the first months of the pandemic. It’s definitely cathartic, in that context, to see Joon-woo bashing zombie heads in with his golf club and Yoo-bin hacking and slashing at them with her arsenal of makeshift weapons. As though they’re trying to literally crush the virus into submission.
Although the chase and fight scenes are thrilling and well-done, the film is at its best in its quieter moments. Most effective is its portrayal of the protagonists’ loneliness and fear as they face their mortality in complete solitude. Joon-woo and Yoo-bin are both alone in their homes for many days, with communication completely cut off to the outside world and nothing to fill the empty days but waiting.
We don’t (unfortunately) spend these days with Yoo-bin, but the first third of the movie is entirely Joon-woo in his apartment, slowly starving and losing hope. Yoo Ah-in does a wonderful job at expressing the raw feelings of helplessness and rage that slowly come over him. The gradual rise of tension is both internal to his character and external in terms of plot development, in a neat mirroring of the two that works very well. The film builds to a climax that had me breathless and unsure if it would be the characters’ internal conflicts or the external threat of zombies that would kill them—or if they would realize their increasingly faint hope of rescue.
Putting my personal feelings about zombies aside (on that front, I really can’t say whether I regret watching this or not—I’m still a bit traumatized), and although I’m unable to compare this to the zombie oeuvre, #Alive is well-made horror that made me feel. It has enough resonances to the current moment to elicit some pangs, but the zombies’ over-the-top grotesqueness gives the viewer enough distance to feel release at the spectacle of them being actively vanquished. Moments of unexpected humor break the tension just enough. Summer has just about wound down where I live, but this felt like a perfect summer horror flick—perhaps not the most memorable, but an intense, vivid, occasionally horrid and often enjoyable experience.
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