Review: 'Rampant' is an ambitious film that could have used its zombies better

Marcus Goh
Contributor
PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

The increasing saturation of zombie films means that new films about the undead need to have an extra oomph to draw audiences, such as Zombiepura’s Singaporean setting. In Rampant‘s case, the oomph comes from the setting — the Chosun period of Korean history, complete with period costumes and dynastic palaces. The South Korean zombie period drama centres around an invasion of lumbering corpses as the leadership of the country falls into strife and conflict.

Does this fusion work? The production values are definitely there, with elaborate costumes, beautiful sets and sufficient zombie extras to make you believe that the apocalypse is nigh. It’s difficult enough to make a zombie film, what with the production costs involved in hiring, make-up, and coordinating extras to move as a convincing zombie horde. To add period costumes and sensibilities to the mix just creates an extra layer of complexity that even the most experienced filmmakers would find challenging.

Unfortunately, by focusing on the period aspect, Rampant loses much of its zombie flavour. The zombies are present, sure, but they’re not as frightening as zombies usually are. Many of the usual zombie movie tropes are either perfunctorily done or completely omitted. They’re more of a plot device than a real threat, although there is decent enough exposition for their existence in Rampant‘s universe.

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

More importantly, the zombies are not easily discernible from the human characters in large crowd scenes. Perhaps it’s due to the baggy nature of period costumes (mostly robes) and the fact that the citizens of this world are supposed to be grimy to begin with (dirt and blood on a character’s clothes are usually shorthand indicators that they have turned into zombies), which results in the lack of distinction. It’s only when you see their faces that you realise which extras are zombies and which ones are going to be eaten.

However, Rampant‘s ambitious scope pays off in many other ways. The action scenes are excellent, with sprawling shots that show you how the characters are trapped. The big set pieces are also evocative, with the final confrontation taking place in a thrilling, if somewhat implausible, location. Zombie attacks are never straightforward, with added complications creating tension in such scenes.

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

Jeong Man-sik’s bumbling sidekick character Hak Su is endearingly humorous, and for good reason. Unlike many dramas which throw in a buffoonish character just for laughs, Hak Su’s comedy serves an integral purpose to the story. Protagonist Lee Chung (Hyun Bin), heir to the royal throne, also shows impressive, believable and relatable character development over the course of the movie. Their character arcs are all symbolically represented in their costume design as well, with Jang Dong-gun’s Minister of War Kim Ja-joon having the most impressive changes in image.

Be warned though — you’ll have to sit through an excruciatingly slow first hour to get to the best parts of the film, when the zombies attack in earnest. The action doesn’t last long enough, since the film ends with you wishing for more. In that respect, the pacing could have been better if it had focused on the later dramatic twists and zombie scenes, and cutting the first act to the bare minimum (you already understand Lee Chung’s character within the first five minutes of his appearance, but the film belabours this to the point that you know there must be a payoff later).

Rampant is an ambitious film that has many hits and misses, but more of the former than the latter. It could have utilised its zombies better, which is a pity given the effort the cast and crew put into this production aspect of the movie. If you’ve always wanted to watch a zombie film but were too terrified to, then Rampant is the perfect film as a tamer version of the usual zombie film, but with excellent production values.

Rampant is showing in cinemas now.

Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? If you like Korean pop culture.

Score: 3.6/5

Secret ending? No, but there’s a shoutout to the zombie cast in the credits.

Running time: 121 minutes (~2 hours)

Rampant is a South Korean fantasy period drama with zombies. It centres around the succession plans of Korea in the Chosun era. Political strife plagues the continuity of the ruling dynasty — which is further complicated when a zombie outbreak hits the capital.

Rampant is directed by Kim Sung-hoon and written by Hwang Jo-yoon. It stars Hyun Bin (Lee Chung), Jang Dong-gun (Kim Ja-joon), Kim Eui-sung (Lee Jo), Jeong Man-sik (Hak Su), Jo Woo-jin (Park Eul-ryong), Lee Sun-bin (Deok-hee), and Seo Ji-hye (Jo). It is rated NC-16.

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Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter, having written for popular shows like “Lion Mums”,  “Crimewatch”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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