Remember a few months ago, back at the beginning of our long global COVID nightmare, when you’d see images of vacant cities, empty buildings, playgrounds that looked like the aftermath from that scene in Terminator 2? It really did look like we were trapped inside of a zombie movie, one in which the plague had spun rapidly out of control. That makes it weird timing for a movie like Peninsula, a sorta-sequel to the hit South Korean zombie film Train to Busan, because if we don’t shape up it’s a prospect that could become a reality.
Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit hyperbolic because the truth is the people in Peninsula largely did what the f**k they were told. After the zombie outbreak four years ago, the most infected parts of South Korea have been evacuated, leaving a ruinous husk from which only the bravest, or the poorest who couldn’t afford to flee, dare to tread. Others, who fled the devastation, are headed back into the undead terrain seeking opportunity, and that’s where this exciting, if somewhat generic post-apocalyptic sequel picks up.
Peninsula is the third zombie film from writer/director Yeon Sang-ho, along with animated prequel Seoul Station and 2016’s Train to Busan. While they are all set in the same undead-infested universe, they don’t share much else in common other than a blistering pace that grabs you by the throat. We’re catapulted into the lives of ex-soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), who is racing to get his family out of Seoul and to Japan where they will be safe from the mysterious viral outbreak. He’s so singularly focused that a desperate mother and her two kids pleading for help isn’t enough for Jung-seok to slow down, much less stop. But karma is a bitch, and shortly after getting to the boat a single infected passenger causes a violent outbreak that consumes his sister and nephew.
Four years later, Jung-seok and his widowed brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) are barely keeping it together. Hong Kong doesn’t appreciate the flood of Korean refugees, who they blame on causing the plague in the first place. Gee, that sounds familiar. “China Virus”, anyone? It’s here that we see the director’s world-building vision isn’t as thought-out as it probably could’ve been. A load of ponderous talk show-style exposition gets dumped on our heads all at once, with it being revealed that North Korea is somehow zombie free. No real explanation is given, and Yeon basically leaves that piece of information hanging in the air like a lollipop curveball, waiting for a swing that never comes. With few prospects, Jung-seok and Chul-min are hired by a gangster to go back into zombie-infested territory to find a truck containing bags of illegal cash.
Of course, it all turns out to be a shit show right from the start. Yeon’s vision of a dystopian, quarantined Incheon is ripped straight from Mad Max: Fury Road, with a little bit of World War Z thrown in for good measure. Those are two pretty good movies to pull from if you have the budget to manage it. But the landscapes are pretty dull and lack personality, a stark contrast to the colorful characters and break-neck action that keep Peninsula moving. The first big action sequence is a hazy, midnight chase through a city that looks like every stretch of road in The Walking Dead, times one million. Weaving around broken down vehicles through cracked streets with an army of rogue soldiers on their tale is one thing, but literal waves of zombies pouring from the tops of skyscrapers create a nightmarish scenario.
Jung-seok and Chul-min are eventually split up, and Peninsula diverges into two separate stories that explore the two men’s differing philosophies on sacrifice. Two rambunctious, zombie-killing girls, Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), come to Jung-seok’s rescue with an arsenal of clever toys to trick the stupid zombies. Their mother, Ming-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), turns out to be, wait for it, the same woman Jung-seok left behind earlier. Already racked by guilt, he’s forced to confront his actions and make up for what he’s done, although it goes against his instinct of self-preservation.
Meanwhile, Chul-min is captured by the soldiers who are as dangerous as they are dumb. These guys force their captives into a Gladiator-style arena fight to the death against unleashed zombies, all for their own sick entertainment. It makes for a cool visual, Chul-min fighting off the undead alone while the men around him eagerly shove one another into the hungry horde.
Yeon may have teased a wider agenda, one that explores how overcoming our greed and selfishness can defeat a threat to all humanity. Peninsula isn’t really about any of that. Instead, he relishes every opportunity to create ridiculously over-the-top scenarios for his characters to survive, like some madman’s idea of torture. The zombie fight club is just one part of it, and while that feels familiar (How many times have we seen zombies kept for entertainment?) he throws in a couple of wrinkles, like a bunch of creatures stapled together to create one giant, heinous, walking mass of bloodstained teeth and fingers. By the time we get to the cartoonish action-packed finale, in which our heroes drive through masses of rotting flesh with the steeliness of Dominic Toretto, he’s long since given in to video game mayhem
Peninsula might be an awkward, gripping transitional chapter, a bridge to a sequel that may or may not arrive. Similar to 28 Weeks Later, which took a more action-oriented view than its predecessor, there’s a recognition of Train to Busan‘s depth of character and social commentary, but Yeon chooses to plow through rather than embrace. Assuming he’s influenced by the coronavirus rampage as other filmmakers have been already, Yeon may still have some interesting places to take this franchise, and in so doing enhance Peninsula‘s importance as part of the whole.