Film Review – #Alive
The South Korean horror film #Alive (2020) contains just about all the usual tropes of the zombie apocalypse subgenre. This is both a good and bad thing. One on hand, there’s just enough entertainment value to make it worth watching. If you’re looking for something that checks off all the zombie requirements, then this is for you. But on the other hand, it adheres so closely to the formula that it doesn’t offer a whole lot of surprise. The latter is pretty disappointing, because there are moments where the potential for something new peeks out from behind the curtain but is quickly pulled back.
Looking at it, the connection between the story and the current state of the world is hard to miss. News reports describe a quick spreading disease, providing misinformation over its causes and symptoms. There’s even talk of those who are infected being asymptomatic for a while before showing any signs of illness. You could take this dialogue and use it to describe the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and it would fit. The only thing known for sure is that the disease (in the movie, not Covid-19) eventually causes its victims to mutate into ravenous flesh eaters. As #Alive begins, we already see Seoul falling into disarray.
Joon-woo Oh (Ah-In Yoo, from Burning), is a tech nerd living in a modest high-rise apartment. From his window, he can see the effects of the outbreak take a toll on the streets below. He barricades himself in his apartment, which works for the short term but soon becomes a problem as food and water start to deplete. To make matters worse, his cell phone connection and wi-fi signal have gone out, preventing him from reaching out to others. Just as Joon-woo is about to give up hope, he meets another survivor in Yoo-bin Kim (Shin-Hye Park), a young woman living in a neighboring high rise. She has also locked herself in her apartment, and so the two form a mutual support system, helping each other out from a distance as the zombie horde multiplies below.
Directed by Il Cho (who also co-writes with Matt Naylor), the first two acts set up a decent foundation to work from. The production design and location layout create a Rear Window (1954) situation, where characters exist within their own homes and their only view of the outside world is from their balcony. Joon-woo and Yoo-bin are not given much character development, and so the production leans heavily on Yoo and Park’s performances to keep us glued in. Ah-In Yoo is particularly good early on, where he has no one else to play off of other than himself. He shares his thoughts through recorded monologues, tracing his hopes and fears as the days and weeks pass.
The dynamic between Joon-woo and Yoo-bin serve as the biggest highlight. There’s a sweetness in how they interact, communicating through written signs, hand signals, and walkie talkies. One of the more clever sequences involves the two managing to share supplies by utilizing rope and Joon-woo’s drone. If #Alive had been nothing else but this connection, it would have been far more interesting to see where it goes. It reminds me of the real-life story of Jeremy Cohen and Tori Cignarella, two Brooklyn residents who (during quarantine) started dating from each other’s rooftops. It goes to show that even during the toughest of times, there’s always the possibility for a silver lining of optimism.
The writing and direction don’t offer Joon-woo and Yoo-bin the opportunity to play out their chemistry. The potential for them to be interesting characters crumbles when they are forced to leave the safety of their homes. The narrative opts for the usual zombie attacks that have been done a thousand different times. And this is where #Alive falls into generic territory. The second half is mechanical, choosing to focus on action instead of character. The horror effects are fine but forgettable. The makeup is convincing, and the stunt crew do a fine job showing how the disease twists and turns a zombie from the inside out. But many of the set pieces are placed within the hallways of the apartment complex. This doesn’t give Joon-woo and Yoo-bin much to do other than to run back and forth down the corridors, trying to open each door to escape. This all leads to a finale that is weak in its execution and payoff.
Zombies are a very old movie monster, sitting right alongside werewolves, mummies, slashers, and vampires. At this point, it’s rare for a production to really provide a unique twist to the genre. #Alive flirts with the possibility of making this more about two people coming together in the midst of chaos but shies away before fully committing to the idea. The decision ends up making what could have been a good flick into an average one.