Great genre movies know how to grab you by the collar and yank you into their world. They draw you in with a small taste of what’s to come, and if that first hit rocks your world, you’re all theirs. Rampant, from director Sung-hoon Kim, kicks things off at warp speed. We rocket from zombie-bite to a man at home showing symptoms, to full-on zombie rampage in about three minutes. But Rampant can’t make good on its early promise. And it’s crackling energy fizzles out and only returns in fits and starts.
The movie takes place in Korea during the Joseon era. In an act of “diplomacy,” the King (Eui-sang Kim) handed his son Prince Ganglim (Hyun Bin) over to the Qing emperor. His older son, the crown prince (Tae-woo Kim) sees too much corruption in his father’s court and leads a secret rebellion. So, the prince’s rebels have a meeting with a Dutch arms dealer to secure weapons for their uprising. And locked away on the arms dealer’s ship is an infected man in a cage – Rampant’s patient zero.
The imperial court’s war minister (Jang Dong-gun) uses the viral infection to throw the kingdom into chaos so he can ascend the throne. Prince Ganglim returns amidst the anarchy, which is now an full-fledged zombie outbreak. Prince Ganglim, a smug, shallow, womanizer, is also the kingdom’s fiercest warrior, and he’ll need his legendary skills to rescue his brother’s widow (and unborn child). He’s joined by a noble group of rebels hellbent on defeating the zombie plague and putting an end Joseon’s political corruption.
In pop culture, the late-2000’s was all about vampires. And they eventually ceded the spotlight to zombie movies, TV series, and video games. In 2019, it feels like we’ve seen every type of zombie flick imaginable. And wowing us with something new is a tall order. A solid zombie film doesn’t have to throw something original at us as long as it provides savage thrills or thought-provoking themes. We want our zombie movies to go all-out in scaring us, grossing us out, or showing us the world through a new lens.
Rampant isn’t up to these tasks. What it does offer, though, is mild thrills, eye-popping visuals, and uneven pacing. The movie’s big problems are its bland characters and wonky pacing. Rampant would be served well by an editor trimming out the narrative fat. Nobody in the cast transcends the limitations of their generic roles either. Prince Ganglim’s character arc is so flat and by-the-numbers that the movie’s sweeping emotional beats feel unearned.
Watching characters plot and scheme a political upheaval will never be as exciting as seeing a zombie invasion. The problem here is that the film drags fore long periods before it throws us into the action. The downtime doesn’t feel like its ramping up the intensity toward critical moments. Half the fun of a roller-coaster is the exhilaration you feel as it slowly ascends into the sky. Rampant fails to convey that type of emotional buildup. And since I wasn’t invested in the characters, I never felt any sense of stakes in the life and death battles.
As for the zombie outbreak; what it lacks in originality it makes up for with gruesome visuals and cold-blooded savagery. The film calls these creatures demons, but they seem to be a vampire/zombie hybrid. They’re hurt by sunlight and go into hiding after sunrise. Physically, though, they behave like traditional zombies. They shamble, skitter, and run across whatever’s in their way as they hunt their prey. And what they lack in smarts they make up for with their overwhelming numbers.
The zombie makeup looks perfectly hideous on the actors. Once bit, the infected bodies contort in unnatural angles while the victim gurgles and spits. Every zombie attack presents a whirlwind of violence and gore that gives viewers precisely what they came for.
Rampant’s striking costumes and production design elevate the furious set pieces. Nothing beats looking at ravenous hordes of zombies dressed in hanboks while they charge through a palace courtyard. Costume designer Sang-gyeong Jo goes all-out on the court’s regal attire but does an even better job making Prince Ganglim and his rebels look like bad-asses. Sung-Jae Lee’s focused cinematography adeptly captures the stellar action choreography; no easy task given the number of things happening on screen.
Rampant is a watchable zombie flick with its share of exciting moments. But it’s weighed down by poor pacing, paper-thin characters, and uninspired writing. The script lacks the emotional depth to hold its sombre third act together, and the slow buildup to the set pieces kills the film’s momentum.
Rampant never devolves into genre movie schlock either. The picture takes its premise seriously and uses grounded themes and top-notch production design to weave a tale that strives to carve out a niche in the genre, even if it falls short. There isn’t enough meat on this film’s bones to satisfy viewers who aren’t zombie movie die-hards, and barely enough to satisfy the ones who are.