South Korea came relatively late to the zombie-cinema sweepstakes, making up for lost time most notably with 2016’s “Train to Busan,” which has already generated a sequel. Nonetheless, “Zombie for Sale” will seem most familiar not necessarily to horror fans, but rather those who grokked the comedy of family dysfunctionalia in prior genre-expanding local breakouts “The Host” and “Parasite.” As in those films, things here center on a somewhat hapless lower-class nuclear unit who get going when the going gets outlandishly tough.
Lee Min-jae’s debut feature finally sees distribution on these shores — amid a different kind of viral contagion crisis — nearly a year and a half after its home-turf premiere, during which time it has opened in other Asian territories and played festivals primarily as “The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale.” Amiably slow to gear up toward a satisfying action climax, this endearing zom-com is making its simultaneous U.S. and U.K. commercial debut as part of cult-cinema-minded Arrow Video Channel’s July programming slate in both subscription territories.
A flurry of news reports over opening credits inform that trial patients are rumored to have had serious side effects from pharma company Human In Bio’s new diabetic medicine NoInsulin. Some were reputedly unwilling, abducted “volunteers” — including, we assume, the ragged young man seen clambering out of a manhole and stumbling down a rural road away from that corporation’s secret laboratory headquarters. He plods his way toward podunk Poongsan, where he unsuccessfully tries to bite several oblivious inhabitants, but is chased himself by the resident stray dog. He hides in a shed at the Park family’s gas station, albeit not before briefly getting his choppers into their patriarch Man-duk (Park In-hwan), an irascible card cheat and all-around ne’er-do-well who lives in a trailer next door.
Man-duk’s progeny aren’t faring much better: Their paltry living seems to be made primarily off causing accidents for unlucky passersby on the roadway, then charging exorbitantly for auto repairs. Mechanic Joon-gul (Jung Jae-young) is ever-ready for such “emergencies” with his tow truck, just as dourly pregnant wife Nan-joo (Um Ji-won) is to receive the payments in her zealously guarded cashbox. His junior sister Hae-gul (Lee Soo-kyung) gives off a bit of a ghoulish Wednesday Addams vibe, their own mother having died giving birth to her in this already-depressing place. Middle sibling Min-gul (Kim Nam-gil) chooses this moment for a visit home, failing to mention that he’s just gotten sacked from his job in the city.
When discovered, the boy Hae-gul dubs Jjong-bi (Jung Ga-ram) is just a grubby, grunting thing ineffectually lunging for any available flesh, though he’s surprisingly OK with the substitution of cabbage heads. (They look like brains.) It is Min-gul who identifies him as a zombie, which suggests bitten Man-duk is about to “turn.” Instead, however, the old man feels suddenly invigorated, making all his senior pals eager to get whatever he got for themselves. So the enterprising family begins charging for their new member’s services, which consist of a hungry nip on the arm. Soon just about everyone is feeling decades younger, the money is pouring in, the gas station gets a spruce-up, and once he gets a salon makeover, the somewhat domesticated (but still mute) Jjong-bi again looks like the cute college jock he no doubt once was.
All this is pleasing enough, with well-tuned performances that run a stylistic gamut from deadpan to antic. The firsttime feature director (as well as DP Cho Hyoung-rae) exhibits a particularly sharp eye for compositions that turn background movement into droll slapstick. But “Zombie for Sale” is just warming up for the first hour or so. In the remainder, it turns out that “zombie virus” wasn’t so harmless after all — just slow-acting. Once nearly the whole town abruptly succumbs, the Parks barricade themselves at home. Fireworks, young love, ill-timed childbearing and a weed-whacker all figure in a long climax that is satisfying and, at moments, surprisingly sweet.
The sum effect is a little bit “Shaun of the Dead,” a bit “Warm Bodies,” plus a whole lot of particularly Korean sitcom-gone-macabre humor à la “The Quiet Family” and the aforementioned Bong Joon Ho smashes. While perhaps not quite up to their level, “Zombie for Sale” hits an agreeable median between being slick, shaggy, grotesque and warmhearted. It’s skillfully assembled in all departments, though Hwang Sang-jun’s sometimes 1950s-rock-flavored score might better have leaned toward a tone more sardonic than cute.