So many zombie shows and movies are stuck in the modern era. Not Kingdom.
The Netflix series takes the classic concept of an undead outbreak and transplants it into 16th century Korea, hundreds of years before the time of automobiles, pump-action shotguns, and chainsaws that are so common in zombie media.
It is a gorgeous, frightening, and politically intriguing series that’s only two seasons in, and at six episodes per season, it’s a very approachable undertaking in the spookiest month of the year, October.
Right off the bat, Kingdom forgoes the zombie trope of not knowing where the zombie outbreak begins. The first zombie is the king of the Joseon dynasty, which was roughly in the middle of its 500-year reign over Korea. The zombified king is held in chains and kept under wraps by his power-hungry new wife, the Queen Consort Cho (Kim Hye-jun), and her father Lord Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong). If the Queen Consort could give birth to a new prince and get rid of the rightful son and heir Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) before the state of the king is revealed, she and her family could seize the throne.
Chang discovers this secret for himself and sets out on an adventure with his sword and bodyguard/pal Mu-yeong (Kim Sang-ho) to figure out how his dad became a monster and why this crucial detail was being held from him. The Cho family has been quite suspicious lately.
Unfortunately, it’s not long before someone who gets bit by the king winds up outside the secure palace walls, and a full-on outbreak begins with an equally nasty and brutal bloodbath.
The Kingdom zombies are aggressively violent, but luckily for a couple of new friends on the show, physician Seo-Bi (Bae Doo-na) and competent fighter Yeong-Shin (Kim Sung-kyu), these manic cannibals seem to go to sleep when the sun comes up.
As the show goes on, our set of heroes learn more about the truth behind not only why the kingdom is now beset by a zombifying plague, but also about the nefarious gaslighting and power-grabbing politics that are partially driving all of this horror. The double threat of the Cho family and zombies makes Kingdom constantly gripping and interesting.
The beautiful setting of 1500s Korea is also a breath of fresh air. The scenery is gorgeous, and the sets and costumes look fantastic. But what may be the best part of the setting is how it changes the mechanics of how people deal with zombies. They have to rely on swords, spears, and arrows for most combat, and there are no cars for making a quick getaway. Plus, it’s rare to have sturdy doors to close in the face of a zombie — most of the doors in the kingdom are made of screens that are easier to tear than the poor people would like.
I really can’t stress enough how well choreographed the action is. In some horror properties, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, bites and fights can feel a little campy or overdone at times, but Kingdom always feels both grounded in the fantasy yet impressive.
Both seasons of Kingdom are excellently paced and there’s no lack of compelling story. More and more is revealed as the show digs into the pasts and unsure futures of all the characters, touching on class, privilege, and the failings of the powerful to round out everyone into a complete person that is in some way a product of the Joseon kingdom.
Yes, it’s a zombie show, which normally I would pass on out of exhaustion, but the setting here is so fresh and the sociopolitical statements so nuanced that I couldn’t pull myself away. It’s a perfect watch this month for anyone looking for a thriller that really feels unique.
Kingdom Seasons 1-2 are now streaming on Netflix.