Ahh, the age-old question: how do you make a zombie film series feel fresh? (pun intended). Funny as it may be, nobody seems to have an answer to this question. Sure, there have been some great examples of that (e.g. Dawn of the Dead) but the statistical sample is still too small to give any hints as to how filmmakers should approach following up on successful zombie films without sliding into a groove of repeatability or leaving the spirit of the original film at the door.
Well, Peninsula is not going to provide any answers in this regard either despite the fact it has quite a lot of freedom afforded to it. That’s because the two films in the series which came before it (Train to Busan and the animated follow-up Seoul Station) are deliberately sparse in the world-building department and instead place their emphasis on localized survival action. That is not to say that Peninsula should have filled in the gaps in the lore (even though it did at least partially) of what may or may not emerge as a standalone cinematic universe of Korean zombie survival horrors, but it nonetheless did not have to do a whole lot stay interesting. After all, Train to Busan takes place almost exclusively aboard a train during a zombie apocalypse. And even Seoul Station, despite its narrative not being constrained by the locale, preferred to keep its scope narrow and character-focused. Whether it was successful in doing so is a separate question, but the point stands that Yeon Sang-ho was not bound by having to deal with carryover characters or strands of plot in need of being tied over. He was free to tell a fresh story set in a universe that up to that point was only vaguely sketched out.
And so he did, or at least so it would seem. Peninsula takes place some years after the events depicted in the previous films. Korea is no longer going through a zombie apocalypse; it is rather a post-apocalyptic wasteland which will likely be more familiar to fans of The Walking Dead series. It sees a former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), who had successfully escaped the apocalypse, make their way back to the Korean peninsula in search for treasures that would help them rebuild their lives abroad. Once there, they have to evade hordes of rabid-yet-stupidly-manipulatable undead, face off against sadistic warlords and help a family of survivors make their way to the safety of the outside world.
Now, on paper the film presents itself as fundamentally interesting thanks to its simple structure, a varied array of antagonists and a textbook narrative of survival and escape, which easily lends itself to sustain a back-to-back string of thrilling set pieces. But Peninsula somehow doesn’t work and a good chunk of that reason has to do with what I like to call the law of zombie diminishing returns: the longer we are exposed to zombies in any given film or a series thereof, the less threatening they come across. Despite the fact in this universe the undead are extremely fast, unstoppable, and agile, we are immediately desensitized to them. They drop like flies and are easily outmanoeuvred by the characters, which immediately complicates the idea of staging a thrilling adventure. This is exactly why nearly all zombie-related film series and TV shows must very quickly introduce secondary threats and antagonists whilst relegating zombies to the background and treating them as more of an occasional nuisance or an element of production design.
Peninsula is no different in this regard as it focuses its storytelling around the protagonists evading and facing off against a renegade group of soldiers called Unit 631, clearly named to evoke the infamous Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army responsible for some truly horrendous war crimes during their reign of terror in occupied China. Unfortunately, this is where the film goes off the rails as it divides its attention between following Jung-seok, who befriends a family of survivors, and Chul-min, who ends up captured by the Unit 631 and subjected to sadistic torturous games indirectly inspired by The Running Man and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. This is where Yeon Sang-ho’s directorial and screenwriting chops are put to the test and the results clearly indicate that he isn’t Steven Spielberg. Instead of skilfully freestyling between the two parallel story strands that eventually merge into one massive chase sequence, Peninsula loses its focus and drive almost immediately and quickly becomes boring to look at.
As a result, I can’t honestly call this film entertaining, let alone successful. Despite its compelling premise and a relatively ambitious scale (especially in the context of the previous instalments in the series), Peninsula very quickly runs out of steam and has to subsist on the shreds of charisma written into its paper-thin characters and then hope the viewers would care enough to root for their successful escape from the ruthless renegade soldiers. And – as we have established – zombies are no longer a life-threatening problem and the characters have to go out of their way to find themselves cornered; and even then, they can somehow evade their teeth. At this point I am honestly hoping Yeon Sang-ho isn’t planning on any more sequels because Train to Busan might just have been a flash in the pan and any more attempts to cash in on the film’s cult following and immense success are going to be at best forgettable and quite likely irredeemably poor.