A disgraced crown prince in medieval Korea must outsmart a power-hungry rival clan and battle a zombie outbreak before it wipes out the country in , a genuinely thrilling new period drama from Netflix. It’s based on a popular South Korean webcomic, by Kim Eun-hee, who also adapted it for television.
(Mild spoilers below.
The series is set in Korea’s Joeson period, a medieval dynasty that lasted some 500 years (1392-1897). The current king has been ill with smallpox (supposedly) and confined to his palace, with only his physicians, royal guards, and young pregnant wife, Queen Cho (Kim Hye-jun), allowed to see him. Not even the king’s only son and heir, Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) has seen his father in the last 10 days, and there are rumors that the king has died, with all the civil unrest that entails.
We learn from the opening credits and pilot that the king is being kept alive by artificial means—in this case a “resurrection plant” brought by the visiting physician, Lee Seung-Hui, that transforms the king into a flesh-craving undead beast. The term “zombie” is never used, but that’s clearly what we’re dealing with here. It’s purely for political gain. The queen’s father, Cho Hak-Su, heads up the Haewon Cho clan, who have been gradually eroding the king’s power and influence with an eye toward replacing the crown prince (born to a concubine) with a legitimate heir—assuming the queen gives birth to a son.
The suspicious crown prince heads out to the provinces to find out what the physician did to his father, accompanied by a loyal servant, Mu-Yeung (Kim Sang-ho). He’s also being framed for treason by the Cho clan, so it’s as good a time as any to leave the palace.
Naturally, the king’s “affliction” soon spreads. The zombie king kills the physician’s young assistant, and the body is brought back to his clinic in the remote village of Dongnae, where the people are starving. One of the patients, a former soldier named Yeong-Sin, makes a meaty stew with the dead man’s body and serves it to the unsuspecting patients, who wolf it down. The head nurse, Seo-bi (Bae Doo-na) is horrified to find that this turns all of them into flesh-eating monsters, along with anyone they bite.
These zombies have more in common with those in than classic Romero movies: they turn fast, they can move fast, and for some reason, they only seem to rise at night. Decapitation is the best way to kill them, although fire seems to be effective, too. Seo-bi and Yeong-Sin didn’t eat the stew, so they don’t turn. They just have to figure out how to fight off a zombie horde and keep the disease from spreading to more heavily populated towns—with the help of the crown prince and anyone else who manages to survive. But that’s easier said than done with a zombie plague.
Writer Kim Eun-Hee has said that he originally planned to adapt his webcomic into a “webtoon,” where the crown prince would be much younger, but he seems pleased with how this fleshed-out, live-action drama turned out. The production values are stunning, bringing the historical period to life in rich detail, although doing so pushed the series well over budget and beyond the planned four-month production period. Each of the six episodes (there were originally supposed to be eight) cost roughly $1.78 million to make, according to , and I think it was well worth the investment.
Plot-wise, it’s a juggernaut, with plenty of sword-play, suspense, and hints of comic relief. ends with one heck of a cliffhanger, but fortunately season 2 is already in the works, with production slated to begin next month. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long to find out what happens next.