Five Fantastic SFF and Horror K-Dramas

The Korean wave (known as Hallyu) has been hitting harder than ever in recent years. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite made history for being the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Netflix’s Squid Game became a global phenomenon, and K-pop sensation BTS continue to be one of the most phenomenally popular bands in the world.

If you’re looking to dive deeper into Korean entertainment then Netflix is a good place to start: This year they are set to top their 2021 $500 million investment in Korean content, further filling out their already extensive backlist. There’s a K-drama for everyone, from gritty crime shows like My Name to sweet romances like Business Proposal. But if SFF and horror are more your thing, then here are five of the best K-dramas currently streaming on Netflix.

 

Kingdom

Created and written by Kim Eun-hee, Kingdom fuses together the genres of zombie horror and historical epic. Loosely based on Kim and Yang Kyung-il’s webtoon The Kingdom of the Gods, it takes place in Joseon (modern-day Korea) during the 16th century. The king is struck down with a mysterious illness (I’m sure you can guess what it is) and Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) sets out to find the doctor who last treated his father…only to find himself caught in the midst of a zombie plague ravaging the kingdom. On top of that, Prince Chang’s political opponents are intent on seizing power, even if that means allowing the disease to spread.

Kingdom’s undead have a couple of quirks which distinguish them from the typical zombie, but their ravenous appetite is still very much a driving force. While the dead hunger for flesh, the ruling class hunger for power. The horror and political strands of the show are neatly woven together. The zombies could have been contained and eradicated, if only those in power had chosen to do so—instead, they prioritize their own greed. Kim uses a zombie plague to highlight the widespread, visceral impact of corruption. If politics gives you pause, fear not: there are plenty of gruesome scenes packed with zombie carnage. (Also, hats! The various hats worn throughout the series are fantastic. You’ll see.)

There are currently two seasons out, each with six episodes, as well as the feature-length special Kingdom: Ashin of the North. Netflix hasn’t yet renewed the show for a third season, but hopefully an announcement is coming soon.

 

Hellbound

Hellbound is directed by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, which was enough for me to watch it without even knowing the premise. Based on Yeon and Choi Gyu-seok’s webtoon of the same name, this dark fantasy series is about people suddenly being visited by an apparition which decrees when they will be condemned to Hell. At the stated time, whether that is mere seconds or years away, three large monsters appear (they look a bit like Hulk bonded with the Venom symbiote) and incinerate the person.

Are these actually divine beings? Is this proof that god exists? How is sin being defined? These are intriguing questions which resonate throughout the episodes, but they aren’t really what the show is about. Rather, Hellbound explores what happens to society in the wake of the chaos and terror caused by the appearance of these supernatural entities. Two organizations spring up: the cult-like New Truth Society and the violent Arrowhead gang. In contrast to the outlandish nature of the show’s premise, both of these groups feel chillingly grounded in grim reality. In the face of spreading brutality, inflicted by both humans and non-humans alike, the Seoul police department and other officials seem helpless.

Through its fantastical horror setup, Hellbound explores misinformation in the social media age, the spread of religious extremism, and the violence humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.

 

All of Us Are Dead

Just as Kingdom expertly mixes zombies with politics, All of Us Are Dead expertly blends horror tropes with high school drama. The show follows a group of teenage students attempting to survive amidst a zombie outbreak which starts at their high school. Based on the webtoon Now at Our School by Joo Dong-geun, the first season of the show features 12 episodes, each one clocking in at around an hour. That runtime might seem indulgent in this age of 6-8 episode dramas, but it’s compulsively watchable.

For fans of classic zombie horror, there are moments of high tension, intense action, and plenty of gore—exactly what you’d want from a zombie show. We also get to see the horrifying scale of the outbreak as it spreads from the school into the city. But along with the copious amounts of blood and guts, All of Us Are Dead understands the value of its high school setting, with the teen characters actually coming across convincingly like real teens. Not even a zombie outbreak can erase the dramas of high school. Bullies thrive in this environment, and navigating the complexities of crushes becomes ever more difficult. Some viewers might be irritated by the students for thinking about who they want to kiss while zombies are trying to eat them, but it does feel rather realistic, over all.

All of Us Are Dead may not be innovative in the zombie genre, but it executes its formulaic concept brilliantly and it does have one trick up its sleeve (which I won’t spoil). Those hungry for more after polishing off the first season will soon have their appetite satiated, as Netflix recently announced that a second season is on the way.

 

The Silent Sea

Set in the near-future, The Silent Sea follows a crew who are sent on a secretive mission to retrieve a mysterious sample from the abandoned Balhae Lunar Research Station. A worldwide drought has led to water being rationed, and this mission to the moon may be humanity’s last hope. Astrobiologist Song Ji‑an (Bae Doona, who is also in Kingdom) is chosen to join the crew led by Captain Han Yoon-jae (Gong Yoo, of Train to Busan and Squid Game fame) but she also has a personal reason to go: her sister was one of the 117 researchers who died at the facility five years ago, allegedly because of a radiation leak.

The Silent Sea is a slow-burn sci-fi thriller which relies on stellar acting and its creepy setting rather than a pace-driven plot The station’s vacant rooms and endlessly winding hallways create a sinister atmosphere which perfectly sets the tone. The audience slowly learns about the horrifying past of the research station, while also discovering that Song is not the only crew member with a personal stake in the mission. So, of course, clashes ensue.

Expect long stretches of chilling suspense punctuated by sudden hair-raising thrills. And just be warned: the first few episodes alone are enough to crush anyone’s dreams of ever going to the moon.

 

Sweet Home

Adapted from Kim Carnby and Hwang Young-chan’s webtoon of the same name, Sweet Home sees the residents of an apartment building, Green Home, face off against their neighbors who have mutated into monsters. The outside world is just as bad, so the survivors barricade themselves inside the building. Main character Cha Hyun-soo (Song Kang, who has been dubbed the “Son of Netflix” for appearing multiple successful shows over the last few years) is a teenager dealing with depression and the deaths of his family when the monster apocalypse begins and he is thrust into a hero role.

Every person who undergoes monsterization turns into something different based on what they desire most. This means that there is a huge range of creatively horrific monsters running amok. Seeing how these mutations have twisted and warped different people is part of the fun of Sweet Home, but the monsters are both a strength and a weakness of the show. While some of the creatures are effectively gruesome, the poor CGI of others just makes them feel silly.

The occasionally dodgy special effects are just one part of the show, though. Beyond the monsters, there is also a focus on the psychological state of the survivors. The Green Home residents have to deal with paranoia and isolation, as well as the messy social dynamics which always accompany groups in high-pressure situations. Sweet Home definitely leans into the “humans are the real monsters” trope.

While it may not be perfect, Sweet Home’s premise and creativity carries it through. Plus, the issues that it does have could easily be ironed out in future seasons. It took Netflix two years to commit, but Sweet Home has finally been renewed for two more seasons.

***

 

Let me know in the comments if there are any other K-dramas I need to check out, whether on Netflix or elsewhere!

Lorna Wallace has a PhD in English Literature and is a lover of all things science fiction and horror. She lives in Scotland with her rescue greyhound, Misty.

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