[Fantasia Festival 2019] The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale is Hilarious

I’m tired of zombie movies. You’re (probably) tired of them, too. Once in awhile, we get one that does something smart or different. I’m thinking, recently, of Train to Busan, Anna and the Apocalypse or One Cut of the Dead, all of which did either fun things or smart things with the subgenre. But too often, we know the story beats before the story does. So it’s with pleasure that I can add The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale to that small list.

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It shouldn’t have been a surprise, I guess. With very few exceptions, I love South Korean genre work and the way they blend a number of genres together to create something bigger than the sum of their parts. And debut director Lee Min-Jae’s work here is no different, mixing horror and comedy with some subtle satire to create something that feels different.

It begins as most zombie films do. People in power, in this case a pharmaceutical company that’s been performing illegal human trials to create new diabetes medication, end up creating a virus strain that has resurective powers. The movie opens as one of the dead test subjects, wrapped in a biohazard tarp, pulls himself out of a tube in a barren field and begins his slow, zombie-shuffle towards the backwoods town of Poongsan.

Poongsan is a small town in the boonies that’s home to the Parks, an odd family that grifts out-of-towners when their cars breakdown. Their home used to be a functioning gas station but after ten years of disuse, it is just a dilapidated building on the outskirts of town. The patriarch of the family is Man-duk (Park in-hwan), a grifter who cheats at gambling and just wants to take a trip to Hawaii that he promised his late wife.

His eclectic clan includes son Joon-gul (Jung Jae-young) who is married to a fry-pan wielding and surly pregnant woman named Nam-joo (Ji-won Uhm); the recently fired Min-gul (Kim Nam-gil), who is on the way home, tail between his legs; and the semi-psychopathic daughter Hye-gul (Lee Soo-kyung), who’s introduced carrying the bag of a recently killed bunny she plans to bury.

Basically, it makes the dysfunctional family in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host look perfectly normal and, well, functional.

Very quickly, and through a delightfully staged encounter, the zombie (Jung Ga-ram) meets up with the Park family, bites the patriarch and ends up tied up in the family’s barn. While the family slowly starts to come around to the idea that they have a zombie on their hands, Man-duk, instead of becoming a feral monster, starts to get younger and more virile. Once his old cronies in town realize his sudden virility through a scene of him pissing for Austin Powers-ish lengths, they want what he’s having.

And the Park family is happy to oblige...for a pretty Won, of course.

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Already, the script by Lee Min-jae and Jung Seo-in flips the script on zombie films in a creative way. Instead of shying away from the zombie bite, the Park family embraces it as a way of making money that they desperately need. Only Min-gul seems to understand the dire situation unfolding, but he’s also too blinded by greed and the desire to sell Zombie to another pharmaceutical group that’s studying Viagra.

There’s a lot going on in the second act of The Odd Family, as each family member uses Zombie for their own needs. Meanwhile, the poor Zombie, who loves cabbage heads over human ones and prefers his food smothered in Gochujang, is the most sympathetic of the bunch. Partly due to the actor that humanizes what could be a one-note character joke. In the beginning, we see him unsuccessfully try to attack unknowing passersby and a running joke involves a dog that chases him throughout the village and I actually started feeling for him.

Even when The Odd Family plays around with typical zombie tropes, it puts its deliciously funny spin on them. A Warm Bodies-esqe romance happens between Hye and Zombie and in one hilarious standout scene, they play around in a cabbage garden and Zombie ends up falling on top of Hye, with a head of cabbage between them. And while Hye looks lovingly into his eyes (I can’t blame her; Jung Ga-ram is hot) it’s impossible to know if he is looking at her...or the tasty cabbage pressed between them. But their potential attraction culminates with literal sparks and fireworks, brightly framing them as they gaze into each other’s eyes.

It’s all very silly and entertaining. And even when it goes in the expected apocalyptic directions as the narrative races towards the third act, Lee Min-jae’s film continues to disarm expectations. The Park family is full of vaguely unlikable shysters who, even when well-intentioned, are still fuck-ups in the best, comedic way that you can’t help but root for them. I had a feeling I’d dig The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale but I wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did.