SPECIAL ISSUE | ’I Feel Like I Became a Zombie’: COVID-19, Zombies and English Paratextual/Paramedia Responses to South Korean Music and Film (Part 1)
Author: Dr. Karin Beeler University of Northern British Columbia
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The South Korean rock band Day6 released their song and music video “Zombie” on May 11, 2020 (followed by an English-language version on May 21, 2020) just a few months after the start of COVID-19 outbreaks in South Korea and the rest of the globe. While this song was conceived well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Korean and English music video versions of “Zombie” have served as gateways to international English-language discussions of COVID culture. This has also been the case for the South Korean zombie films, Train to Busan (2016) and the sequel Train to Busan 2: Peninsula (2020), especially since the latter film was released in South Korea in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (July 2020). Paratextual responses on YouTube including other media forms like podcasts have cemented the link between zombies in music or film and international pandemic culture. The term paratext, or in some cases paramedia, is a useful way of identifying the English-language comments, translations or reaction videos and podcasts by band members, directors, other artists, and fans who have used the zombie as an entry point into the COVID narrative. The music, visual elements, and English translation in Day6’s “Zombie” music video, as well as the animated images and text in their English-language lyric video version of the song have generated comments from English-speaking viewers about the pandemic and its personal and global impact. Similarly, paratextual and paramedia responses to zombie films like Train to Busan and Peninsula reinforce the boundary-breaking possibilities of the zombie as a fantastic creature that also serves as a metaphor for social issues and disease in non-fictional contexts. In other words, zombies represent otherness while serving as stand-ins for the “familiar.” Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization or the idea that art makes the “familiar” “strange” can therefore be applied to the appearance of the unfamiliar or fantastic in art forms like music or film. Shklovsky argues that
the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object… (1917, 12).
While it is important to acknowledge that the strange or unfamiliar images of the zombie differ in the Day6 videos and in the Train to Busan films, the representations of the zombie in both contexts serve as a way of allowing viewers or reviewers to reflect on their own realms of experience. As comments in paratexts and paramedia demonstrate, this includes their personal experiences of the COVID-19 situation and their reflections on work, social issues or mental health.
The term paratext was coined by Gérard Genette as a way describing various verbal “productions” that accompany a text such as titles, prefaces, book covers, or blurbs. Genette focused on print media in his analysis; however, the concept has been developed and applied to “outgrowths of a film or program” including audience discussion (Gray 2010, 118). For the purposes of this article, I am including subtitles in songs and films, and comments in music videos or textual comments linked to videopodcasts as examples of paratexts. A videopodcast about a film or a reaction video may also be considered a kind of paratext since the term “text” can be applied to other narrative media like film; however, because these forms include visual or audio media components, I will normally use the term “paramedia” when referring to a video review or reaction video that accompanies or responds to a film or music video. In “Globalizing from the Periphery: The Role of Consumer Paratextual Translation” (2018), Cruz, Seo, and Binay have indicated that “even though K-pop contains a host of unfamiliar cultural elements, consumer-generated translation practices help craft connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar, thereby building the frameworks of intelligibility re-quired to consume its multi-layered meanings” (2018, 521). I argue that English paratextual/paramedia discussions of K-pop and K-rock videos, as well as discussions of foreign-language films, allow for this crafting of “connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar,” as my analysis of responses to “Zombie,” Train to Busan, and Peninsula will demonstrate.
DAY6’S SONG “ZOMBIE”
The first part of this essay examines paratextual/paramedia discussions in English as they apply to Day6’s “Zombie” videos. The group has been recognized for their music as a K-rock band; however, Day6 is also sometimes referred to as a K-pop group and consumed within the paratextual contexts of K-pop even though they are a band that plays instruments and not a vocal dance group like most K-pop groups. Day6’s song “Zombie” was released on May 2020 as part of the album The Book of Us: The Demon, and as a music video (from here onwards referred to as MV). In May 2020 when the video/song was released, one reviewer indicated that “The MV and song are highly relevant to the situation that the world is in right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. It talks about how everyday feels like the same routine with not much variety or excitement in life anymore” (Lindsay 2020).
The Korean MV has over 14 million views as of March 5, 2021 and included all 5 members. However, the band has been unable to perform the song live as a group since two members were on hiatus because of health issues, including anxiety (Hong 2020). The Korean version of the song (composed by bandmember Jae with lyrics written by another member, Young K) and the music video present the concept of the zombie as someone who listlessly or mindlessly moves through life in a monotonous fashion. The Korean song has a few English lyrics, including the key refrain “I feel like I became a zombie” (JYP Entertainment, “DAY6 ‘Zombie’ M/V” 2020, 1:00-1:03). In the MV, an actor and the members of the band Day6 are featured. In several sections of the video, other people move at a furious, fast-motion pace while the main character lives a zombie-like existence (0:42-0:48; 1:29-1:39:) or a “meaningless life” (1:56-1:58). While the MV’s main character is a far cry from the terrifying, monstrous zombies in most zombie films, he still functions as a representation of the strange or unfamiliar. His slow, jerky movements resemble those of certain zombies in films, and his face has a deathly pallor. There are enough differences in his movement and appearance that he can be differentiated from other human beings, and yet, he is not so different. His zombie-like condition can be seen as an illness or mindset that viewers might experience in their own lives. This familiar state is reinforced through the way the Day6 band members stare into space in a rather vacant, expressionless way (0:22-0:27). The MV is posted on the JYP Entertainment Corporation YouTube site, where paratextual discussions consist of responses from viewers and fans to the video as well as reflections pertaining to COVID-19. On March 5, 2021, there were 78,868 comments on the video from viewers around the world. In the YouTube comments, fans have suggested that it was the song of the year that addressed 2020 and the sentiment surrounding COVID. One response describes “Zombie” as a song that is “really suitable for [the] pandemic”(Winterlous 2021). Other fans add that the video depicts “quarantine life” (pledis do your job ffs 2021) and that “It’s like it was made for lockdown”(Bipasha Hossain 2021). Maria Bodoy states that “this quarantine [is] making me a zombie” (Maria Bodoy, 2021). The repetitive or monotonous aspects of life as suggested by the song lyrics and the work life of the zombie character in the MV are also seen as similar to the repetitive days people experience during the COVID pandemic: “All loyal Day6 stans will always feel . . . we pulled through with our ever repeating days during Covid-19” (Grace Ding 2021).
In a reaction video to the MV of “Zombie,” a member of the American indie-music group Yam Haus draws a comparison between “Zombie” and COVID-19 when he says, “This song is about 2020” (Yam Haus 2020, 2:43-2:45). In many paratextual and media comments, the year 2020 has become synonymous with the inexpressible: the coronavirus and its effects. In this reaction video—a form of paramedia that engages with the Day6 MV—the inexpressible is also conveyed through one Yam Haus member’s response to the image of the zombie character. Camilla Fojas has indicated that the zombie expresses “the inchoate and inexpressible, allowing us to see what it would be like to collapse difference and rethink the social order from the perspective of the marginalized” (2017, 62). A member of Yam Haus reacts to and embodies the inexpressible as he covers his mouth in shock and with empathy when he sees the zombie character in despair. Despite the representation of the strange or the unfamiliar in the form of the zombie character, the American musician appears to recognize the suffering experienced by the zombie as the latter looks into a mirror as the song’s English subtitles “Am I the only one struggling” (2.36-2.38) appear on screen.
In addition to the Korean MV version of the song “Zombie,” the music was also released as an English “lyric video,” and this has in turn generated discussion surrounding COVID-19 (over seven million views and over 11,000 comments on March 5, 2021). However, the spare 2D animated imagery of this video and the slightly different words in the song reinforce different elements of the “zombie” experience. For example, the English version of the song, written by Day6 songwriter Young K (Lilly 2020), includes the lines “And there’s nothing that can cure me” (Day6, “‘Zombie (English Ver.)’ Lyric Video” 2020, 1:17-1:21). The word “cure” suggests disease in a much more deliberate way than an English translation of the Korean words in the same part of the MV version of the song: “I walk on, drifting aimlessly / Tomorrow will be no different” (“Day6, “‘Zombie’ M/V”; “‘Zombie’ (English translation)” 1:20-1:27). Unlike the Korean MV, which shows the zombie character at this point, the English lyric video shows an image of a pill capsule to illustrate the desire for a cure, thus facilitating connections to a pandemic. YouTube viewer responses to this video further reinforce some of the COVID-related comments on the Korean video site. For example, one fan comments, “This song literally describes how I feel about my life these past few months of pandemic” (Loraine Grace Filomeno 2021). Another writes “This is how a lot of people feel during quarantine” (Isabelle Gentile, 2021), alluding to the restricted lifestyle brought on by COVID-19. Sreejita mullick’s comment captures the inability to move around easily and the different sense of time that characterize the lockdown during the COVID pandemic: “I feel like this song fits perfectly with the situation where the world has come to stand still. Where maximum people of us [sic]are in quarantine. Under lock down. Can’t go outside” (Sreejita mullick 2020).
Because of the simple, silhouette-like shapes in the lyric video, this “zombie” figure is different from the image of the zombie in the live action Korean MV. The use of abstract black and white animation art relies on changing shapes to reinforce what living like a zombie must be like. For example, when the words “I Became a Zombie” are sung (Day6, “’Zombie (English Ver.)’ Lyric Video” 2020, 1:15-1:17), we see two hands and the word zombie dissolve on screen, thus reinforcing a sense of loss or a disappearance of the self. This “fantastic” or strange transformation is followed by an even stranger image of a person with a hole in the middle of their body (1:47-1:52). The representation of an unfamiliar form is a graphic representation of emptiness, a familiar feeling that a fan with the username izoo emphasizes: “ever since the pandemic has started im [sic]feeling empty. . . my grandma that has lupus got sick with corona right after a stroke” (izoo 2020). Many fans do take comfort in the song, however, despite the representation of a meaningless existence through the figure or idea of the zombie: “this song will forever be my comfort esp in this pandemic” (zoe et al. 2020). The representations of zombies in Day6 song and lyric videos elicit empathy from the viewers/listeners: “This song . . . helps me realize that I’m not the only one who feels like a zombie sometimes, living life without a soul or true emotion” (Emma Shi, 2020; Day6 “‘Zombie (English Ver.)’ Lyric Video”). In short, some viewers may see a connection to COVID-19 as a disease, while others may focus on the psychological impact in their lives. Certain viewers and listeners may understand the words about a zombie in relation to depression or various forms of mental illness. The prescient aspect of the group has also been mentioned by one commentator who said that Day6 “predicted quarantine even before it happened” (Wonpil, Who is Nam Sae In, Day6 “’Zombie’ MV,” 2020); however, the current psychological states of the band members were also a factor during the composition of the song. The band members were actually thinking of their own pre-COVID-19 lives while working on this song (they have mentioned that they felt they were “void of emotion” and “moving like machines”). Two members also ended up taking a hiatus due to anxiety (Hong 2020), and one of these group members, Jae-hyung Park, continues to “raise awareness about mental health” even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues (Associated Press, “K-Pop Stars” 2021).
It is worth mentioning another paramedia event and some paratextual comments that juxtapose Day6’s song against the reality or “spectacle” of the COVID situation. This event was the December 2020 MAMA (Mnet Asian Music Awards) ceremony when Day6 was recognized for “Best Band Performance” for their music video “Zombie.” By the end of 2020, coronavirus cases had increased again in South Korea, and the video footage of the awards show demonstrates this health concern clearly. The band members wore masks, and a woman wearing a highly unusual form of pandemic protection equipment (PPE) sprayed disinfectant while the song “Zombie” played as Day6 members arrived on stage (“Mnet’s ‘COVID-19 Disinfection’” 2020). In a paratextual comment, one viewer remarked that the outfit and shoes worn by the person spraying the disinfectant were inappropriate: “These people are trying to save lives. . . but let’s put them in really uncomfortable full-body suits and tip-toe heels” (“Mnet’s ‘COVID-19 Disinfection’” 2020). This graphic and ironic interlacing of a song about a zombie struggling and wondering how to “get through this” (Day6 “’Zombie’(English translation)”] and the COVID pandemic context of the awards show are a reminder of the inextricable link between art or performance and reality. It is also difficult to decide whether the reference to the zombie in the song is stranger than the reality of the person in the silver body suit spraying disinfectant.
 The sequel to Train to Busan has various titles including Train to Busan 2: Peninsula, Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula and Peninsula. Hereafter I will use the title Peninsula.
 Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917). Shklovsky examines defamiliarization in Tolstoy’s work (1917, 12-13).
 As Daniel P. Gunn mentions in “Making Art Strange: A Commentary on Defamiliarization,” Shklovsky’s Russian term ostranenie (defamiliarization) literally translates as “making strange” (1984, 25).
 Carol O’Sullivan (2018) presents the complexity of film subtitles when considering Genette’s division of a paratext into peritext (e.g. prefaces, chapter titles) and epitext (e.g. promotional interviews): “while for many decades subtitles were physically burned onto the print of the ﬁlm whose dialogue they translated, today’s viewer can choose between a selection of subtitles, or between subtitles and no subtitles” (266). In this essay, I will forego the use of the terms peritext and epitext and use paratext to refer to film subtitles or music video subtitles.
 A Day6 member described the group’s zombie-like existence and the lives of others who deal with the monotony of daily life: “During the time when we were writing the lyrics for ‘Zombie,’ I remember being in the car after finishing our activities and looking out the window at people’s expressions. I suddenly thought, ‘Aren’t we living the same day over and over again?’ It felt as if we were void of emotion and moving like machines. We were inspired by this sense of vacancy.” The writers of the article add that “according to [Day6] there’s a phrase relating to living a repetitious life, having nothing new and without any new emotions—much like a zombie” (De Guzman and Carrasco).
 The organizers of the MAMA (Mnet Asian Music Awards) show were also criticized for clothing a woman in the skin tight outfit and high heels instead of in regular PPE since it looked as if they were more concerned with the “image” of the show than actual COVID-19 protocols; however, the science-fiction like style of the outfit actually complements the idea of a Zombie as a fantastic creation (“Mnet’s ‘COVID-19 Disinfection’”).
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SUGGESTED CITATION: Beeler, Karin. 2021. “’I Feel Like I Became a Zombie’: COVID-19, Zombies and English Paratextual/Paramedia Responses to South Korean Music and Film..” PopMeC Research Blog. Published June 29.
Karin Beeler is Professor and Chair of the English Department at the University of Northern British Columbia (Canada) where she teaches television studies and film studies courses. She has published a chapter on “Hunting for the Branded Body in Supernatural: Tattoos, the Mark of Cain and Fan Culture” in Tattoos in Crime and Detective Narratives: Marking and Re-marking Eds. Katharine Cox and Kate Watson. Other publications include Children’s Film in the Digital Age and Investigating Charmed (both co-edited with Stan Beeler), articles or chapters on youth and screen culture, and her books Tattoos, Desire and Violence: Marks of Resistance in Literature, Film and Television and Seers, Witches and Psychics on Screen. Karin.Beeler@unbc.ca