‘All of Us Are Dead’ breathes new life to an oversaturated zombie genre

Photo courtesy of Netflix

This article contains spoilers.

After the worldwide success of Kingdom, #Alive, and Train to Busan, South Korea is back with a new zombie genre show: All of Us Are Dead.

This Netflix drama, which is an adaptation of the webtoon Now at Our School by Joo Dong-geun, follows the students of Hyosan High as they try to survive after their school becomes ground zero for an outbreak turning humans into rabid, flesh-eating monsters.

Although its premise sounds like any other zombie-related story, All of Us Are Dead offers its audience new perspectives in this genre while preserving the essential elements of undead horror and highlighting the humanity of both the survivors and the infected.

A fresh chunk of zombie horror

Photo courtesy of Netflix

The horror genre has been oversaturated with stories about the undead since George Romero premiered Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The image of the zombie often changes from slow-moving hordes like in The Walking Dead, to mutants in Resident Evil, to the conscious ones in Warm Bodies.

This abundance of zombie stories works for the benefit of All of Us Are Dead. The show is not afraid to go meta, even referencing Train To Busan right off the bat. Throughout the series, the characters often base their actions on their pop culture knowledge about zombies, reminiscent of how Wes Craven approached the slasher genre with Scream in 1996.

The show’s approach, however, is incorporation, giving the audience a glimpse on how characters react in a zombie apocalypse situation given their knowledge of the undead. Although, like in Train to Busan, the series crams these characters in a claustrophobic setting, making their situation more volatile, thus contributing to the uneasy atmosphere in Hyosan High.

Another great element of All of Us Are Dead is its approach to zombie mechanics.

The zombies bear the hallmarks of the ones shown in other Korean media: strong, agile reanimated hosts that seek out the living to further spread the disease. Also, the zombies often react to stimuli like sound to detect their prey, clumping together in hordes, making the work of survivors harder.

The Jonas virus, the cause of the outbreak, is a genetically-modified hormone isolated from the “fight response” of rodents. Its creator, teacher Lee Byeong-chan (Kim Byung-chul), explains how he wants to capture the desperation of a backed prey to give his son the courage to fight his bullies. Byeong-Chan successfully isolates this desperation so well that the infected become predators themselves.

The show also seemingly implies that, although technically dead, the infected still have a shred of consciousness underneath. The virus only needs minutes to transform its host, stopping their hearts and controlling them through the stimulation of the brain stem. This control manifests through the use of the infected’s deepest desires and insecurities.

One can see this when Gyeong-su (Ham Sung-min) sees a vision of his friends laughing at him, driving him to attack before Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young) throws him out the window. This also happens in times when Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun), a hambie or “halfbie,” tries to suppress her desire to eat her classmates, especially Su-Hyeok (Park Solomon).

While the main focus of the story is survival from the infected, the show never forgets to emphasize that the infected ones are also human, which some zombie stories sometimes fail to realize.

Highlighting the humane aspects of a zombie story

Screengrab from Netflix

The show is filled with nail-biting chase scenes and zombie gore. Yet, it still manages to highlight the characters’ humanity.

The show’s tone is not as heavy as other zombie flicks. One can see high school kids fooling around, bonding, and even confessing their feelings in the middle of a life-threatening crisis. The likes of Cheong-san’s confession to On-jo (Park Ji-hu) breaks the monotony of horror in the series. Even the adults fool around as shown through interactions between detective Jae-ik (Lee Kyu-hyung) and Ho-chul (Park Jae-chul).

On the other hand, the gut-wrenching scenes pull no punches. The part where characters turn into zombies highlights the fear and hopelessness they feel as their consciousness ebbs away. Even the sacrifices, especially those of On-jo’s father, did not lose their impact even though the series is filled with it.

The main theme present in All of Us Are Dead is the stark contrast of zombies versus humans and the gray area between the two. These scenes further push the human part of the survivors through the delicate unraveling of their emotions.

Survivors, especially in some Western zombie movies, often have a death omen hanging above their heads, making one think that they’ll die eventually. The characters in the series also have this faint death omen, but their well-fleshed-out layers of personality they show overshadows it, making viewers root harder for the characters.

Another thing that the series gets right is how they show parties often portrayed flatly in other stories. Take Byeon-chan’s character for example. The virus source, especially scientists, is often sidelined or eaten first. His video narratives scattered throughout the show sets the tone of the scenes and also delves deeper into his descent to madness leading to the outbreak.

Another noteworthy side in the series is the military, shown as either saviors or zombie fodder depending on the media. The bombing of Hyosan and the army’s refusal to rescue the students is a deviation from the cold, calculated image of the military in other adaptations. It further highlights the fact that all of the characters are humans capable of feeling every decision they make, especially the ones leading to the death of others. On the other hand, it also shows how seemingly ethical decisions aiming to save the majority completely trashes the rights of others.

All of us are hooked

In summary, All of Us Are Dead accomplishes a huge feat: making a simple premise deeper and more complex. Sure, one can label this show as “zombies, but in school,” although doing so takes away its charm.

The story may center on the survivors of Hyosan High, but the overarching narratives outside ties remaining loose ends and provides more depth in the story. The constant emphasis on what makes the survivors and the infected human, at least before their infection, binds the whole series together.

The show owes its worldwide success to how it resonates with the audience. Many saw themselves in a similar situation like the characters: navigating every day after a virus upends life as they know it (minus the living dead), trying to survive even when the current crisis looks never-ending.

The series, however, leaves an important note to the viewers: hope goes a long way, especially during trying times.

Stream All of Us Are Dead on Netflix.

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