Julien Wulfgar For the Nonpareil
After the success of “Squid Game,” Netflix has stepped up its streaming game in South Korea with “All of Us Are Dead,” a 12-episode horror/drama series in which high school students try to survive a zombie apocalypse. . Hint: it’s not good.
The series begins by introducing us to a group of teenagers mercilessly bullying another student at Hyosan High School. The ringleader, Kang Jin-goo (Oh Hee-hoon), uses the tall and violent psychopath Yoon Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo) to deliver the blows. It surprises everyone when the seemingly shy and weak student seems to gain strength and begins to fight back. But he’s no match for Gwin-nam, and shockingly, the teenager falls to what we think is his death.
We learn in flashbacks that the bullied student’s father, Lee Byeong-chan (Kim Byung-chul), teaches science at his high school. Having seen his son being targeted daily by these bullies and finding the responsible adults unable and unwilling to punish his son’s abusers, Lee uses his son as a guinea pig, conducting experiments on him in hopes of enhancing his son’s strength. son. But instead of turning his son into Captain America, he turns him and his wife into zombies. It doesn’t take long before the highly contagious virus is unleashed – an infected hamster in Byeong-chan’s lab bites a student – and turns nearly everyone in high school into flesh-eating, fast-moving and relentless monsters. How will anyone survive? Can anyone?
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Since this is a zombie TV series, one might be tempted to compare it to “The Walking Dead” or “Fear of the Walking Dead”, but that would be a mistake. It has less in common with American visions of a zombie apocalypse than with those already established in Korea and Japan. It combines the frenzied panic and family ties (sacrifice) of “Train to Busan” with the latest teenage madness of “Battle Royale”. In fact, a female character in “All of Us are Dead” looks like a nod to Nezuko Kamado in the anime “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba.” (It also reminded me of the 2010 “High School of the Dead” anime, which has the same relentless horror of being trapped and having no safe place to go, but Koreans aren’t hyperfixed on panty shots and characters with puffy chests like the Japanese do. I can never get past that kind of gross shit.)
“All of Us Are Dead” also differs in its approach to the characters. While Americans expect the main characters to survive season after season – unless the actors renew their contracts – in East Asia, all bets are off. Their writers are brutal in killing off characters and usually they won’t give audiences the Hollywood “Happy Ending” we’re so used to. I remember when I started watching Japanese movies, and I was like, “Wait what? What’s going on here?” If you can’t handle that, it’s best to skip “We’re all dead”.
The premise established, here is who is trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. The “main characters” are childhood friends, and possibly potential lovers, Nam Ohn-Jo (Park Ji-hoo) and Lee Cheong-san (Yoon, Chan-young). His father, Nam So-ju (Jeon Bae-su) is a firefighter, whose skills will come into play. Cheong-san’s mother is so obsessed with him that she opens a chicken restaurant early in the series, gives him his name and uses his face on marketing materials. (He’s not a fan of that.)
There’s also Han Gyeong-su (Ham Sung-min), Cheong-san’s good friend who is bullied for being poor by the teenager you’ll love to despise, Lee Na-yeon (Lee Yoo -mi, who played a standout character in “Squid Game”). There’s Lee Suhyeok (Park Solomon) (Park Solomon), a dreamy, combat-savvy former bully who loves aloof class president Nam Ra (Cho Yi-hyun). And there is another attractive child, Jang Woo-jin (Son Sang-yeon), who has an older sister Jang Ha-ri (Seung-Ri Ha), who is such an exceptional archer that she was part of the ‘National team.
Others in the group of survivors include the obligatorily nerdy guy wearing glasses (Ahn Seung Gyun) and the budding “chubby” yet powerful K-Pop singer (Lim Jae-hyeok). Another bullied student (Oh Hye-soo), this time a woman who was filmed without her shirt on and threatened to upload the video if she doesn’t comply, will come into play later in the series. Just like a policeman (Lee Kyu-hyung), his creepy cat sidekick (Park Jae-chul), an adorable motherless child and a baby, a member of the National Assembly (Bae Hae-Seon) and an orange hat wearing Vlogger named Orangibberish (Lee Si-hoon). (There are many more characters, but good luck finding English names for them. I personally enjoyed an angry combative senior who frequently bemoans his lack of college opportunities while displaying a near crush on Ha- laughed.)
If you like gore, “All of Us Are Dead” has plenty of it. The zombies tear out the innards and sometimes spit out bits of flesh or chew them as if they were gum. If you like coming-of-age dramas, you get it too. The characters talk about grades, being friends, and getting into college. They have crushes and there are a lot of awkward silences, longing stares, and stifled feelings.
Like “Squid Game”, “All of Us Are Dead” shows how horribly the rich treat the poor and how bad bullying is in East Asia. (Japan is also experiencing an epidemic of bullying. One of my favorite films on the subject is “The Neighbor No. Thirteen”, 2005.) If you’re looking for something upbeat, about how good triumphs over wrong, try another set. This one is intense, brutal and often hopeless. Just when the characters seem to be going somewhere, another horrible thing happens, so it feels more like real life than fantasy.
The acting, writing and directing are very good and the production values are high. While it may seem dark and the horror of the situation may at times seem unavoidable, the writer sprinkles enough comic relief throughout, providing some much-needed levity. But beware, this is not a fun adventure. There were times while watching this when I said out loud, “How are they going to get out of this.” In the end, many characters also wonder what the point of surviving will be. (As in “Battle Royale”, some students commit suicide.)
With so many friends and family dead and the virus spreading rapidly, will they ever know peace or normality? Near the end of the series, there’s a “hopeful” moment on the rooftop with the whole gang punching you right in the solar plexus; it’s a real blow to your faith in humanity. I’m sure you won’t find similar moments in Hollywood movies. In many ways this series feels like it can only come from someone who lived through a pandemic and thought about how people actually act as opposed to how we think they will. .
The series was released on January 28, and we spent the next few days binge-watching it, but I don’t know if anyone could do it. It is sometimes exhausting. Some of the characters really are such walking garbage bags that I got tense the minute they introduced themselves. I’m sure my blood pressure went up 20 points every time Gwin-nam came on the scene. The funny thing about Korean “bad guys” is that these people absolutely exist in the real world. They are the product of anger, greed, selfishness and ignorance. They are horrible, vile beings, and in the end, I was yelling at them on screen. And that usually means the writers and actors were effective. If you liked “Squid Game”, you will probably like “All of Us Are Dead”. I’m ready for season two.
By the way, if you like “All of Us Are Dead”, “Train to Busan” should be next on your list. This is the pinnacle of Asian zombie movies. It has Gong Yoo from the Netflix series “The Silent Sea” and “Squid Game,” and most notably it has Don Lee, who played Gilgamesh in “Eternals.” He’s the best thing in the movie. There is also a sequel to “Train to Busan” called “Peninsula”, which is set four years later. It pales in comparison but it has its moments. On Netflix, you can also catch “#Alive” (2020), which centers on a lazy gamer stuck in his apartment as the world becomes zombified. We started watching it but we didn’t finish; the main character wasn’t that endearing. And, if you don’t mind jumping continents for your zombie fix, the German film “Rammbock: Berlin Undead” (2010) is definitely tense. I remember really liking it.