Netflix’s latest Korean drama has an impressive scale, but its survival story feels too thin over 12 episodes.
There are few on-screen situations scarier than watching a zombie outbreak in real time. Tracking a single infection as it grows exponentially and tears apart an unwitting population is an anxiety-inducing experience that’s rarely easy to watch. “We’re All Dead,” Netflix’s latest drama to tackle a widespread cataclysmic event, announces itself in its opening episode by meticulously showing the transformation of a school. In a single afternoon, the sprawling Hyosan High School complex is thrown into chaos after an errant bite from a science lab animal sets off an irreversible chain reaction.
The scope of this explosion in the number of zombies is the main achievement of “All of Us Are Dead”. Principal Lee JQ does an efficient job of setting up the school’s geography, walking through the hallways and around the rooms spanning the various floors. The sheer number of students in any given rehearsal room, cafeteria, or hall — all succumbing to a mind-numbing blight within seconds — makes the series’ opening moments as terrifying as any potential viewer’s expectations.
However, as Hyosan’s population is wiped out in record time, “expectations” is the key word that hangs over much of what’s left of the 12-episode season. Despite the elaborate setup and execution of a disintegrating society, “We Are All Dead” picks up that opening and follows a fairly established zombie storybook. It comes in an oddly paced season that battles against an intuitive structure as much as these college students try to fend off the bites of a crowd of uniformed kids.
The composition of the small group fighting the undead changes over the course of the series, but it is built around childhood friends Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young) and On-jo (Park Ji-hoo). They’re in high school, so naturally a host of mutants trying to tear their flesh apart is only a bit more at the forefront of their minds than the crushes they’ve harbored for their fellow survivors. Barely keeping their feelings and previous social status at bay, they go through the standard trial-and-error process of figuring out how to create distractions, alert outside rescue forces, and weigh the merits of hiding or hiding. escape.
Since the zombies in “We’re All Dead” are the relentless, no-holds-barred variety, this leaves students with few options. Just as Dae-su (Im Jae-hyuk) and Su-hyeok (Lomon) and Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun) are trapped in a cycle of jumping from room to room when their makeshift barriers give way, “We All Are Dead” has a wheel-spinning feel. What begins as a real-time follow-up to a crisis becomes a hodgepodge of thematic hammer blows, pointless flashbacks, and conversations that stay on familiar ground. Each new time the show cuts to a stock video of the architect of the virus spouting vague platitudes about human nature, it underscores the idea that the show has few concrete ideas beyond executing movies. a specific subgenre of story in a particular place.
There’s no better example of the stagnation of “We’re All Dead” than Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo), one of the most infuriating bullies ever to appear on screen, and only partly to purpose. In a sea of zombies bent on their destruction, no character presents more frustration to the group of survivors than this cold-hearted antagonist solely driven by revenge. Gwi-nam is the requisite “are humans the real monster?” In addition to the story, but in addition to showing the brutality of a basically high school villain, ‘We’re All Dead’ treats it like so many other elements of this story: a way to add more fabricated drama on top of what is already a life or death situation.
It underscores the idea that, even after shaping this giant high school-sized canvas, “All of Us are Dead” really only uses a few of the storytelling tools at its disposal. The group of survivors jump from room to room in a series of elaborate escape plans. Yet the creativity of these patchwork-saving inventions is never truly reflected in the students themselves. Loading them with simple, unrequited feelings and tiny superficial distinctions, “We’re All Dead” doesn’t have as much to offer about these kids, given the considerable amount of time the show spends with them. Torn between showing them trying to figure out how these zombies work, how to take care of daily necessities, and how to deal with potential dangers within their own group, there’s a lot in this show that just works to move that group between the points of narrative control.
It would be one thing if “We’re All Dead” really tried to deal with the monotony of surviving a horde of brainless former classmates lurking around every corner. When the show’s focus shifts away from that core group, it always seems like a more efficient use of time. A splinter group of Hyosan survivors, mostly made up of the enduring members of the archery team (cross the “bow and arrow weapons” from the zombie history checklist!) has a larger breakdown distinct from personalities and ambitions. A cold open tells more in minutes about a single soldier than we learn about most Hyosan crew members. As the show moves closer to larger administrative forces beyond the director and the English teacher, there is an almost tacit recognition that the students will never be enough to sustain an entire show on their own.
Yet as repetitive as “We’re All Dead,” it’s at least built on an effective foundation. The stunt work and the amount of logistical choreography required to make this a believable hellscape is impressive. While some of the inconsistencies in zombie behavior sometimes feel a bit lazy from a story perspective, the overall balance of hive mind movement and randomness makes every peek out the window on the teeming lawn of the school, both sad and strange. The contortion of bitten limbs and mouthfuls of chunks of flesh (this must be a contender for the series with the most coded captioning uses of the word “squelching”) makes for a physical and visceral experience, even when the plot of the show seems content with inactive.
The story at the epicenter of the outbreak takes the most energy from “We’re all dead,” which doesn’t leave much room for possible insights into how these responsible adults are reacting. Every time the focus shifts away from high school, it reinforces that scale is what this show does best. As it becomes clearer that the students are far from the only ones dealing with this damning problem, it’s hard not to imagine what a version of this show would be like if it weren’t so attached to a only place.
There are faint glimmers of a leaner, more confident spectacle that emerges. At one point, Hyosan students record farewell messages for their families, a reminder that children whose parents don’t have their own separate stories also have something to live for. There’s not much room for non-gloom here, but the occasional lighthearted distraction and banter makes for something other than the living hell that unfolds just beyond the walls of every occupied room. These moments are welcome when they arise. However, for a show lasting nearly 12 hours, there isn’t enough to break the repetitive cycle of a familiar story.
“All of Us are Dead” is now available to stream on Netflix.