In the interests of keeping you up to date and also in the interest of critical discourse, I draw your attention to All of Us Are Dead (streams on Netflix).
It is a big international hit for the streaming service. But, you ask, what is it and what does its popularity mean? To answer the second question first, it means there’s a big audience for zombie stories. And such is the adaptability of the zombie storyline, it means much more.
All of Us Are Dead comes from South Korea and is set mostly in a South Korean high school. There is a fairly familiar outbreak storyline. That is, a young woman, a student, gets bitten by a science-lab rat, is infected, and soon people she has bitten are biting others in a flesh-eating rampage. There are students stuck in the school – a very large structure – trying to stay alive or escape, while their former classmates and others teem, looking for human flesh.
That’s the gist. But it actually takes a while to get there. The series opens with a rooftop scene in which a young man is being brutally bullied by others while a young woman looks on.
The victim seems to rally and fight back with force but is thrown from the roof. Next, he’s in a hospital emergency room being visited by his father Lee Byeong-chan (Kim Byung-chul) who happens to be the science teacher at the school. Recognizing that his son has some sort of zombie fever, Lee attempts to beat his son to death with a Bible. Yes, a Bible.
This tells us that there is an attempt to elevate the series – 12 hour-long episodes – to something more than a scary zombie assault on a high school. It is not the only attempt at complexity and thematic depth. But, no, this is not the next Squid Game. While we are blessed by having a variety of storytelling styles and techniques from around the world, via streaming, not everything is as meaningful as the last big hit. Squid Game had a leanness to it, a laser-sharp focus on what people are willing to do for money, and how that willingness allows them to be controlled. It was an unadorned parable of capitalist exploitation.
Here we get a picture of, and some ruminations on, class structure, wealth and poverty in South Korean society, and it isn’t a pretty picture. The wealthy kids prey on the poor kids, bully them relentlessly and the school staff seem deliberately oblivious to what is happening, as though it’s their job to ignore mistreatment and exploitation. (The humiliation of one young woman is particularly hard to watch.) As in most dramas about high-school life, it’s the adults who don’t have the moral fortitude to act.
Essentially what you get with All of Us Are Dead is a battle for survival among the students who are stuck in the school. They are interesting and compelling figures. Long-time best friends On-jo (Park Ji-hu) and Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young) survive the initial onslaught and make it to a safe classroom where others, such as the aloof class president Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun), very mean girl Na-yeon (Lee Yoo-mi), and On-jo’s secret crush Su-hyeok (Lomon) are already sheltering. There’s a teen love triangle going on and the marauding zombies don’t bring a halt to tensions.
The safest group appears to be the school’s archery team, but it has to put up with the inveterate bully Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo), who might well be the drama’s most interesting character, because he’s as dangerous as the zombies. There are, of course, many narrow escapes and close calls as the survivors try to band together and stay human and alive while they can.
Right now, there’s a fatigue with near-dystopian stories such as this. You can, if you like, read a COVID-19 subtext into this series. It’s about a virus and it’s about how humans behave, or misbehave, when a virus threatens everything. You might also enjoy it for its portrait of South Korean society, your appetite whetted by Squid Game and the movie Parasite. But the series is not really elevated and, at 12 hours, is way too long. If you’re addicted to variations on the zombie apocalypse, you will enjoy the South Korean riff on a familiar format. It isn’t Squid Game, though. Far from it.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.