Arts and Entertainment

“All of Us Are Dead” Breathes New Life Into the Zombie Genre

A review of “All of Us Are Dead,” the newest Korean zombie apocalypse show with a unique high school setting and relatable teenage protagonists.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Reya Miller

You’re in a cafeteria, sitting near the window and chatting with your friends about the math test you took the period before. Suddenly, you hear screaming in the distance. The doors whip open, and students stampede in, scrambling over one another. You look at the scene in confusion until you see a bloody student with pale skin and a bite mark on her neck amid the chaos.

This incident is one of the opening sequences of “All of Us Are Dead,” Netflix’s newest Korean drama, following compatriot series such as “Squid Game” (2021- ) and “Hellbound” (2021- ). The show features a group of students fighting to escape their high school after it becomes ground zero for a zombie outbreak. The virus that starts the ordeal is called the Jonas Virus and was created by Hyosan High teacher Byeong-san (Kim Byung-chul) in an attempt to help his son stand up to bullies by converting fear into rage. Unsurprisingly, this plan backfires, and the virus spreads throughout Hyosan High, turning students into flesh-eating zombies and leaving few besides the main cast unscathed. The show follows these characters as they travel through the school in the hopes of finding access to the Internet so they can call for help that never arrives.

Though zombies are mainstays of the horror genre, “All of Us Are Dead” stands out because of its unique setting. Students are cooped up in classrooms and forced to walk precariously from window to window on the ledges of their high school in an attempt to avoid the zombie-infested hallways. When they do have to confront the monsters outside, the school’s enclosed space raises the stakes, making every skirmish a fight for survival.

Since most of the show takes place in the narrow hallways and cluttered classrooms of Hyosan High, the audience experiences a claustrophobic feeling, further amplified through disorienting camera work. At one point in the show, the protagonists attempt to leave their classroom and travel to the lab room using a zombie-infested hallway. They use doors to push away the zombies and create a small opening to move around. The compact space and surrounding zombies grasping for the students’ arms and legs create the illusion that the students are being mobbed, further enhancing the claustrophobia and tension in the scene. The students’ ever-present hysteria and fear maintain a suffocating, suspenseful atmosphere.

Additionally, the show’s high school setting means that its protagonists are on the cusp of adulthood, a demographic that is not typically the focus of ​​apocalyptic media. Before the outbreak, the audience sees the stressful effects of school and the upcoming CSAT on the students. Some students, like Nam-ra (Choi Yi-hyun), withdraw from their peers and focus on studying, while others, like school bully Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo), take their frustration out on their classmates. This realism appeals to younger audiences, who can relate to the struggles portrayed in the show. The high school’s lack of weapons also forces the students to rely on their wits to survive, making for a more entertaining and engaging show.

Despite the age of its characters, “All of Us Are Dead” does not shy away from revealing the ugly, selfish nature of humans in times of crisis, tackling topics such as bullying, suicide, and class hierarchy. Those with higher statuses look down upon others and often do nothing to remedy the crisis, despite their power and influence. Students hide their bites, accuse their peers, and betray one another. The brutal nature of their decisions juxtaposes their youthfulness, amplifying the show’s grim message about humankind, particularly prescient in today’s tumultuous times, which parallel the events in the show. Just as the Jonas Virus causes people to resort to hurting others for their own survival, COVID-19 has caused vaccine refusal and irresponsible exposure of peers.

Despite their hopeless situation, the teenagers still engage in playful banter and burgeoning romances, bringing a light-heartedness that cuts through the otherwise somber atmosphere. Ultimately, it is their loyalty and love for each other that save some of them in the end. Because the adults never come to rescue the stranded students, they only have each other to rely on, resulting in devastating sacrifices in hopes that at least one of them will make it out of their high school alive.

Beyond the portrayal of despair and crisis, “All of Us Are Dead” uses realistic CGI and visual aids to create an unsettling atmosphere. The different textures incorporated in the zombies’ make-up allow the mutilated bodies, missing limbs, and rotting flesh to look incredibly realistic. Though the special effects do a lot of heavy lifting to create these terrifying creatures, the actors’ jerky movements and gaits bring the zombies to life. Many of the actors who played the zombies are experienced dancers or contortionists, and this professional background enhances the show’s scare factor. In one particular scene, Hyeon-ju (Jung Yi-seo), the first person to turn into a zombie at Hyoson High, is brought to a hospital. While being tested, she suddenly wakes from her induced sleep and bends backwards until her head meets her feet. This extreme flexibility brings an extra component of horror to an already frightening show.

Despite the show’s engaging storyline, its weakness lies in the multiple subplots that it tries to take on. “All of Us Are Dead” focuses not only on the students but also on the events that occur outside of the school. The show jarringly switches gears when developing these subplots, thus detaching the audience from the characters. One portion of the show follows the government and its reaction to the outbreak, an unoriginal and overdone trope in the zombie genre. Time spent on these insignificant scenes could instead have been used to develop the intricacies of the virus and the intriguing premise behind it, which are left unaddressed and raise many unanswered questions. The virus’s origin could also have been an opportunity for the show to add something unique to its plot rather than its prototypical outbreak scenario.

Disregarding its occasional reliance on overrated tropes, “All of Us Are Dead” is a refreshing zombie show that breathes new life into a genre that has been done to death. It manages to blend elements of horror, action, and coming-of-age to create a show that is both relatable and entertaining to viewers. Like previous popular Netflix K-dramas, “All of Us Are Dead” clearly illustrates how Korean media has developed, and diversified, the zombie-horror genre. The popularity of “All of Us Are Dead” and similar series on Netflix exemplifies the extent to which K-dramas have taken over the popular streaming site and broken into the Western world, thanks to their innovation and creativity.