Hyosan, South Korea. 2021. A science teacher’s experiment on his teenage son goes awry, creating a fast-spreading and untreatable virus that corrupts the mind and body of anyone infected. The result? A catastrophic zombie apocalypse overtakes an entire city, transforming almost every inhabitant into one of the living dead.
Netflix’s new Korean drama “All of Us Are Dead” follows 12 high school students in their fight to survive as, one by one, each of their schoolmates falls victim to this never-before-seen zombie virus. Hyosan High School is ground zero: a seemingly nice, well-kept school with a culture of bullying and social hierarchy under its surface. When science genius-turned-school-teacher Lee Byeong-Chan (Kim Byung-Chul, “Sisyphus: The Myth”) witnesses his son being bullied time and time again, he attempts to develop a virus to biologically alter him into someone who can stand up to the bullies and fight back. But his plans go terribly wrong when his son begins an unstoppable chain reaction that turns Hyosan High School into a living nightmare.
The 12 survivors the story follows carry the series with their group dynamic and storylines outside of the zombie epidemic. As the students navigate the battleground that once was their school, coming up with new escape plans and zombie-fighting strategies at every turn, there’s unmistakable fear and tension in the air — but there’s love too. Cheong-san (Chan-Young Yoon, “The Fault is Not Yours”) nurses an unrequited crush on his childhood friend On-jo (Park Ji-hu, “House of Hummingbird”), which turns into a love triangle due to her feelings for popular athlete Su-hyeok (Park Solomon, “Sweet Revenge”). Because what better environment for a budding romance is there than an ongoing zombie apocalypse? The drama doesn’t stop there, as Su-hyeok has eyes for quiet class president Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun, “Homme Fatale”). This ‘zombie horror series meets coming-of-age story’ is fast-paced and attention-grabbing while somehow also a sweet teenage love story. While not lacking in intermittent cliches, the occasional zombie-movie trope fails to derail a truly heartwarming plot that makes you fall in love with the show. Still, I wouldn’t watch this on Valentine’s Day if I were you — the gory violence and jump scares are sure to kill the mood.
While the show began at a fast and exciting pace, it fell into a lull midway through the 12-episode season, with some scenes feeling overused and unnecessary to the story. There is no better example of the show’s repetitiveness than the main antagonist, Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo, “At a Distance, Spring is Green”). Gwi-nam’s relentless bully character raises the often-asked question of zombie apocalypse shows and films: Who is the real monster: the zombies or humanity? Gwi-nam takes advantage of the apocalypse-fueled chaos to carry out his sadistic urges on the faculty and students alike, with the protagonists’ friend group as his main target. Despite endless attempts to get rid of him, Gwi-nam survives, again and again, making the once-interesting conflict predictable.
However, Gwi-nam’s character also brings to the table another more interesting element — he’s a “Halfbie,” or half-zombie, not quite a person but not quite a monster. It’s the emergence of this new type of character that brings surprise and uncertainty to the show when the plot begins to slow. When the story surrounding our protagonists gets a little monotonous, the show pulls back to examine how those outside Hyosan High School are working through this zombie epidemic, from first responders to government officials. These occasional new introductions to the plot and brief breaks from our 12 main characters bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to viewers, especially when you feel like you can’t bear to watch another zombie fight scene or grotesque human-to-zombie transformation.
Despite the occasional redundant scenes and tropes, the group of protagonists is really what hooks you into this series. Rather than jumping right into character development, the show introduces each personality slowly, peeling layers back one at a time. As the students face constant hardship, reunite with loved ones and forge new friendships, you become attached to the coming-of-age aspect of the storyline and grow to love the sweet and persistent crew. When the group loses a member, you’ll cry, and when they face the impossible, you’ll probably cry some more. “All of Us are Dead” provides complete character arcs and succeeds in bringing its loveable protagonists to life (no pun intended).
As you watch “All of Us are Dead,” you might feel that the situation these teens face is a little familiar. A fast-spreading life-disrupting virus that leaves health experts stumped and renders the government nearly useless? Definitely rings a bell. While on the surface just a normal zombie apocalypse story, “All of Us are Dead” certainly has some pandemic commentary undertones. Amid the themes of friendship, hardship and young love, all common for a high school coming-of-age series, there’s criticism of military brutality and political corruption — in short, this show has it all. Whether it’s the social commentary or zombie gore that leaves you spooked, “All of Us are Dead” is a thrilling ride you don’t want to miss.
Daily Arts Contributor Annabel Curran can be reached at email@example.com.