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All of Us Are Dead review: Gory but genuinely heartfelt, Netflix’s zombie show is your new Korean obsession

All of Us Are Dead review: Paced like a bullet and emotionally resonant when it needs to be, Netflix's new Korean zombie show makes for an immensely bingeable 12 hours of TV.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Written by Rohan Naahar | New Delhi |
Updated: January 29, 2022 9:31:34 am
All of Us Are Dead combines coming-of-age drama with zombie horror. (Photo: Netflix)

Any zombie story is going to be more relevant in a post-pandemic world. Or mid-pandemic, depending on where you live. But something tells me that the lowkey apocalyptic event we are all collectively surviving will be the much-needed shot of adrenaline that the genre has been in need of for over a decade. There’s only so much more mileage filmmakers will be able to get out of our newfound paranoia for contagious illnesses. But what next? What happens when we look at the horror on our screens and shrug, having experienced something much worse ourselves?

The pandemic will be to zombie storytelling what the Donald Trump presidency was to political satire—a near extinction-level event that demands a creative realignment. The last time that the zombie genre witnessed such an overhaul was when Edgar Wright suggested that it could be funny. Now, it is time to overhaul once again.

But All of Us Are Dead isn’t the show that’s going to take the genre to the next level. At least not for four episodes, during which it plays (largely) by the rules. Or so it makes you think. But a twist in episode five is something that I’ve never seen done before in a zombie story. Not only is it a frighteningly believable representation of the coronavirus pandemic, but a well-timed mid-season boost to a show that didn’t really need one. You were already invested, All of Us Are Dead seems to be saying, now buckle up for the home stretch.

The 12-episode Korean series, out on Netflix, zeroes in on the social inequalities that were exposed by the pandemic, while at the same time offering strong commentary on the toxicity of the teenage experience. It is, after all, set inside the most Darwinian of all playgrounds, and the iciest of all societal snowglobes—high school. It’s a consistently gripping and imminently bingeable show that sticks to the syllabus, and then goes ahead and wins brownie points for extracurricular activities, too.

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Zombies have been shown to have a degree of sentience in the past—Zack Snyder did it just last year—but not quite like this. “What if everyone in the world gets infected except us,” one teenage character wonders after a couple of episodes. “Then we’ll be in the minority, and minorities have a way of getting extinct.”

The pilot episode is excellent. It deftly sets up plot threads that start making sense only hours later. But because everything has been so carefully mapped out, the resolutions are immensely satisfying. The show also makes it quite clear very early on that death is a real eventuality that will strike most characters, regardless of whether they’ve been positioned as protagonists, one of whom is the school jock Soo-hyeok, who saunters in like he’s Brad Pitt arriving for a Vogue photoshoot. He has a crush on the enigmatic Nam-ra, who was ‘elected’ class president because her parents bribed the school. Soo-hyeok’s best friend is Cheong-san, who harbours feelings for his childhood friend On-ja, whom he treats as one of the guys, in a classic case of teen deflection.

These are the four characters with whom you spend the most time, and thankfully, they’re not an insufferable bunch. For instance, All of Us Are Dead would have been virtually impossible to watch had it been populated by the high-schoolers from HBO’s Euphoria. Hilariously, even though the kids in this show are around the same age as the ones in Euphoria, cigarettes are only ever mentioned once, when the characters make a big deal out of it after one of them confesses to being a smoker.

In a way, All of Us Are Dead is sort of the perfect marriage of the messed-up Korean New Wave that began two decades ago, and the more wholesome BTS-fuelled pop-culture juggernaut that it is largely perceived as now. The show is very violent, and also rather angry at adults of all shapes and sizes (for chewing up and spitting out the planet like bubble gum and leaving future generations to scrape it off their shoes). But it is also funny, and when it wants to be, genuinely heartfelt.

Nothing is more moving, for instance, than the story of the man who ‘created’ the virus. He is, like maybe three other characters in the show, a ‘villainous’ presence. But such is the strength of the writing that you won’t immediately be able to identify who I’m talking about. They’re just people, driven to the edge by a common motivator—survival. A thematically relevant idea, you’d agree, for a show about a zombie apocalypse.

And because All of Us Are Dead takes its time—many of its 12 episodes run at over an hour long—it allows itself some asides that you’d normally wouldn’t expect in a story like this. In an early episode, for example, the trapped kids not only have a frank discussion about where they’re going to go number two, but band together to set up a makeshift toilet where they’re hiding out.

At any given moment, writer Cheon Seong-il juggles five-to-six separate subplots, none of which are boring. Nor are all of them set inside the school. Among the most interesting is the one that features a heroic detective who goes on a mission to retrieve a laptop that might hold the key to everyone’s survival. Along the way, he picks up an overzealous YouTuber, a comically cowardly ‘chowkidaar’ and a couple of children, one of whom is a newborn. In another world, they would have been our protagonists.

But All of Us Are Dead deliberately frames the apocalypse from the perspective of teenagers, because even though the politicians and army chiefs might not realise it, their days are numbered. They won’t have to clean up their mess. The kids will, and they are most certainly not all right.

All of Us Are Dead
Creator – Chun Sung-il
Cast – Yoon Chan-young, Park Ji-hoo, Cho Yi-hyun, Park Solomon, Yoo In-soo
Rating – 4.5/5

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