Zombies—the most rabid, thoughtless creatures who do nothing but bite and scratch to spread a deadly contagion—shake me to the core. I’m not kidding: I’m the type of person who, out of a mindless fear of zombies, will actually research weird natural phenomena in which some kind of zombie-ification is possible (zombie ants and spiders are a thing, apparently, and it’s terrifying). So, why did I watch the Netflix Korean drama “All of Us Are Dead,” might you ask? Because, like many kinemortophobes, I feel the need to look up zombie-related pieces of media in order to either desensitize or scare myself even more.
Based on the webcomic of the same name, “All of Us Are Dead” is about a group of high schoolers facing a zombie outbreak. As their high school is ground zero, the zombie infection spreads alarmingly fast, leaving the survivors down to only a few. We mostly follow Nam On Jo (Park Ji Hoo), who’s at the bottom of the class, but surprisingly resourceful as the daughter of a fireman. She, in addition to her best friend Lee Cheong San (Yoon Chan Yeong), the cold class president Nam Ra (Cho Yi Hyun), the athletic and moral Lee Su Hyeok (Park Solomon), as well as a handful of other classmates, all band together to survive this catastrophe. Together, they do their best to survive, using any weapon they have available: sometimes brutal force, other times even a whole classroom door. Their will to live even despite the fact their entire school is overrun is something that I personally loved most about the show. No adults to look after them, no parents to run home to, nothing—and yet these kids do so much to survive despite all of that.
As such, I found myself invested in each character—except, and this is the downside of this series, the main character. Even though we follow the story through On Jo’s eyes, she’s simply not someone who I particularly found myself too invested in because the other characters are more interesting: between Nam Ra and Su Hyeok’s steadfastness, Dae Su’s humor, Cheong San’s morality and all of the slimy antagonists, On Jo is the blandest character to follow. That said, she has her moments. She’s one of the first ones to use classroom material to create some kind of ladder to move up the school buildings’ floors, and she’s also quick to offer comfort. However, On Jo also has the misfortune of having a funny loveline between Cheong San and Su Hyeok—Su Hyeok being the boy On Jo has a crush on, Cheong San being her best friend who, unbeknownst to her, had been pining after her since childhood. Now, I’m sympathetic to teenage girls who’re probably experiencing their “first love”-type feelings, but the On Jo’s scenes regarding her love life are eye roll-worthy. I suppose this might have been some type of attempt to make On Jo a more relatable character, but in the end, it just made her seem tone-deaf and petty. Sorry about your weird love life dilemma, but we can figure that out after you survive the zombies trying to tear out your neck! Also, if your first reaction to your best friend confessing his sincere feelings for you is to whine about how you no longer have friends in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, then that’s your problem, not the others’!
Furthermore, this show also felt a little undecided in where it stood with themes. Relatively early in the show, the science teacher Lee Byeong Chan (Kim Byung Chul) reveals he made this zombie virus for his suicidal son to fight back against his bullies. While the bullies of this show are absolutely ruthless (ranging between intense hazing to sexual harrassment), I couldn’t wrap my head around this motivation. Creating a humanity-wiping virus in order to have your suicidal son take revenge just seems so extreme, even for the zombie genre. The whole message becomes even more complicated when the science teacher later goes on to say that this was all because he realized that the school system as a whole is screwed over—and he has a point! The school system is screwed up, especially in how it deals with bullies and violence—but in a MCU-esque type way, our antagonist, who has a semi-decent point, totally swings into an irredeemably awful action that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Not only that, but there’s also something unpleasant and tired about the trope of how bullied victims become literally flesh-eating monsters, even if it’s for the sake of revenge. The suicidal son becomes a zombie himself, and another bully victim Min Eun Ji (Oh Hye Soo) becomes a hybrid zombie that practically ruins an evacuation camp. Again, do I think the bully victims deserve to be a little violent in response to their awful past? Sure! But honestly, the whole “the victim turns into a monster” storyline is unsettling, and, if we’re going to have a revenge story, I would have rather those victims murder their bullies the good, old-fashioned way.
All that said and done, the show is still OK. Although I still struggle with the protagonist and some of the themes, there are brighter spots, like the underlying messages about how to survive even in the midst of a hellish world. In one touching scene, our band of students sit around the rooftop, singing around a little fire. In yet others, the students put their own lives on the line time and time again to protect the ones they care about: even the coldhearted Nam Ra, who after getting bitten by a zombie, does everything in her power to keep herself from turning—and so uses her new zombie-intensified senses to keep her friends safe. At the end of the day, these characters decide for themselves that they’ll do their best to stay alive—that even though they don’t have adults or the outside world to rely on, they must rely on themselves and, more importantly, each other. It’s a plain message, but for anyone who feels they can’t rely on adults to be upstanding and just, “All of Us Are Dead” presents a hopeful message for the youth. Even if help isn’t coming right away, you have to do your best to survive. Hold onto your morals, hold onto your friends—that’s how the younger generation is meant to keep going. And, while we’re at it, maybe also know some basic fighting skills. You never know when those might come in handy.