A high school becomes ground zero for a zombie virus outbreak. Trapped students must fight their way out — or turn into one of the rabid infected. (Source: Netflix) ~~ Adapted from the webtoon "All of Us Are Dead" (지금 우리 학교는) by Joo Dong Geun (주동근). Edit Translation
Where to Watch All of Us Are Dead
Cast & Credits
In spite of all the horror and struggle for survival, there is still room for the heart note"All of Us Are Dead" isn't specific to South Korean culture, but it's not surprising that the story was born on South Korean soil... The story picks up on the sheer horror that South Korean youth are exposed to in the face of their brutal educational system. There, the enormous pressure to perform is higher than almost anywhere else in the world. For some, bullying is one way to reduce stress. The bullied, in turn, are doubly stressed. Other options include withdrawal, drugs, or suicide. South Korean society is largely blind and/or helpless in the face of this. The pressure to perform and, in this context, the psychological suffering of young people seems to be without alternative in view of the nationwide (and worldwide, economic) competition - a price that society has to pay in view of the greater good. And with that, the youngsters are left alone to somehow survive in this merciless world. However, this applies (perhaps not so blatantly) in a similar way to young people in many countries around the world.
This is where "All of Us Are Dead" comes in its impressive and striking way.
The original title is something like "Currently at our school", so the focus is actually on the school and their students. In fact, the horror of everyday school life, which is more existential for some and less existential for others, mutates into a horror for everyone. A troubled father wants to create a way for his suicidal son to finally stand up to his bullies. The experiment goes astray. The vicious, zombie-like virus is sweeping the entire city and beyond. Disaster control, state of emergency, martial law - the whole program is needed to get the situation under control. And here, again, the young people are left alone in their existential need.
The story telling and expression of various group and relationship dynamics between the young people represent high-end KDrama quality - intense, powerful, sensitive, excellent. Almost everything is on the table. For me, this is the strength of this KDrama and the reason why worth watching.
Besides the problems, dynamics and approaches of trying to 'master' the threatening epidemic somehow sums up what we have had to go through worldwide in the past 2 years marked by Covid. When the rules are overridden, individuals (those who happen to have something to say) rule against the backdrop of their (helpless) personalities - arbitrary or scientifically based, rational or irrational, mostly driven by fear and from a safe distance and/or on the (argumentatively) safe side. Then real quick nobody takes side of individuals anymore, the big picture being more important...
Seen in this way, "All of Us Are Dead" is a qualitatively demanding KDrama in several respects. In spite of all the horror and struggle for survival, there is still room for the heart note.
However, I would like to emphasize that the virus is turning people into flesh-eating zombies. So the abundance of screaming, rattling, biting, blood-smeared zombie scenes, which simply lack any aesthetics for the eye and ear, is part of the story, too. In general this drama is brutal. This is obviously very popular in the international zeitgeist and thus (being published on the international netflix platform) stagily staged. I would say, brutal details and zombie-screentime could definitely have been less prevailing (in order to still tell the story).
Dying is easy, surviving is hardAll of Us Are Dead is adapted from the serialized Naver digital webtoon entitled Now at Our School, which was written by Joo Dong Geun and published from 2009 to 2011. I haven’t read the webtoon but it reportedly consists of only nine chapters. Therefore it would probably stand to reason that the live-action adaptation has expanded on its lore, especially when Netflix is involved where the potential exists for a series to be renewed for a second season, depending on the success of the first season.
The drama is co-directed by Lee Jae Gyoo, who won a Baeksang for Damo and directing honours for Beethoven Virus, and Kim Nam Soo. It is based on the screenplay adaptation written by Cheon Seong Il, the screenwriter for Chuno and The Pirates. Principal photography took place from June 2020 to February 2021, which was prolonged due to the Covid-19 outbreak during filming.
In a nutshell, the story revolves around a group of highschool students who are trapped at their school, the ground zero for the onset of a zombie virus outbreak. The drama depicts them fighting to survive both the zombies and virus infection while waiting to be rescued. The rating classification for this production is R-18 and aside from the expected zombie action and gore, certain trigger warnings are present in the form of bullying violence that even borders on sexual assault.
In a recent interview with director Lee Jae Gyoo via the online presentation of the production in South Korea on 26th January, he had intimated that this drama would be uniquely distinct within the K-drama zombie genre that has become commonplace in recent years. According to him, All of Us Are Dead features thought-provoking themes that add a different meaning to a zombie apocalypse, where the focus is on the choices young students make at the boundary between life and death. In addition, the story also provides a satirical take on South Korea's educational system and school space.
What I Liked
I love the K-drama zombie genre and anything closely or even remotely associated in the form of mutants, monsters and the like, complete with the horror, action, adventure tags whether in contemporary, sageuk or fantasy settings. As much as I’ve enjoyed the recently aired Happiness, my preference for zombies leans towards the more feral variety with hordes of them rampaging through the populace annihilating anything and everything in their path, in the mould of Train to Busan (which gets a shoutout in this drama), Kingdom and Rampant. Call me sadistic but I’m all for epic levels of productions with economies of scale in delivering the exhilaration of the action, thrills and suspense, along with all the emotive aspects of human drama as well. Based on what I’ve seen of the depiction of zombies in this drama, it manages to convey all of the above, and has successfully fulfilled most, if not all, of my expectations.
A co-production between JTBC Studios’ Film Monster and Kim Jong Hak Production for Netflix, the quality of the technical execution is beyond doubt. No effort or budget was spared as even a huge four-storey set was constructed as the setting of the fictional Hyosan High School. The money was very well spent indeed as the production design looks top notch with all the nitty gritty details providing an intriguing backdrop to the zombie outbreak. The zombies themselves are deftly manifested in terms of the makeup, special and sound effects, as well as the blood, gore and contortions which complement the extensive range of expertly choreographed sequences.
The cinematography is deserving of praise with the crucial aspect for productions of this nature being the calibre of the camerawork, which for the most part does not let me down (or induce nausea). The well rendered scene transitions are testament to the standard of editing as well, where it’s worth mentioning that the chaotic scenes at the cafeteria and library involving 200 or so extras are reportedly the result of a single-take shooting.
As far as the narrative is concerned, the premise of a school-based zombie outbreak is refreshingly new to me. Some viewers may associate elements of Dark Hole to be of similar vein but personally it really isn’t despite the comparable vibes. While I wouldn’t consider the overall plot trajectory as particularly inventive or groundbreaking, what distinguishes this drama from most others that I’ve seen is the storytelling approach.
In addition to the multiple POV perspectives of the main characters, the screenplay takes its time to explore the origins of the zombie outbreak and motivations behind the actions resulting in the said virus being unleashed on humanity. The depiction of characters dealing with the tragic circumstances in the aftermath certainly elicits an emotional response as well.
True to the director's word, this drama tackles both existing and hypothetical societal concerns which provide added dimensions to the storytelling. Among the thought provoking themes incorporated into the storytelling - unchecked and unmitigated school violence, the ingrained hierarchical social order within a society segmented by wealth and power, the deeply polarised mindsets of the local government and communities in the event of an apocalypse or the aftermath of a mass casualty event. The role that technology plays in binding all these themes together is tackled as well in the form of the ever increasing reliance on and abuse of social media as an outlet that fuels the dissemination of actual and fake news.
The infusion of a number of side stories, character arcs and a narrative that steadily evolves as the drama progresses helped to allay my initial concerns of the story sustaining its momentum over 12 episodes. The dynamic between characters giving rise to various forms of conflicts, teen angst, and even hints of romance contribute towards preserving an atmosphere filled with tension and suspense. That said, I do think the drama could have been slightly shortened without adversely impacting the storytelling.
The main cast is made up of young actors, some of whom were prolific child actors and even critically acclaimed talent as well. Park Ji Hoo, Yoon Chan Young, Jo Yi Hyun, Park Solomon and Yoo In Soo portray the highschool students who are caught up in the ensuing chaos. Featuring roles of varying capacities, these youngsters provide a decent account of themselves through characterizations that are adequately written, for the most part. Lee Yoo Mi is particularly impressive here following her brief appearance in Squid Game, given her experience of being the oldest actress portraying a student and for her captivating portrayal of the antagonistic Lee Na Yeon that actually steals the scenes from the protagonists at times. Meanwhile, I would consider Park Solomon’s affable Lee Soo Hyuk, Jo Yi Hyun’s stoic Choi Nam Ra and Ha Seung Ri’s heroic archer Jang Ha Ri as my favourite characters amongst the students.
The supporting cast come across as being more familiar, where we get to observe Kim Byung Chul (Sisyphus, Doctor Prisoner), Lee Kyu Hyung (Happiness, Voice 4), Lee Yo Mi (Squid Game), Uhm Hyo Sub (King of Tears, War of the Son) , Bae Hae Seon (Happiness, Inspector Koo, HomeCha), Jeon Bae Soo (Stranger, Lawless Lawyer), Kim Jong Tae (The Veil, Sisyphus), and Yoon Byung Hee (Hot Stove League). The more nuanced acting in the drama is provided by these mostly experienced veterans, especially Kim Byung Chul as science teacher Lee Byeong Chan. Utterly intense, sinister, and convincing, unsurprisingly the best performance in the entire drama comes from this award-winning actor. Jeon Bae Soo gets to play the hero this time in a memorable performance as firefighter Nam So Ju.
What I Didn’t Appreciate
When it comes to K-dramas and school students, bullying and violence are par for the course - they’re never far away and will probably remain as a staple trope. It’s infuriating and disturbing to watch at times and seems to be escalating in brutality these days. The scale of the savagery seems to be higher than the actual zombie action itself but it’s something that all viewers of K-content will need to accept and get used to, unfortunately.
The main villain of the story is featured through the gangster wannabe and low-life bully Yoon Gwi Nam, played almost too well by Yoo In Soo. This despicable human thrash has the typical clichéd story arc that stretches far too long, in my opinion, before eventually fizzling out as a mere afterthought.
As mentioned earlier, I think the storytelling would have been better presented if it were slightly shorter, perhaps with 8 or so episodes.Despite the multiple POVs, too much time is allocated to the teen drama at school than is perhaps necessary. I would have liked to have seen Kim Byung Chul’s character more fleshed out in real time rather than merely as a series of flashbacks. The same goes for Jeon Bae Soo’s firefighter who is desperately trying to get to his daughter.
There are numerous annoying characters in this drama, some of whom supposedly supplying the usual ill-fitting comic relief that appears very much jarring to the senses.The tough girl wannabe and her whingeing companion, the cowardly police sergeant, and the bickering couples, to name a few. I think generally the boys are better written than the girls who come across as petty and physically abusive towards their male counterparts, as far as the youngsters are concerned.
All things considered and despite its flaws as well as the overly dramatic ending that has the potential for expansion either as a sequel or a side story, I had a great time mainly because of my love for horror and zombies. We honestly do need more zombie stories because there is too much romance, rom-coms and melodrama in dramaland already and simply not enough of the macabre flesh-eating, blood-sucking undead. All of Us Are Dead is not the best in the genre, where Kingdom still reigns supreme, but as a one-time weekend watch it definitely fulfils my insatiable hunger for such content, albeit temporarily.