Korean zombies rule. Kingdom grabbed me so much I watched both series twice. As well as brilliant storytelling, the ravenous revenants are terrifyingly fast when both turning and changing, while the characters they prey on are both well-fleshed out and emotionally engaging.
And following the sensational Squid Game, spooky The Silent Sea, and the intense Hellbound, we all know how Netflix’s Korean original series can get under your skin. So, while I’m not a typical fan of high-school dramas, I approached All of Us Are Dead with an open mind. After all, the series, helmed by director and creator Lee Jae-kyoo, has so far enjoyed several weeks at the top of Netflix’s Global Top 10 weekly viewership charts. And yes, it’s full of those bone-cracking, frantic, furious Korean zombie FX.
Adapted for the Netflix series by Chun Sung-il, the original digital comic by Joo Dong-geun was made up of 130 episodes published as Now at Our School, and premiered on Naver originally between 2009 and 2011. The original comic series has now also been translated into English on Webtoon, under the same name as the TV adaptation, All of Us Are Dead.
Netflix announced plans for the series in April 2020, to be directed by Lee Jae-kyoo [also known as Lee JQ] and Kim Nam-su and produced by Film Monster by JTBC Studios and Kimjonghak Production.
Adam Bentz at ScreenRant says Netflix viewers were immediately struck by how much the show remained faithful to webtoon that inspired it. “Based on Lee’s recent comments, that was absolutely the creative team’s intent,” he adds. “However, some changes to the plot and characters were necessary when translating the original work to serial television. The result is a show that maintains the unique flair of the webtoon while also appealing to a wider audience on Netflix for viewers encountering it for the first time.”
In Kingdom, there are few shades of gray among the gore. Heroes are super heroic, the villains are ultra-evil, and characters, costumes and cinematography can all be breathtakingly beautiful. You know what you’re in for, even if it escalates way beyond that.
All of Us Are Dead is more ambiguous, at least at first. The suburban setting, with cafes, shops and apartments, and the school ooze a sort of grey normality. The adults begin mostly as one-dimensional tropes, such as helicopter mom, cynical first-responder dad, negligent teacher, caring teacher, and of course, mad scientist. The young actors are presented to us as mainly unlikeable teens, either acting out due to insecurity, greed, snobbery, naivety, or just being plain bullies. So, it could be any high school.
Then a mysterious virus begins to spread, turning pupils and staff into monsters. It quickly spirals out of control, moving beyond the school gates to bleed into every corner of the city. Things look desperate on many levels. The authorities get heavy-handed. In the ensuing chaos, the real characters start to emerge, showcasing some great talent among the cast, both veteran actors and rising stars.
The pupils, Nam On-jo (Park Ji-hu), Lee Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young), Choi Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun), Lee Su-hyeok (Lomon), and others — find themselves in the appalling situation of watching their close friends turn into zombies. The bullying continues, however, even after multiple deaths.
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The latter is a focal theme for Lee JQ. “On the surface, the story talks about school bullying but I don’t think society at large is much different (from school),” the director tells Lee Gyu-lee in The Korea Times. “At first, you might think how cruel those kids can be. But as you get through the episodes, you will see that some of the elements run parallel to this society. I hoped that the series could offer viewers a chance to reflect on where they stand in that society.”
READ MORE: Director depicts school as microcosm of society in ‘All of Us Are Dead’ (The Korea Times)
“The high school becomes a perfect setting for the mass production of a zombie population,” says Sara Merican for The Verge. “The immense pressure of the Korean high school setting — one which ends with the dreaded be-all-end-all university entrance exams, also known as Suneung — breaks and bends each student into despair differently. Some, like [class president] Choi Nam-ra, withdraw into isolation, earphones plugged in, and eyes glued to her notes. Others, like seniors Park Mi-jin (Lee Eun-saem), and captain of the school archery team Jang Ha-ri (Ha Seung-ri), are overwhelmed by a defeated hopelessness about their future. A few more take out their anger on others and become school bullies — like the notorious Yoon Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo), who does not think twice about inflicting harm on others. The dehumanizing effects of fear become magnified by adolescent insecurities, reducing each young, vibrant soul into quivering shells of their former selves.”
Merican compares All of Us Are Dead to other high school TV dramas such as Riverdale and Euphoria. “It captures in great detail the grotesque violence of high school social dynamics: the relentless gossiping and backstabbing, the unkind politicking and posturing of powerful in-groups and cool kids, and the festering churn of misery, which falls most heavily on the outcasts,” she says. “While a few adults do their best to rein in the violence and protect their innocence, the students are largely left to fend for themselves.”
As well as social commentary, both politics and religion rear their heads in the series.
Proma Khosla on Mashable notes the series makes keen observations on the state of its world both before and after zombies rise. “A public official demands special treatment but is no more or less appetizing to her undead assailants than anyone else is. When the government cuts off communication out of Hyosan, its citizens become either abandoned refugees or isolated to the point of dehydration, starvation, and death. In the walls of Hyosan High, the zombies don’t distinguish between rich and poor, bully or victim, teacher or student, which leads to some of the show’s most compelling interpersonal conflicts.
“The only thing worse than being trapped at school during the zombie apocalypse is going through it with a crush who doesn’t want to kiss you — even on the brink of death,” says Khosla.
“There are some interesting religious images here,” says Collider’s Abby Cavenaugh. “For one, the first shot of Episode 1 is a neon cross on top of the church, reflected in a puddle… the cross is upside-down, a quintessential image of evil. Then, when the young man’s father, Lee Byeong-chan (Kim Byeong-cheol), visits his son in the hospital, he quickly realizes that his son is no longer his son; he is, of course, the first victim of the zombie virus. And what does Byeong-Chan find to literally beat him into submission with? A Bible. The bullies are clearly the bad guys, but maybe sometimes those masquerading as the good guys are the ones you should worry about most. Alternatively, the use of the Bible as an assault weapon could also illustrate that Byeong-Chan is a good man at heart who has made a terrible, costly mistake.”
There’s a lot of clever humor and the series is self-aware on many levels. Zombie blockbuster Train To Busan is referenced by one of the students, and most of the teens have knowledge on how to deal with the walking dead obviously gleaned from popular culture — Jang Ha-ri’s keen archery skills invariably deliver headshots.
Shades of the pandemic are everywhere. As Nick Schager notes in The Daily Beast, “The inherent terror of zombie fiction stems from the fact that once a plague emerges, it spreads at an exponential rate, rendering containment a near-impossibility. In our current pandemic era, that idea has acutely unnerving resonance.”
“COVID-19 is only fleetingly mentioned during this 12-hour saga, but its specter looms large over the supernatural action, given how quarantine craziness, ruthless selfishness, and fear of widespread infection courses through its veins,” Schager adds.
“All of Us Are Dead makes a compelling, and often thrilling, case that a viral apocalypse would ultimately become more than a bit monotonous — something that everyone in the real world can likely relate to right now.”
The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage agrees. “Honestly, swap out a dry cough for a ceaseless undead thirst for human flesh and Covid is a zombie analogue,” he says.
“The original Haitian archetype used zombies as a metaphor for the dehumanization of enslaved people under French colonial rule. Over the years, Hollywood has dusted them off to symbolize everything from consumerism to McCarthyism to immigration to globalization to emotional stuntedness,” he adds. “Maybe in time more producers will use zombies to make sense of the Covid era. But for now, we’re going to have to make do with All of Us Are Dead… which isn’t such a bad thing, because it’s great.”
Binge-watchers, beware. It’s also a bit of a marathon, with 12 episodes running at least an hour each.
In a review for Variety, Caroline Framke seems exhausted by the sprint required, though there’s praise too for the young actors.
“To say the least: it’s a sprawling cast, and with the addition of several adult factions outside the campus struggling to keep the outbreak under control, episodes are dense and run longer than necessary,” says Framke. “But the school plotlines really work, in large part thanks to continued ingenuity with the props and sets and the charismatic young cast, with Yoon Chan-young and Cho Yi-Hyun as notable standouts.
“The show’s weakness, then, lies beyond the labyrinthine school itself as it tries to view the outbreak from the outside in. Watching yet another military take on zombies, no matter how bone-crunchingly sickening the ones in All of Us Are Dead are, just isn’t that interesting after seeing so many other TV shows and movies do the same. If the drama is to continue beyond this season, digging in to the “why” and “how” of this reality having zombies in it is probably advisable. But few scenes involving the adult characters are especially compelling or different from what we’ve seen before in the zombie genre.”
READ MORE: ‘All of Us Are Dead,’ Netflix’s Inventive New Korean Drama, Strands Zombies in High-School Nightmare: TV Review (Variety)
“In its first three days of availability, [All of Us Are Dead] was viewed for 124.79 million hours globally, according to Netflix, making it the streamer’s biggest series right now,” says Insider’s Travis Clark, adding that Netflix spent $500 million on content from South Korea last year and is set to release more than 25 Korean originals in 2022.
READ MORE: Netflix’s Korean zombie series ‘All of Us Are Dead’ is its most popular TV show right now (Insider)
“I truly can’t believe all the love [All of Us Are Dead] has received from so many countries around the world, I’m so thankful,” says Lee JQ in an interview on Soompi. “I think this will come as a great relief to all the actors and staff who devoted themselves to this project for two years.”
READ MORE: “All Of Us Are Dead” Director Talks About Casting Decisions And Reacts To Global Success Of The Series (Soompi)
This success and widespread acclaim comes despite the series receiving a TV-MA rating for its brutal and violent imagery, as reported by Josh Weiss on SyFy Wire. “Other South Korean hits were given the same audience designation, though All of Us Are Dead allegedly outpaced both of them due to its unflinching take on the zombie genre,” says Weiss. “The series received the maturity rating of 18+ for about seven different reasons, which would be one to two more than Squid Game or Hellbound.”
Variety’s list of Korean dramas to watch out for in 2022 noted that All of Us Are Dead could see an international break for its younger stars, such as Yoon Chan-young (Do You Like Brahms?, Doctor John) and Cho Yi-hyun (Hospital Playlist, School 2021).
READ MORE: All of Us Are Dead’ Trailer: Netflix’s South Korean Zombie Series Is One Wild, Gory Ride (Variety)
“Just like the zombies, All Of Us Are Dead has left fans of the show hungry for more,” says BT’s James Descombes. “And without giving anything away, the way season 1 concludes offers some hope for All Of Us Are Dead Season 2. Even after more than 12 hours of zombie goodness, fans are baying for more blood. Some have even taken to Twitter to make their pleas heard.”