If I had to come up with some way to, like, math out my reviews — and I do not! I just like stupid mental exercises! — I’d start with a graph. One axis, the Y one probably, would stand for “concept,” and the other axis would plot the “execution.” A formulaic conceit can be brilliantly executed, and a groundbreaking concept can be let down by a less-than-inspired production, and a whole lot of stuff will inevitably cluster right around the middle intersection (like, everything on Amazon Prime). Clearly, this not-real graph won’t pan out to any kind of definitive grade or valuation — not when there’s a third dimension, “taste,” that’s impossible to account for — but I come back to it often as a way to start organizing my thoughts. Take, for example, Netflix’s last two runaway Korean horror hits, Squid Game and Hellbound. Both of them have a unique premise that will plot them high on the concept axis, and though I liked the execution of both I think Squid Game has the edge. The inverse seemed to be true of All Of Us Are Dead, Netflix’s latest K-horror sensation (currently the most-watched Netflix show in the US and the top non-English language show globally). The series, about a group of teens who are struggling to survive as their high school becomes ground zero for a zombie apocalypse, seems almost painfully formulaic from the outset. A viral outbreak turns humans into monsters — all it takes is a single bite. Our plucky heroes will be whittled away, one by one. Rescue isn’t guaranteed. Yet All Of Us Are Dead takes this formula and executes it flawlessly, in a slow-burn 12-episode odyssey about survival instinct and survivor’s guilt, the hope that pushes us forward and the grief that holds us back.
And then, somewhere along the line, you realize it’s got a few unexpected twists on the concept up its sleeve after all.
The set up: A science teacher (Kim Byung-chul) attempts to develop a compound to help his son stand up to the bullies tormenting him, something to turn his flight instinct into fight, but accidentally produces a virus that turns people into zombies — unthinking monsters trapped in a fugue state of pure fear that lash out at anything and everything in order to survive. He documents his attempts to find a cure for his now-zombified son and wife, but unfortunately one of his test mice bites one of his students and, folks, that’s how you get a zombie outbreak. The first couple of episodes ramp up the tension as they introduce the main characters — primarily Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young), who is secretly in love with his childhood friend On-jo (Park Ji-hu), who in turn confesses to her crush, Cheong-san’s buddy Su-hyeok (Park Solomon), who actually has the hots for the icy classroom president Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun) — while simultaneously charting the spread of the infection. The teacher locks the new zombie student up in his lab, but she escapes and bites a nurse before she’s taken to a hospital, and the police take the teacher into custody for kidnapping before he can warn anyone about what is going on. It’s establishing the world that’s about to come crashing down, but it’s also laying the groundwork for what the experience of watching the show will be like for us, the audience.
I tried to explain the fear factor of All Of Us Are Dead to someone by saying it’s not an “OH SH*T” show but an “oh nooooooo” show. What I meant was that this isn’t a show built on jump scares and surprises, but instead one of constant dread. Don’t get me wrong — it’s plenty scary. There’s blood and guts and the transformation scenes with the zombies are unsettling as all get out (you know that sound when you crack your knuckles? Amplify that across a whole body and add some gurgles…). It’s just that “scary” isn’t what holds you in your seat. We, as viewers, are always given more information about what is happening than the characters we’re watching are. We know about the zombies before the students do, and then through the students, we learn how the zombies work (they react to sound! their skin is cold!) before the government does. As the show steadily expands the orbit of its narrative out beyond the school, it does so in a way that only serves to highlight what is happening inside the school. It follows parents and police officers and politicians as a way to reveal how widespread the zombie outbreak is and what steps are being taken to contain it, and while you’ll care about their journeys, it’s clear that the gravitational pull of the story is centered on the teenagers. Every bit of information you glean about the broader situation — how the rescue effort is going, what the scientists are discovering, what actions the military is contemplating — only pushes the goalposts of safety farther from the kids, whether they realize it or not. You’ll see every event coming from a mile off, the only question is when — and with 12 episodes to play with, the series has time on its side.
The rapidity of the outbreak is belied somewhat by the metered pace of the plotting, but before you know it the city is completely overrun save for a few small pockets of survivors tucked away behind any door with a lock. Because the threat is absolutely EVERYWHERE, there’s never a moment where a zombie just jumps out and bites someone. How can it be a surprise when the danger is ever-present, always lurking within earshot? Instead, the teenagers plot their escape in increments — find a phone, find a drone, get to the rooftop and make an SOS sign — and every step forces them to wade out of their temporary safe havens and back into the fray of their own volition. That steady rhythm between pause and action leaves room for unexpected moments of joy between the teens, with love confessions, sing-alongs, bickering, camaraderie, and some impressive feats of ingenuity as the kids MacGyver tools and traps along the way. Of course, the joy only makes it harder when the inevitable happens and these characters sacrifice themselves along the way, and the show knows that too. There’s this trick it does, almost every time it cuts to a crowd shot of the zombies: The camera unerringly picks out someone we recognize. The price of surviving is the guilt of surviving beyond your loved ones, and All Of Us Are Dead keeps those loved ones around for the whole runtime to remind us of that fact. That’s what zombies are, right? The dead that won’t die. The dead that won’t go away. The longer the show goes on, the more familiar faces it has to catalog in the horde and send back after the very people mourning them.
The show also puts an interesting spin on the idea that zombies aren’t the only thing to fear in a zombie apocalypse. There are several instances of humans turning on each other to escape from danger, or turning on each other in inexcusable ways even in the absence of danger, and it all further explores the idea of how we respond to extreme fear. The morality of these acts, however, doesn’t determine survival rates. The best characters die right along with the worst, and that’s the point. Their actions don’t determine their lifespan, but they do impact how they’re remembered. Who will help them, or miss them when they’re gone.
Still, all of this is just a matter of doing a zombie apocalypse story well. Great characters facing impossible odds — you love to see it. The one real conceptual twist isn’t revealed until the midway point of the season, and it is a SPOILER so I’m going to put it in this block text in case any of you want to scroll past it. Ready?
The outbreak is caused by a virus, and it eventually mutates into something of a hybrid. If zombies are somewhere between life and death, then these new zombies are somewhere between human and monster. The military considers them asymptomatic zombies, as though the virus can activate and go dormant at will inside the host. They can still bite and spread the disease (though not always their mutation), and they heal from their wounds, but they maintain their reason and can fight their own murderous instincts. A very low percentage of the zombies turn out this way — one is a bully single-mindedly chasing Cheong-san, and another is a main character — but it creates a new dynamic when we see our heroes get bit. The audience, and the characters, wait to see what sort of zombie they’ll turn into. When they turn into the standard mindless drone, it’s doubly disappointing — but if they become something new? Well, then there’s still hope…assuming they can keep a lid on their urge to kill. These new zombies have the potential to be bigger threats AND better allies, depending on what kind of person they were to start with. The mutation also makes it all the harder to eradicate the zombie virus if you can’t always tell who has it, and that plays directly into the season’s finale.
Even that twist, as clever as it is, just highlights the true strength of the series: the characters. There’s always an argument to be made that a show can be tighter, or shorter, and All Of Us Are Dead is no different. Did they need to make that trip to the music room? Why did they stop in the gym? That steady rhythm of the plot is easy to nitpick, but I don’t want to because each step in their journey gave them more time with each other, and us with them. Their successes are more gratifying, and their losses more heartbreaking, because the show took its time to develop those relationships. I respect the confidence, the balance, of that plotting, and that may be why I’m having a hard time deciding how I feel about the finale. The show comes to a definitive conclusion in almost every way… except for that spoiler up above, which leaves a tiny narrative crack open that another season could explore. To be clear, All Of Us Are Dead does not in any way need a season two. It could stand as a nearly perfect limited series, and in fact there is no way the show, if it continued, would be anything at all like this season. It can’t be — the world of the show has changed. That tightly woven schoolhouse odyssey can’t be recreated. Instead, the show would need to look ahead, perhaps with a time jump, and deal with what happens after a zombie outbreak when the epidemic becomes the endemic. The series was based on a webtoon called “Now At Our School” and mostly followed the plot to a T, so it if does continue it would be without a map — though I can’t help but be a little excited by that idea. The show referenced Train To Busan, a prime example of character-driven zombie fare, that movie had a surprising sequel that proved follow-ups can be vastly different from the originals and still be very good indeed.
Don’t be fooled though — Netflix hasn’t announced a second season yet, and most of the speculation around there even being another one is because… well, the show did its job a little too well. There’s a beloved character that is almost certainly definitely probably dunzo, and that’s all they’ll be if the show ends here. If it continues, though? Well, anything can happen in a world where the dead are still staggering around, amirite? The finale leaves us hanging on the edge of grief and hope, and I guarantee anyone clamoring for Netflix to announce a renewal is really saying “Gee, tell me that thing that happened didn’t really happen” (myself included). Whether it comes back or not is almost beside the point. The uncertainty of not knowing, or not wanting to believe what you already know — that’s the real proof that All Of Us Are Dead did its job well.