Blood, gore, carnage – Netflix’s new thriller K-drama All Of Us Are Dead has all of that and more. Based on the popular webtoon Now At Our School, the series presents an opening that’s easily one of the most grisly from a K-drama in recent memory, diving headfirst into the brutality of the show’s premise. It begins on a secluded rooftop in the afterhours of the fictional South Korean province of Hyosan, rain coming down as we come face-to-face with horrors brought about by a group of high school delinquents, who relentlessly torture a fellow schoolmate, Jin-su.
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The bullies pay no mind to Jin-su as their victim cowers and begs them to stop. Suddenly, Jin-su’s demeanour takes a 180-degree turn. He begins snarling, his movements animal-like with blood smeared on his white uniform as he charges towards his aggressors. We then fast forward to a new day at Hyosan High School and its familiar rowdiness, brought to life by its unsuspecting students and staff who go about their day as usual.
One curious student, Kim Hyeon-ju (Jung Yi-seo) comes across and gets bitten by a caged, rabid hamster in the science lab, unknowingly becoming patient zero for what would soon develop into a frenetic, province-wide outbreak of bloodthirsty zombies.
Unbeknownst to the school’s staff and student body, time is of the essence as they fight to understand the exact dangers that lie on the horizon. The frenzy continues to erupt as infections snowball and the remaining survivors are left to their own devices, unable to contact family or the authorities due to a school rule requiring students to hand in their personal cell phones during school hours.
The situation rapidly blows out of proportion, with the virus having already bypassed the gates of Hyosan High and entering the wider Hyosan province, causing its population, specifically first responders and medical personnel, to fall prey to the virus’ unrelenting nature. Hopes for impending rescue and safety diminish with each passing second, as the protagonists are trapped on campus.
The sizable amounts of slaughter and bloodshed are what define All Of Us Are Dead. We can’t help but to watch in horror as countless characters we were briefly acquainted with regress into senseless, brutish creatures, until we ultimately fail to keep in mind that at the very centre of this grotesque pandemic are children – the infected and survivors alike.
As these children are the first few to suffer from the virus and its consequences, there is a lack of care in All Of Us Are Dead’s depiction of its characters, which ends up portraying and reducing the (un)dead and their significance to our protagonists – as fellow classmates, friends and family members – to nameless, bloody pawns in the show’s attempt to shock.
The emphasis on carnage is front and centre throughout the series’ entire duration, which takes away from any possible critical deep dives into the show’s extensive roster of main characters, or even any crucial worldbuilding – and let’s not forget the show has a comparatively long run of 12 episodes, each an hour long.
As a result, All Of Us Are Dead is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough at the same time. Its central plot, many subplots and protagonists eventually amalgamate as a lofty narrative that has effectively bitten off more than it can chew by the series’ middle, leaving little space or ability left to engage and enthral, or for its stakes to be taken as seriously as it should be.
We also witness the main cast of school teenagers – consisting of Chung-san (Yoon Chan-young), On-jo (Park Ji-hoo), Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun), Lee Soo-hyuk (Park Solomon), Yoo Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo) and Lee Na-yeon (Lee Yoo-mi) – grapple with the life-changing and traumatising experience that a zombie apocalypse undoubtedly brings. All the while they struggle to retain some sort of normalcy as, well, kids, what with the series trying to shove in subplots of teenage shenanigans, for better or worse.
The main cast, specifically Lee Yoo-mi, Yoon Chan-young and Cho Yi-hyeon, do an impeccable job at illustrating what the reality of the situation is at its core – they’re just a bunch of disoriented, unworldly young adults, each now marked by significant losses and who now only have each other, trying their best to cope with the circumstances they were unjustly thrust into.
Sitting at the very heart of All Of Us Are Dead lies a resolute intention to unpack social issues, though that intent is largely buried under the show’s focus on gore. The series dabbles in social commentary aplenty – from the unspoken realities of the physical, verbal and even sexual abuse high school students inflict upon each other, to social class warfare, to cyberbullying and much more.
Bringing such topics to the small screen is important in representing such victims in real life. Sadly, the sheer array of topics touched on by the show’s creators, all of which happen behind the overarching premise of a zombie outbreak, cause them to blend into each other, before eventually falling through the cracks.
Zombie apocalypse tropes have grown to become pedestrian in recent years, thanks to overwhelming numbers of popular shows and films with similar premises (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Kingdom, to name a few, but outside of ham-fisted attempts at social commentary, All Of Us Are Dead is no different. With some awkward high school romance here and a meta reference to Train To Busan there, All Of Us Are Dead is, in essence, an outlandish, if average, depiction of the high school experience, in all its glory and peril, presented through the radical lens of an unforgiving zombie epidemic.
All Of Us Are Dead premieres on Netflix January 28.