Netflix has definitely gotten swept up in the Korean Wave as it releases its latest original series All of Us Are Dead (지금 우리 학교는 /Now At Our School). The zombie thriller-slash-high school drama series ticks all the boxes of both genres and them some. And while it can feel a bit bloated, the series is ultimately enjoyable, mindless fun.
A mysterious virus spurs a zombie outbreak at a high school in the suburbs of Seoul and quickly spreads to the surrounding area. Trapped students fight to survive against infected classmates as well as the potentially equal threats from the worst of humanity amidst the chaos.
Among the ragtag group of students are noble hero Lee Cheong San (Yoon Chang Young), his childhood friend and neighbor Nam On Jo (Park Ji Hu), quiet class president Choi Nam Ra (Cho Yi Hyun) and handsome, laidback Lee Su Hyeok (Park Solomon). They and their fellow classmates face one dangerous predicament and obstacle after another. Exhilarating chase scenes through the halls of the school are mixed with tried and tested high school angst while a few familiar horror/survival tropes are sprinkled throughout.
The series quickly sets the tone within the first couple of minutes. And answers to big questions, such as the origins of the virus, are presented quite early on. Cheong San makes a cheeky reference to Train to Busan at the onset of the outbreak. And the series works within the understanding that everyone knows what zombies are and can do. So now it’s up to them to figure out how to stay alive.
Probably the only warning I can give is that you will absolutely smack your forehead several times throughout the series thanks to the many questionable and sometimes ridiculous actions and decisions of our characters in peril. Those “Don’t go in there!” or “Don’t do that!” moments are certainly par for the course when it comes to stories like this. And obviously understandable considering the circumstance. But there are many moments throughout the series that come across as hilarious and exciting at the same time. There are bits of dark comedy intertwined with the edge-of-your-seat (and absolutely bloody) action.
That’s pretty much the biggest draw here. It’s all about hanging on for the wild ride. The series is able to take that basic foundation to support what is a roller coaster ride through a whole number of themes and societal ills that are no stranger to any regular K-drama viewer. School violence, young love, friendships, family, corruption are all touched upon. Then there’s the character-driven moments of selfishness and selflessness that power the always emotional shocks and awes typical of the genre. And there are many sincerely heartfelt moments that’ll tug at your heartstrings in between breathlessly hoping your favorite characters make it out of the episode alive.
Throw in some of the ongoing COVID fears, tension and uncertainty in our real world and you’ve got a story that can hit too close to home to heighten the visceral effect.
After a while, the series can get repetitive at parts. And one may wonder if less would’ve been more here for this 12-episode series. The action shifts between the main group of students and other smaller factions of survivors around campus (including a villain or two who emerge as the series progresses) as well what’s happening out in the city. The story gets less interesting when outside of the school, especially when most of the focus is on more corruption and self-serving authority figures. It’s all somewhat necessary to help with world building and setting up the series’ final episodes.
The series is easily bingeable. And every episode does its job to keep you coming back for more. But at the same time, a tighter story could have resulted in an even more exhilarating experience with a similar amount of depth that we did get.
Watching All of Us Are Dead brought to mind some other Korean high school thrillers of the past. It may not be as torturously pulpy like the pair of Death Bell films nor as pensive a psychological thriller as KBS’ iconic White Christmas. But the high school setting is still a refreshing change of pace for the zombie genre in Korean television and film. Though the series doesn’t necessarily dive as deep into the issues of society and humanity as it could have, one can still find sincere instances of meaning.
A big reason for that opportunity is the series’ large ensemble cast. One of the standouts is Yoon Chan Young. I first watched him deliver an emotionally affecting performance in the SBS television movie Everything and Nothing. And his performance as the heroic Lee Cheong San is absolutely one of the strongest things that holds this series together. When everything else might get a bit too crazy, the character he is able to bring to life will help keep the series sane and on track.
Cho Yi Hyun, fresh off a great run on the recently concluded School 2021, gets the chance to play a character almost the complete opposite. Nam Ra is an enigmatic character at first. And though quiet, she emerges as one of the more interesting people. And Cho Yi Hyun’s performance helps make that happen. He also shares a great chemistry with Park Solomon’s Su Hyeok as the zombie-fighting bros as well as the earnest romance moments with Park Ji Hu’s On Jo.
A bunch of familiar faces (to K-drama fans) pop up in various supporting roles ranging from school faculty to government and military officials to the people responsible for the outbreak. And many of these veteran actors help give the series a bit of heft to pair with the fresh young faces playing the students.
Top-notch bloody action, a solid cast and diverse characters, a cornucopia of familiar themes about society and humanity; overall, All of Us Are Dead may not reinvent either zombie or high school drama wheels. But when used together, the result is a wild and enjoyable ride that is worthy of hopping along for.