Early in we’re all dead college student Lee Cheong-san yells out to his peers as they fend off a wave of zombies swarming their suburban Hyosan High School, “It’s Train to Busan!” Another replies: “Why are they at school? They should be in movies.” With this ironic meta-reference to its notable film predecessor, it’s a sign that the Korean zombie subgenre has sunk its grisly teeth into the popular cultural imagination.
First worldwide exposure with the commercial and critical hit Train to Busan in 2016, the korean zombie lineage also includes Netflix’s groundbreaking historical series Kingdom (2019), as well as movies such as Peninsula (Train to Busan continued) and #Empathize (2020). Through the grotesque figure of the zombie and its transitions between the human and the monstrous, these Korean shows have launched a terrifying critique of society in all its moral waste and systemic ills.
The institution of the high school we are all dead marks a unique departure from previous locations used in Korean zombie shows. Amid fear and destruction, the youthful setting offers opportunities for adolescent banter and budding love. We meet the loyal Lee Cheong-san, along with the cheerful Nam On-jo, who puts her survival skills to good use, learned from her firefighter father. Class president and top student Choi Nam-ra is aloof and distant at first, though we later learn that she’s just fighting her own demons like so many other students. Lee Su-hyeok and Yang Dae-su are also the main group of students who wander through science labs, broadcasting rooms, music studios, the cafeteria and teachers’ lounges in their attempt to survive and find a safe haven. So what’s so wrong with the world here?
The immense pressures of the Korean high school—a setting that ends with the dreaded college entrance exams known as Suneung—breaks and despairs each student in a different way. Some, like Choi Nam-ra, retreat into seclusion, plugging in their ears and keeping their eyes on her notes. Others, such as Park Mi-jin and captain of the school archery team Jang Ha-ri, are overwhelmed by a defeated hopelessness about their future. A few more take their anger out on others and become school bullies — like the infamous Yoon Gwi-nam, who doesn’t think twice about harming others. The dehumanizing effects of fear are magnified by adolescent insecurities, reducing every young, vibrant soul to quivering shells of their former selves. In other words, high school becomes a perfect setting for the mass production of a zombie population.
In the origin story of the zombie infection, a male student is bullied frequently and violently. His father, Mr. Lee, has a PhD in cell biology and works as a physics teacher at the same high school where his son studies. At his wits’ end, he researches and creates the “Jonas Virus,” which creates fear in humans and turns it into anger in an attempt to make his son stronger and face the bullying. But as these things usually go, the experiment goes horribly wrong, and an infected hamster in Mr. Lee bites a student, unleashing the zombie virus on the school and town.
The premise of the Jonas virus – leaning on human fear and transforming it into zombie fury – is fascinating, but disappointingly underdeveloped in the series. You can imagine the different creative paths and adventures this premise could have taken the show, such as using the absence of fear in certain characters to explain their resistance to the virus or exploring possible “cures” to make the Jonas to fight the virus. Yet, we are all dead eventually resorts to a constant stream of stories through grainy videos created by Mr. Lee were created in his science lab and dimly lit home. In these videos we listen to him raving about the ideals of humanity, the monstrous evil that the Jonas virus represents and the inescapable “system of violence” from which he was unable to save his son. This returns we are all dead in a desperate survival show, and sometime towards the second half of its breathless pursuit around the school, the 12-episode series begins to lose some of its pace.
we are all dead possesses the appeal of high school dramas such as: Riverdale and Euphoria. It captures in detail the grotesque violence of high school social dynamics: the relentless gossip and backbiting, the unfriendly politics and attitudes of powerful in-groups and “cool kids,” and the festering churning of misery that hits hardest. on the outcasts. While a few adults do their best to curb the violence and protect their innocence, the students are largely left to their own devices.
The drama also paints a broader portrait of society, showing the chaos of government quarantine facilities and brave attempts by authorities to cobble together an infection control plan. The implementation of martial law and the leadership’s life-and-death decisions recall South Korea’s struggle for democracy in the 1980s. we are all dead also captures the complex moral struggle on the streets, where survival requires selfishness, even when the little bit of humanity in everyone begs them to limit damage. The series seems to make a damning statement: Powered by adults, society’s systems of violence have invaded schools and poisoned what should have been a bastion of moral goodness and innocence.
The power of zombies in fiction lies in their ability to force our gaze inward. In we are all dead, the zombies are teachers, classmates, archery teammates and even best friends. But in presenting these brutal circumstances, director Lee Jae-kyu’s take on the Korean zombie subgenre has chosen a very hopeful expression. While its predecessors have largely treated the transformation from human to zombie as a quick, crude one to register disgust and disgust, we are all dead lingers and lingers at every transition, even for its minor characters. In director Lee’s world, there is something sacred and sacred in this intervening space, between the human and the monstrous, between feeling and cruelty, between friend and foe.
Many characters, after realizing they’ve been bitten and about to turn into a zombie, offer acts of immense self-sacrifice in those precious few seconds before the last of their humanity flashes out into the barbaric darkness. A college student takes on an advancing group of zombies to protect his friends. An infected mother desperately clings to a door so she won’t hurt her baby if she turns around. Another offers himself as a distraction for the zombie horde to give the survivors time to run away. Others say goodbye in tears as they distance themselves from their peers.
By repeatedly and earnestly holding space for both large and small characters to demonstrate their humanity, we are all dead distinguishes its focus. This, coupled with the drama-filled high school environment, helps the show create its own space in the crowded zombie pantheon. At the same time, it is a reminder of the sacred battle song that all great stories and tales possess: that we all inhabit both light and dark, good and bad, and that even in the most difficult of circumstances we have the ability – and the responsibility – to act in the interest of others.
we are all dead begins streaming on Netflix on January 28.