Transcript — All of Us Are Dead: an in-depth critique

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/KU_eHFaVISQ

Hey. I’m Kat, and I never met a South Korean zombie drama I didn’t love. In 2016, there was the surprisingly moving smash hit Train to Busan, and then we got 2019’s supremely entertaining show Kingdom, which tells the story of a deadly virus sweeping the land while members of the elite classes fail to protect the populace and use the virus to further their own political agendas. And now Netflix has given us All of Us Are Dead, which released earlier this year and hit #1 on the Netflix charts in 25 countries. The plot is very straightforward — a highly contagious virus breaks out in a high school, and we follow several groups of students and teachers trapped inside, trying desperately to survive. There are also a handful of side stories, most notably the science teacher who created the virus, the detective trying to track down the cure, and a firefighter trying to save his daughter who is trapped inside the school.

And this here is the edge of spoiler-free territory, so proceed further at your own risk. There’s going to be some spoilers for Train to Busan as well, so hurry up and watch that movie already. Because I’m about to dive in to all the reasons that I, a person who never met a South Korean zombie drama she didn’t love, had some very mixed feelings about All of Us Are Dead.

South Korean film and TV is fast becoming known for its excellence in combining high-production entertainment and biting social commentary, and All of Us Are Dead is no exception. There are critiques here of corruption, systemic violence and the many ways adults fail children. And just like other South Korean shows, it isn’t exactly subtle about delivering its criticism of the social systems we live in. But damned if it isn’t great nonetheless.

Let’s start at the beginning: with patient zero — a kid who’s being bullied, to the point of attempted suicide. His father, a science teacher at his son’s school, decides to take matters into his own hands. He injects his son with a particularly potent dose of testosterone and who-knows-what-else to force his son to fight back and defend himself. And it works — a little too well. But All of Us Are Dead doesn’t stop at condemning bullying itself — it’s more interested in taking aim at the institutions that allow it to happen.

Because this father’s desperation — the reason he felt forced to take matters into his own hands — is a direct result of the school system’s unwillingness to do anything to protect his son. And these scenes, well they hit very, very close to home.

When I was in primary school, I got bullied a lot. It was mostly name-calling, but it did occasionally turn physical — one time my mum took me home early from after school care with a lump on my head because the other kids had decided to surround me and throw gumnuts at me. There’s this one memory I have of running into the after-care building and telling one of the carers there that I was being bullied, and her response being to laugh. I barely remember any particular incidents of the actual bullying which took place over years and on a sometimes daily basis, I don’t remember any more which kids stood around and threw hard fruit at me, but I remember this after care worker. I remember her name, I remember what she looked like, I remember the exact moment I told her I was in trouble and she laughed in my face. And in a weird way, that hurt more than anything the other kids were doing to me, because she was an adult. If she wouldn’t help me, I really was alone. And it made me angry, at all the teachers who saw what was happening and didn’t care, or didn’t care enough to do anything other than wring their hands and express concern. By the time I left that school, I despised every one of them.

The rage and despair that drove this father to desperate measures wasn’t caused by the school bullies, but by the staff who failed in their duty to protect — in the same way that when I was being bullied, my most vitriolic anger was reserved for the adults whom I felt had let me down. I not only recognised the familiar excuses and empty gestures the school system uses to remain complacent, I recognised my own fury and cynicism.

And as I watched the virus’s pull to violence growing irreversably stronger inside the boy, I also recognised something bigger being depicted here regarding the consequences of society’s tolerance of school violence. The way it makes victims feel they have no other choice but to turn violent to protect themselves against their bullies, because nobody else is protecting them. Once the virus spreads through the school, the two other victims of bullying turn monstrous too, in even more chilling ways. One of them gets her revenge by killing a teacher who failed to help her when she was being bullied, and tries to burn the school down, and the other one decides to abandon his fellow students to die rather than help them get to safety. And I felt this show’s message in my bones — when the social systems we’ve created allow monstrous behaviour to go unchecked, we risk becoming monsters ourselves.

That is, if we aren’t already monsters, hiding in plain sight. Take the principal, whose first response to the outbreak is to cover it up. The students who try and call for help get ignored by the police who think it’s a prank. The military finds the kids on a rooftop and then abandons them. Time and again, the people who should be protecting the nation’s children — the school administration, the police, the military — let them down. If there’s a reoccurring theme in this show, it’s these children coming to realise one devastating truth: They’re on their own — and they always have been.

This makes All of Us Are Dead sound deeply cynical, but although there’s plenty of regular human cruelty here to remind us how monstrous human nature itself can be, the show carries a hopeful message. Acts of heroism and selflessness convey that kindness and goodness are just as much a part of human nature as violence and hatred. Even the despairing father ends up having a change of heart and sacrificing himself so that others can make an escape and find a cure. But the people who end up best demonstrating humanity’s capacity for goodness is the kids. While the weaselly principal cowers in his office, the city’s congresswoman makes lofty election-winning speeches in her cell, the firefighter abandons a man and his pregnant wife to the hordes and the military commander orders the bombing of sixty thousand people, these kids are risking their lives and even sacrificing themselves to save each other’s asses. Because even when we’ve been abandoned by a cruel and unjust world, we have to fight to hold on to the better part of our nature.

Here’s where things start to get a little less gushy, because even though I think All of Us Are Dead makes for a pretty worthy addition to the canon of South Korean popcorn social critiques, it’s far from the best. The last few episodes are mostly made up of repetitive sequences of running, hiding, running, someone accidentally getting bitten or sacrificing themselves, hiding, running, someone sacrificing themselves, running, explosions, someone sacrificing themselves in an explosion, and other extremely generic action movie shenanigans. And evidently, one of the things that nobly sacrificed itself was the insightful social critique, which almost completely disappears after the fourth episode. One reason for this, no doubt, is the run time of 12 one-hour long episodes, which the show clearly struggles to fill, but I think another reason is its own huge budget.

Simply put, this show has too much money. That might be a weird thing to say about a series which has been specifically praised for its big budget approach, but I think the prioritisation of spectacle, fancy camera work, and overproduced action set pieces ends up working against the show’s emotional and narrative effectiveness. Let’s talk about — what else? — the zombies.

This is the most difficult part of this show to critique because, on a purely technical level, the zombies are brilliant. And I can’t even show you the most impressive — and by impressive I mean utterly disgusting — bits. I told you this show was cashed up. But is it scary? Your answer may well differ from mine, which is no, not at all, am I dead, because I feel nothing. And here’s why. All the elements of horror are here — monsters, extreme violence, people being eaten alive — but sweet zombie Jesus it all feels so frivolous. The camera lingers on lavish zombie transformations, which are so obnoxiously loaded full of CGI and elaborate prosthetics and wacky contortions that they become unintentionally comedic. Like is this a zombie plague or a frickin carnival show?

Director Lee Jae Kyu apparently said in an online conference that the scariest part of a zombie flick is the process of humans turning into zombies. Ironically, there is nothing that disproves this statement better than watching All of Us Are Dead, because it is amazing how quickly a zombie transformation that should be terrifying becomes completely humdrum after it’s just happened 20 times in a row. And I wonder if what happened was that the production team were frothing so hard at how much on-screen carnage their money could buy that they forgot the cardinal rule of horror, which is to not show too much too quickly.

And this preoccupation with making it rain money means that the violence in this show is not only not scary, but it’s treated with a kind of fetishistic delight that disturbed me, and not for the intended reasons. This widely acclaimed long-take from episode 2 is nearly three minutes long and it is sublime. It’s like a beautifully choreographed dance, with actors swinging in and out of view at perfectly timed moments. I watched this and I thought, this is gorgeous. And then I stopped, and went, wait I just watched a cafeteria full of children being savagely ripped apart and all I could think was how gorgeous it was?

There’s an interview with the director in which he repeatedly uses the word “fun” to describe the experience he wanted people to have watching this show. But this is kids, fucking kids writhing around and having their gizzards ripped out while they’re still alive and it doesn’t feel right that the predominant emotion in this shot seems to be — for lack of a better word — a kind of glee? Like I can almost feel the director’s giddy joy as he swooshes his camera around and films expensive long-takes of children being torn apart.

But it’s not just the on-screen horror that the show’s bloated budget undermines, it’s the drama as well, and this is a problem from minute one, when the show opens with a schoolkid (the science teacher’s son) getting brutalised on a rooftop and, instead of zooming into the victim’s anguished face, the camera again decides to swoosh all over the place.

On first watch, I thought this shot was a bit of a weird decision, but then I figured maybe this cross is important, maybe religion will be a key theme in this show, and this shot is foreshadowing that. But, nope. Religion is not a theme or a concept explored in this show. There is in fact nothing of relevance in this shot. It exists solely to be fancy. But this is the wrong short for this scene. The narrative purpose of this scene is to establish how horrible the bullying at this school is, and to make us feel for this poor kid, so why is the camera putting me at a distance by zooming around the rooftops of Hyosan when it should be getting up close and personal? I find this shot so bizarre and baffling.

But it’s only one example of this show’s stylistic over-indulgence, which is inoffensive at best and at worst, undermines the on-screen drama by calling more attention to the camera than the characters. And I noticed a similar kind of over-indulgence creeping into the writing.

I do want to stress that when it’s hitting its peak, All of Us Are Dead delivers some incredibly affecting scenes. But for a few exceptions, which we’ll get to in a moment, all the high schoolers are endearing and relatable. The casting is phenomenal and the acting is great (except for when it isn’t) but on the whole, the kids really steal the show with excellent performances that made me tear up more than once.

The show also makes some very thoughtful reflections on the best and worst of human nature. Characters grapple with their own and others’ selfishness. They’re also challenged and forced to grow. The cold and detached class president Nam-ra slowly comes out of her shell and learns to care about other people and take real responsibility for the first time in her life, the archery team — who have flunked out of the national championship — get to redeem themselves by kicking a ton of zombie ass, and the kids learn to overcome their initial mistrust of each other and band together in some truly heartwarming sequences. More like “All of Us Are Friend…s”

But once again, the show’s inability to rein itself in gets the better of it, leading to some overly dramatic and frankly ridiculous plot points. For me, the worst of these comes in episode 3, in which an argument breaks out between Gyeong-su and Na-yeon, a rich brat who looks down on Gyeon-su for being poor. Na-yeon has by this point been established as a deeply selfish person who expects everyone else to risk themselves while she twiddles her thumbs. She accuses Gyeong-su of having been bitten, the kids take his side, they end up being right and she gets upset at this so she murders him. Now I know teenagers do stupid things sometimes, I mean, I once burned my friend’s dad’s priceless rug by tipping a shisha pipe over on it while I was drunk — but I’ve never murdered another person to win an argument, so I guess I’m OK. But it wasn’t the fact that she murdered him that stretched my disbelief to breaking point. No, it’s that she kills him by turning him, a person she is locked in a room with, into a killer zombie. Now I believe this bitch would put other people in danger, but based on everything we know about her character I simply refuse to believe she’d put herself in that much totally unnecessary danger, not just once but a second time, when she leaves the safety of the room because she’s sad that nobody likes her after she murdered a person.

I think there was a really interesting story to be told here about overcoming prejudice, and the show obviously wants to tell that story — it’s notable that in the original web comic, there’s no mention of any class differences between Na-yeon and Gyeong-su. But in veering into this extreme tangent of “I was a bit bigoted so I murdered the poor kid”, Na-yeon’s subsequent redemption arc becomes entirely focused on her feeling guilty about having killed someone rather than about having been bigoted, and we never actually see her interrogate her prejudices towards poor people or decide to treat them differently. The issues relating to class prejudice are firmly established and then never really resolved because the story took a hard right turn into the world’s most out-of-the-blue murder plot rather than exploring how bigotry and selfishness actually affect human relationships and how these issues can be overcome.

But Na-yeon isn’t even the least believable character. That honour goes to Gwi-nam, a literal knife-wielding serial killer straight out of a slasher flick. His only motivation in the entire show is to either drive people to suicide by bullying them or to just stab people until they’re dead. Yes, I know he gets bitten and this is an explanation for how deranged he gets, but let’s be clear, he was bullying people to death and killing people in cold blood before that. And he’s not even the ringleader of the bullies — that would be this guy — whatever he hell his name is — who, upon seeing that they appear to have just killed a kid, doesn’t even blink. Exactly how many children made of pure liquid evil are there at this one school?

If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to digress here, just a tiny bit, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the thing this show is desperately trying to be. We need to talk about Train to Busan.

Train to Busan is a tense zombie thriller set within a train carrying a group of survivors to Busan during a viral outbreak, and it’s probably the best zombie movie made in the last decade. It’s a touching story about a shitty dad who learns what is it to be a father, but it’s also a film about the best and worst of human nature, the perils of selfishness and how giving in to our most ugly instincts hurts not just us but everyone around us.

And make no mistake — All of Us Are Dead takes a lot of inspiration from Train to Busan. Not only does it plagiarise Train to Busan’s zombies pretty hard, it directly invites the comparison.

So, let’s compare.

Train to Busan, like All of Us Are Dead, is an action/drama with a horror flavour, in which the horror relies mostly on gore and the action can get a bit overblown. However, the core of Train to Busan’s story — its characters — is rock solid. Every one of them, from the selfless father-to-be, to the teenage lovebirds, to this selfish prick, has their own clear and believable motivations, and because of this, every turn of the plot feels surprising yet inevitable.

And here’s what gets me. All of Us Are Dead is so obviously inspired by Train to Busan, but it doesn’t seem to fully realise that in amongst the gore and the action, Train to Busan is a human drama first, and it works because of the consistency and gripping relatability of its characters. And All of Us Are Dead has a great roster of relatable characters too, but sometimes it feels like a series of expensive and self-indulgent set pieces first, and a human drama second, all because this show’s writer and director couldn’t restrain themselves, technically or narratively. Train to Busan didn’t need a serial killer. Its villain was a regular old selfish bastard in a business suit, and you know what? That’s scarier.

There are some wonderfully touching moments in All of Us Are Dead, but nothing in this show got me in the gut like this train carriage full of terrified people screaming at our heroes to get out because they might be infected. Nothing in it made me cry like a baby the way I do when I watch Seok-Woo finally re-discovering the joy of fatherhood right before sacrificing himself to save his daughter.

And so, All of Us Are Dead ends up comparing less favourably to Train to Busan, which is still the better watch and, by the way, was made on a relatively small budget of $8 million, which kept it laser-focused and fast-paced. In comparison, All of Us Are Dead is long and meandering and tonally a bit of a mess, smashing together serious themes and schlock in a way that feels jarring, inserting attempts at social commentary that go nowhere, and making stylistic choices that undermine both the horror and the drama. I can’t help but think that a smaller budget would have forced the producers of this show to rely on more of those small, intimate, character-driven moments and less on showy visual effects, needless cinematographic flourishes, and numerous fist fights to the death with Korean Freddy Krueger. And speaking of tonal messiness, I haven’t even mentioned some of the show’s more bizarre forays into comedy and other various nonsense. Is there anyone who watched Train to Busan and thought, “Well this is fine, but I really wish I was watching a dumb social influencer running around aimlessly for 15 minutes!” (yes, this is a side story in All of Us Are Dead).

Now I want to acknowledge that some of the ridiculous plot points I’ve criticised, especially in regards to Na-yeon and Gwi-nam’s characters, were taken pretty much directly from the web comic that All of Us Are Dead was based on (which I did read all 130 issues of as research for this episode, by the way did you know that you can support my efforts on Patreon), so these issues didn’t all originate with the show. However, the people who made this show still made the decision to lift these outrageous story beats pretty much unchanged, and then combine them with outrageousness in visual production — the result of which is a series that can’t stop veering between drama and melodrama, between effective storytelling and tasteless excess.

But to complicate things even further, the stuff I loved the most about All of Us Are Dead — the critiques of systemic violence in the school system — that stuff isn’t in the web comic. All of that is original to the show. It’s one of the reasons, along with the excellent performances and heartfelt moments, that I do think this show is worth a watch, despite all my frustrations with it, because it is so close to being great. It’s so close, and yet I get the distinct feeling that All of Us Are Dead is trying a little too hard to ride the recent Korean zombie hype train by copying what worked before but jacking it all up to 11…million. Which is also exactly what a lot of people loved about it.

And it’s why my reaction to the show feels very personal — the reasons I loved it are so rooted in my own experience, and my criticisms essentially boil down to “I don’t want more, I want better”. Ultimately, I’d say that whether or not you can embrace the silliness of this show and love it anyway will depend largely on how many bone-cracking sounds you can stomach being shovelled into one hour of television. Because if there’s one thing that All of Us Are Dead makes very clear, it’s that we truly are living in the age of the Korean cracking zombie.

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Twitter: @pixel_a_day

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.