All of Us Are Dead: Episodes 2-12 (Series review)
Netflix’s latest Korean original takes our teenage protagonists on a harrowing pursuit through a school compound, hounded by bloodthirsty zombies and seemingly forsaken by the adults they trusted to save them. The horde isn’t the only problem plaguing them, however, and they’ll need to navigate not just an escape route but also the increasingly tangled ties of friendship, loyalty, and love.
SERIES REVIEW: EPISODES 2-12
If you’re deciding whether to start watching this show, I’ve written a first impressions post that might give you an idea of what to expect. It also introduces the characters and the set-up, so it would be good to read that prior to this piece. This overall series review will have spoilers (and opinionated commentary), so please only proceed if you’re comfortable with that.
It’s revealed that the zombie virus was an accidental creation; Byung-chan had been desperate to make his son stronger so he could fight back against his bullies, but it had backfired terribly. The bloodshed caused by the zombie outbreak is a brutal manifestation of the eye-for-an-eye ideology, showing how violence simply begets more violence. I wish this theme was expanded upon more, since it’s the core of the show, but alas.
As the zombies rapidly begin to overrun the school, our large band of survivors gets whittled down one by one. Fairly early on, our protagonists lose their best friends; Yi-sak is bitten while escaping, and Na-yeon vindictively smears zombie blood on Kyung-soo’s scratch to avoid having to back down on her accusations of him.
Outside the school, the infection has spread from Hyun-joo, to the hospital she was taken to, to the city at large. Byung-chan displays a surprising moment of humanity when he saves detective Jae-ik from an attack, taking the bite instead. He tells him that his research notes can be found in his laptop in Hyosan High’s science lab, and then uses his body as a shield to hold off the zombies. It’s a confusingly quick change of heart, and a disappointingly anticlimactic death for the man behind it all.
A new strain of zombie soon emerges; nicknamed “half-zombie” by Dae-su, this mutation has all the flesh cravings and super strength of a zombie, but retains the capacity for human thought. Eun-ji’s desperation to find and destroy Gwi-nam’s phone (and his explicit video of her) seemingly preserves her autonomy, but it never amounts to a satisfying revenge arc like I thought it would.
Gwi-nam turns into one of this breed too, and his newfound immunity from fellow zombies drastically (and annoyingly) increases his survival rate. I wish the show explained the development of the new mutation more, because the conditions for turning into one seemed inconsistent and wholly dependent on the whims of the plot.
When Nam-ra gets bitten by Gwi-nam and turned into a half-zombie, the group is divided over whether to exile her to protect themselves, or trust her and let her stay. This is one of the moments where I feel like the writing falls short, because with more depth in the dialogue, it could have been a thought-provoking discourse on whether it’s right to sacrifice a person for the sake of the majority. However, instead of the characters’ own moral beliefs, the focus is on how their unrequited crushes shape their decisions, making the debate quite shallow.
This conflict is also explored outside the school; the governmental authorities’ inaction is held in stark contrast to many parents who were bitten by zombies on their quest to reach and protect their children. It escalates to the bombing of Hyosan to eliminate the zombies and protect the rest of the country from the spread. Again, it’s the question of how far we are allowed to go and how much we are allowed to sacrifice for the greater good.
My favorite line in this show was said by Jae-ik, wonderfully delivered by Lee Kyu-hyung:
“There are things we must pay for with our deaths, and there are things we must atone for while alive.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think the show managed to live up to that line. Characters that committed unspeakable atrocities were often killed off before they could make amends for the hurt they inflicted, which means that their victims never got the proper recompense or closure they deserved. While these characters’ deaths could be viewed as karmic retribution, it’s made less satisfying by the fact that they were killed off by third parties, rather than their victims.
Na-yeon’s dilemma, hiding in a supply closet full of food and drinks but too afraid to open the door to the ostracization of her schoolmates outside, illustrated this point. The show could have held her accountable for her classism, and it could have been a lesson on forgiveness and atonement. However, she was murdered by Gwi-nam right as she mustered up the courage to help her starving and dehydrated schoolmates.
Similarly, the show made an attempt at highlighting a range of pervasive societal issues, but the problem is that it’s really not effective social commentary when it’s just touch-and-go. I do want to give the show the benefit of the doubt and believe that it simply fumbled its execution. However, with the way that so many of these story threads were left hanging or even deliberately cut short without a proper resolution, I can’t help but feel like the show used these topics merely as a means to paint itself as gritty and edgy. (It doesn’t work that way, Show.)
So much of the action is helmed by the male characters, who swing makeshift weapons and shove tables at the zombies in order to protect the group. (Also, why is everyone ineffectively whacking the zombies instead of lethally stabbing them?) Meanwhile, the girls cower back, and a large part of their screen time in the earlier half of the show is occupied by petty catfights. I wish On-jo was a more proactive protagonist, because she was feisty in the first episode, but subsequently her spark slowly dwindled until she was a dull damsel in distress.
JANG HA-RI (Ha Seung-ri) is a breath of fresh air in this regard, with her no-nonsense attitude and efficiently lethal bow and arrows. So is PARK MI-JIN (Lee Eun-saem), a cigarette-smoking rebel who’s tough as nails, though she occasionally falls into caricature with how hostile and confrontational she can get. Unfortunately, these characters are trapped in a separate area of the school, and when they finally convene with our main group, their roles get significantly whittled down in favor of our protagonists.
As to Nam-ra’s story arc, I’m actually glad she became a half-zombie, because that meant we actually got to see her step up and fight. How cool was she, protecting Soo-hyuk and murdering zombies with a well-aimed shovel to the throat! I wish she could have played a more active role than just being their designated zombie radar with her enhanced hearing.
See, the thing is, the girls don’t have to fight as much as the boys — they can demonstrate agency and strength in other aspects. The issue here is that the drama doesn’t afford as much time to anything other than action, which results in the girls getting sidelined.
Regrettably, the show flounders in its pacing, and so much of it feels like running in circles. At first, the containment of the story to a single location raised the tension with a claustrophobic sense of dread. However, as the plot plodded on, it grew repetitive. While some of the strategies that the group devised were interesting, most ended up devolving to 1) running away or 2) pushing forward and shoving the zombies off. And there’s only so many variations of that a viewer can take before it starts to become tedious.
Gwi-nam’s constant reappearing act is a prime example of this. He’s like a cockroach that you just can’t kill! I know the show was trying to demonstrate just how vile humans can be, even more so than the actual monsters, but there’s a difference between reiterating a point and bashing it in repeatedly with a sledgehammer. It got maddeningly frustrating before long, and his villainy started to feel shoehorned in just to add in more torment for our group.
In addition, character relationships with the potential to be compelling, such as Chung-san and Soo-hyuk’s I’ve-got-your-back friendship, are sidelined in favor of prolonged morose pining within the love square. As a result, many characters’ backstories were underdeveloped, and it’s really such a pity because they had such potential.
With such a large ensemble cast, so many interesting and unexpected connections could have been formed, but instead it ended up feeling like our main protagonists and their band of extras. The show had the opportunity to add more flavor with its plotlines occurring outside the school, yet those tended to meander without making full use of the various settings and diverse range of characters.
Admittedly, I haven’t read the webtoon, so without a basis for comparison, I’m willing to view the drama with a more charitable lens. Perhaps the archetypal nature of the characters stems from its origin as a webtoon? Even so, more dimensions could have been incorporated when adapted into a script. That means that the onus falls on the actors to elevate their characters, and while some manage to imbue a charm that goes beyond what’s on paper, others give bland performances that fall as flat as the writing.
Something I really liked, though, was the show’s lack of hesitation to kill its characters off. While some of the deaths veered into predictable territory, others were done really well. Joon-young’s death was one of them; his heroic sacrifice, and his lack of hesitation in making that decision, was such a heartbreaking moment. So was Kyung-soo’s anguished farewell to the friends he had no choice but to leave in order to keep safe.
However, towards the end of the show, the deaths started to become unnecessary. Ha-ri’s brother Woo-jin could have survived to the end without making much difference to the plot, and Chung-san’s self-sacrifice was a lot less impactful than I’d hoped it’d be. If he was intending to use himself as bait in order to allow the others to escape, I’d rather the choice have been entirely his than having him be forced into it by Gwi-nam’s bite, because the latter made it feel more like an inevitable outcome and less like a sorrowful sacrifice.
Also, there’s a scene that I want to criticize. Thanks to a Beanie’s comment on my opening review, I found out that the scene where Eun-ji is stripped wasn’t in the original work, and I was horrified. The assault was depicted in such a violent and graphic manner, and then to have the aftermath shown so explicitly — I can’t see it as anything other than unnecessary, gratuitous exposure for the male gaze.
That scene was filmed from the point of view of the perpetrators, and even the argument that it was meant to unsettle can be countered with the fact that it’s still an awfully exploitative sexualization of sexual assault. It wasn’t filmed in a tasteful way to raise awareness; rather, it was the objectification of a violated female body. Worse still, the show didn’t take the time to address the ramifications of her trauma and let her heal, nor did it give her the avenue to avenge herself. I didn’t like that Gwi-nam’s nemesis was set up to be Chung-san, rather than Eun-ji. I wish she was the one that witnessed and filmed him killing the principal; it would have been a nice reversal to have her hold blackmail over him.
Sigh. I wanted to enjoy this show! I think it says a lot that the moment I came closest to crying was when Dae-su placed the empty wrapper of the chocolate bar they’d shared below the memorial tree. It was an effective and unexpected callback, and it made me miss all the characters we’d lost along the way. There were definitely emotional moments peppered throughout the drama, but I felt that the execution for most of them was quite formulaic, never really deviating or elevating itself above the typical delivery of such scenes.
Also, while I’m not averse to open endings — I actually think they can be even more effective than neat conclusions when done right — this show left too many questions unanswered for it to be satisfying. I’m glad the survivors’ bond has lasted through the timeskip and that Nam-ra’s alive, but it felt like the show was trying to drop too many breadcrumbs for a possible second season that it forgot to give its characters’ struggles the resolution they deserved.
I think most of my gripes with this show stem from my wish that it was more character-driven, rather than have the characters be strung along by the demands of the plot. I suppose that’s hard to avoid in a zombie show, but when you’re killing off characters left right and center, the viewers need to care about the characters to feel the intended emotional impact of their deaths. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get fully invested in the characters despite wanting to, because many of them were half-baked and could be boiled down to a select few character traits.
All in all, the show did shine in terms of its deft cinematography and breathless action. However, under its slick exterior, there was less depth than I hoped for, and it didn’t handle its character arcs with sufficient sensitivity. It’s a decent action flick, but I think it’s a little too formulaic to be thrilling, and a little too bland to be compelling. If you want a zombie show that’s about the fighting and the running, then this one’s for you, but I personally prefer my zombies as a rumination and reminder of what it means to be human.