Like most of the zombie dramas, “All of us are dead” has a similar storyline. A girl gets bitten by a lab rat, and then she, in turn, bites a classmate, and, before you realize everything, the whole city is overrun by mutilated, gargling zombies. But what keeps the drama fresh, though, is the setting and the story beneath it.
While the rest of the school is off to make each other zombies, desperate teen survivors fight it out to stay afloat and make it to the other side of the epidemic, hoping beyond hope that adults are coming to rescue them. In the survivor team, we meet On-jo (Park Ji-hu) who puts her survival knowledge learned from her firefighter father and loyal Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young), along with the class president Nam-ra (Cho Yi-Hyun), the mean girl Na-Yeon (Lee Yoo-mi), and athlete Su-hyeok (Lomon). We also meet the archer Ha-ri (Ha Seung-ri) and nicotine addict Mi-jin (Lee Eun-saem), while the bully Gwi-Nam (Yoo In-soo) makes sure he’ll end up on top, no matter the cost.
Unlike many zombie dramas, “All of us are dead” actually describes how everything actually started. The drama begins by introducing us to Lee Jin-Su (Lee Min-Goo) who is also a student of Hyosan High School and is often violently bullied miserably to the point that he attempts suicide. His father Lee Byeong-Chan holds a Ph.D. in cell biology and works as a science teacher in the same school. To empower his son with special abilities to fight back, he makes a substance that preys on fear in humans and turns it into a rage in a bid. However, as these things usually go, the experiment turns out all wrong and instead of being powerful, his son turns into a zombie.
Meanwhile, Kim Hyeon-Ju, one of the bullies gets bitten by an infected lab hamster with the disease. When Lee Byeong-chan finds her in the school lab, he binds and gags her. However, she ultimately gets out, and the virus starts to spread. In a single afternoon, the massive Hyosan High School complex is plunged into chaos. The scientist ultimately realizes that the only cure for the virus is eradicating the host.
The zombies in “All of us are dead” have a heightened sense of smell and hearing. Those affected with The Jonas Virus, as Lee Byeong-chan and Detective Jae-ik call it, are medically dead. Their heart stops, but the virus stimulates their brain stem and moves the body. Physically weaker humans make for physically weaker zombies, but the bone-crunching flexibility of the zombies and their determination to eat brains make them much scarier than their human hosts ever could be. There’s also an interesting twist that some humans respond differently to viruses. Rather than being turned into a zombie, they are half-human, half-zombie, or a “hambie,” as Dae-su decides to call it.
Do you know how students are not children but not yet adults either? Those hambies are like that. They are neither a human nor a monster, with all of the strengths of a zombie while holding onto their brain function. They are not necessarily immune to the virus, and regardless of what the military scientists speculate, they aren’t asymptomatic either. Hambies also get hungry for human flesh, but unlike ordinary zombies, this hunger is not insatiable. Moreover, the hambies can also create other hambies by biting them. In his video journal, Lee Byeong-chan describes hambies as the result of the Jonas virus interacting with antibodies. The virus evolves because of this interaction, and as a result, the antibodies lose their target. In most cases, the virus kills the person and takes over their body. So, for all intents and purposes, hambies are like a new species of human beings.
The most exciting part of most zombie stories is the initial crushing downfall of civilization and fortunately, that's the entire focus here. We see many films about zombies, but only a few have students as main characters. It deliberately frames the apocalypse from the perspective of teenagers, because even though the politicians and army chiefs might not realize it, their days are numbered so they won’t have to clean up their mess. The kids will, and they are most certainly not all right. In the midst of the dread and destruction, the youthful setting opens up opportunities for adolescent banter and burgeoning love.
Flung about by their hormones, the students’ oversized reactions to the situation heighten the mood of the show. In an enclosed space like a school where teenagers are clustered, they have to survive on their own. They have to run away from friends becoming zombies. That’s what sets “All of us are dead” apart from other zombie fares and makes it interesting and fresh.
“All of us are dead” also sketches a wider portrait of society, depicting the chaos of government quarantine facilities and valiant attempts by authorities to cobble together an infection control plan. It uses the terrifying figure of the zombie to magnify and explore themes like school bullying, social media harassment, class distinction, teen pregnancy, student mental health, exam pressures, and the classic troupe of betrayal. The drama provides a space not just for entertainment, but also for the reflection of society. “We live in a system of violence. A nobody like me can’t change the system. That’s why I decided to change my son.” That’s what Lee Byeong-chan says. Maybe if bullying wasn’t a thing then the world could have survived?
Within a day of its official release on January 28, “All of us are dead” rose to the No. 1 spot on Netflix charts in 25 countries around the globe and made a name for itself as the fourth Korean series to rise to the top of global charts following the worldwide success of “Squid Game,” “Hellbound,” and “Arcane.”After spending two whole years of hard work on making 12 episodes, the series definitely deserves more.
Anyone can bet on that after watching ‘All of Us Are Dead’ you’ll either love it for its sheer audacity or hate it for its utter bluntness. Both ways, the show leaves an impact on you for a long time.
* Rumaiysa M Rahman is a 10th grader at Viqarunnisa Noon School and College, Dhaka