There are few on-screen situations more dread-inducing than watching a zombie outbreak in real time. Tracking a single infection as it grows exponentially and tears through an unwitting populace is an anxiety-riddled experience that’s rarely easy to watch. “All of Us are Dead,” the latest Netflix drama to take a stab at a widespread cataclysmic event, announces itself in its opening episode by meticulously showing the transformation of a school. In a single afternoon, the massive Hyosan High School complex is plunged into chaos after one errant bite from a science lab test animal starts an irreversible chain reaction.
The scope of that explosion in zombie numbers is the primary achievement of “All of Us Are Dead.” Director Lee JQ does an effective job at setting up the geography of the school, swooping through hallways and around rooms spanning the various floors. The sheer number of students in any given rehearsal room, cafeteria, or lobby — all succumbing to a mind-numbing plague in mere seconds — makes the opening moments of the series as terrifying as any potential viewer’s expectations.
Though, as the Hyosan population gets winnowed down in record time, “expectations” is the key word hanging over much of what’s left of the 12-episode season. Despite the elaborate setup and execution of a disintegrating society, “All of Us are Dead” picks up that opening and follows a pretty established zombie story playbook. It’s delivered in an oddly-paced season that fights against an intuitive structure as much as these students try to beat back chomps from throngs of kids in uniforms.
The makeup of the small group fighting the undead changes over the course of the series, but it’s built around childhood friends Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young) and On-jo (Park Ji-hoo). They’re in high school, so naturally a throng of mutants trying to rip at their flesh is only slightly more at the forefront of their minds than the crushes they’ve been nursing on their fellow survivors. Barely keeping their feelings and their previous social standings at bay, they go through the standard trial-and-error process of figuring out how to create distractions, alert outside rescue forces, and weigh the merits of hunkering down vs. escaping.
Given that the zombies of “All of Us are Dead” are the relentless, feed-at-all-cost variety, it leaves the students with few options. Much like Dae-su (Im Jae-hyuk) and Su-hyeok (Lomon) and Nam-ra (Cho Yi-hyun) are trapped in a cycle of darting from room to room when their makeshift barriers give way, “All of Us are Dead” has a wheel-spinning feel to it. What begins as a real-time tracker of a crisis becomes a jumble of thematic hammer-blows, unnecessary flashbacks, and conversations that stick to familiar ground. Each new time the series cuts to archival video of the virus’ architect rattling off vague platitudes about human nature, it underlines the idea that the show has few concrete ideas beyond executing a specific subgenre of story in a particular location.
There’s no better example of “All of Us are Dead’s” stagnation than Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo), one of the more maddening bullies ever put on screen, and only partly by design. In a sea of zombies bent on their destruction, no single figure presents more of a frustration for the group of survivors than this cold-hearted antagonist driven solely by revenge. Gwi-nam is the requisite “are humans the real monster?” addition to the story, but aside from showing the brutality of one high school villain writ large, “All of Us are Dead” treats him like so many other elements of this story: a way to add more manufactured drama on top of what’s already a life-or-death situation.
It points to the idea that, even after fashioning this giant, high school-sized canvas to work with, “All of Us are Dead” is really only using a few of the storytelling tools at its disposal. The group of survivors hop from room to room in a series of elaborate escape plans. Yet, the creativity of these patchwork life-saving inventions is never really reflected in the students themselves. Saddling them with simple, unrequited feelings and tiny, surface-level distinctions, “All of Us are Dead” doesn’t have nearly as much to offer about these kids, given the extensive time the show spends with them. Torn between showing them trying to figure out how these zombies are functioning, how to take care of daily necessities, and how to deal with potential dangers inside their own group, there’s a lot in this show that functions simply to move this group between narrative checkpoints.
It would be one thing if “All of Us are Dead” was really trying to dial into the monotony of outlasting a hoard of brainless former classmates lurking around every corner. When the show’s attention shifts away from that main group, though, it always seems like a more effective use of time. A splinter group of Hyosan survivors, mainly made up of the lasting members of the archery team (cross “bow-and-arrow weapons” off the zombie story checklist!) has a more distinct spread of personalities and ambitions. One cold open tells more in a few minutes about a single solider than we learn about most of the Hyosan crew. By the time the show zooms out to bigger administrative forces beyond the principal and English teacher, there’s almost a tacit acknowledgment that the students were never going to be enough to sustain an entire show on their own.
Still, for as repetitive as “All of Us are Dead” becomes, it’s at least built on an effective foundation. The stunt work and sheer amount of logistical choreography needed to make this a believable hellscape is impressive. Though some of the inconsistencies in zombie behavior sometimes feel a little lazy from a story perspective, the overall balance between hivemind movement and randomness makes every peek out the window at the school’s swarmed front lawn both sad and eerie. The contortion of crunched limbs and mouthfuls of hunks of flesh (this has to be a contender for the series with the most closed captioning uses of the word “squelching”) makes this a physical, visceral experience, even when the show’s plot seems content to idle.
The story at the outbreak’s epicenter takes up the most energy of “All of Us are Dead,” which doesn’t leave much room for the eventual glimpses into how those adults in charge are responding. Whenever the attention turns away from the high school, it reinforces the idea that scale is what this show does best. As it becomes clearer that the students are far from the only ones having to deal with this overwhelming problem, it’s hard not to imagine what a version of this show would look like if it weren’t so tethered to a single location.
There are faint glimmers of a leaner, more confident show that peek through. At one point, the Hyosan students record goodbye messages for their families, a reminder that the kids whose parents don’t get their own separate storylines have something to live for, too. There’s not much room for non-gloominess here, yet the occasional light-hearted distraction and banter makes for something other than the living hell unfolding just beyond the walls of each occupied room. These moments are welcome when they pop up. For a show with nearly a 12-hour running time, though, there aren’t nearly enough to break a familiar story’s repetitive cycle.
“All of Us are Dead” is now available to stream on Netflix.
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