You’d think we’d be absolutely dripping in zombies by now, wouldn’t you? It feels a fairly obvious genre for TV shows to get into at the moment. After all, look where we are. We’re in the third year of a once-a-century pandemic that has ripped its way across the entire planet without pause, killing millions and devastating families. Sound familiar? Honestly, swap out a dry cough for a ceaseless undead thirst for human flesh and Covid is a zombie analogue.
It’s not as if we’ve been reluctant to use them in the past. The original Haitian archetype used zombies as a metaphor for the dehumanisation of enslaved people under French colonial rule. Over the years, Hollywood has dusted them off to symbolise everything from consumerism to McCarthyism to immigration to globalisation to emotional stuntedness.
Maybe in time more producers will use zombies to make sense of the Covid era. But for now we’re going to have to make do with All of Us Are Dead, Netflix’s new South Korean zombie drama. Which isn’t such a bad thing, because it’s great.
Set in and around a Korean secondary school, All of Us Are Dead is your classic zombie outbreak story. A girl gets bitten by a lab rat, and then she, in turn, bites a classmate, and, before you know it, the whole city is overrun by mutilated, gargling zombies. What keeps it fresh, though, is the setting. Having high school students as the main characters is a very clever move. Flung about by their hormones, the students’ oversized reactions to the situation heightens the mood of the show. And the fact that they’re always preoccupied with their own stuff, no matter how apocalyptic things get, means that the story can tick along nicely independently of the zombie horde.
Watching All of Us Are Dead, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was designed as a Covid metaphor or whether, just like every other vaguely disaster-themed film and show of the last two years, it was simply a case of bad timing. My feeling is that, even if it was the latter, it went to great pains to reverse-engineer itself to our times. Here, the zombies are created by a virus and – by dint of the fact that it’s set in a school – we get plenty of GCSE-level infection talk. Most pressingly, however (and I need to be coy for fear of spoiling it), this is a virus that behaves like Covid in one key way. That’s as much as I can get into, but it’s the masterstroke of the series.
God, South Korea is good at this sort of thing. This is the third Korean Netflix original in just a few months to blow me away. And while it won’t repeat the planet-crushing success of Squid Game – nothing will, not even Squid Game season two – it still reverberates with the same winningly doomy existentialism of Hellbound. Of course, they were going to crush at zombies too. Anyone who has seen Train to Busan will know that South Korea are world beaters when it comes to telling stories about the undead.
That said, I still have to confess to being on the fence about long-form zombie stories. As much as everyone liked The Walking Dead, I still prefer my zombie stories to be told in the form of a finite movie. The very best zombie movies – and Train to Busan is a perfect example – gets the premise out of the way neatly and quickly, before breathlessly shoving its characters through a series of obstacles before (if we’re lucky) extinguishing all hope of survival just before the credits roll.
Meanwhile, All of Us Are Dead is about 12 hours long. There are only so many things that you can do with a zombie story, and this show doesn’t invent any new moves, so we do spend a lot of time repeating the same basic scene set-up. The biting. The sneaking. The saying goodbye to the newly infected before their humanity evaporates. It’s a testament to the power of the characters, here, that this carousel of secondhand tropes never quite manages to slip into tedium.
You can even forgive All of Us Are Dead for hedging its bets at the end, too. As I’ve said, my favourite zombie stories are the ones where all of humanity gets swamped and there is no escape. All of Us Are Dead seems to have been written with a second season in mind, so things don’t end in an especially satisfying way. But, hey, if that means there’ll be more of this, bring it on. We have to take our zombie stories where we can find them these days.