SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains spoilers from the entire first season of Netflix’s new hit Korean drama “All of Us Are Dead,” which premiered Jan. 28.
The final scene of “All of Us Are Dead” could act either as a period on the end of a sentence or a semicolon that finishes one phrase while leaving room for another. After 12 episodes of frenzied running from zombies, the show’s exhausted, traumatized teen heroes stand on the roof of their ruined school. Months after the zombie outbreak first began, they had set out to find their classmate Nam-ra (Yi-Hyun Cho), whose zombie bite turned her into something different than the drooling monsters that spread throughout the city like a virus. They succeeded — but couldn’t know exactly what they’d find.
As played with precision by Yi-Hyun Cho, Nam-ra’s struggle to reconcile her emotional humanity with her new pulsing zombie anger resolves with startling clarity in this scene. “You know how we’re not really adults, but not really children, either?” Nam-ra asks, head tilted with a smile that, for the first time since we first met her as an introverted human, radiates self-confidence. “That’s me.” Then she flings herself off the roof, Batman-style, leaving her human friends to register their shock as the credits roll. Whatever’s coming next won’t look anything like what we watched them live through. In a world that’s otherwise had most signs of life stamped out of it, Nam-ra looks something like a real, if completely alien, future.
Having told the story of how a zombie outbreak began, thrived, and eventually was tamed, the show could leave the question of “what next?” as open-ended as any other zombie story that preceded it. It’s more interesting, though, to consider what a second season could look like should Netflix give it the greenlight. What would this world look like after zombies laid siege to a city to the point that it no longer exists, and have even become something else entirely?
The most immediately innovative parts of “All of Us Are Dead” — which premiered Jan. 28 and quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular titles to date — squarely belonged to the action unfolding at Hyosan High, ground zero for the outbreak that turned the entire city into a zombie wasteland. In the first couple of episodes, the way in which directors Lee Jae-kyu and Kim Nam-su filmed the initial rush of carnage and human desperation to survive through it immediately set “All of Us Are Dead” apart from similar zombie titles. (Though it does owe a debt to San-ho Yeon’s “Train to Busan,” as the series explicitly acknowledges when a stunned Hyosan student compares their situation to the 2016 movie’s particular brand of zombie chaos.) Watching these kids figure out the rules of their specific zombie hell in real time, and all the extreme measures they’d realistically have to take in order to survive, makes this season of “All of Us Are Dead” as horrifying as it is absorbing. The final episode, however, sets up an entirely different set of location possibilities and overall narrative framework that could bring the show to a whole new level.
By the end of the season, the military takes the drastic step of bombing the entire city of Hyosan in order to eradicate the zombie threat for good. The finale then flashes forward a few months to show remaining survivors like On-jo (Ji-hu Park) and Su-hyeok (Park Solomon, aka Lomon) living in a quarantine camp until further notice — which, as their eventual breakout to go find Nam-ra demonstrates, has only made them more restless than ever. Those who survived a near-apocalypse will have to deal with the consequences and trauma of withstanding so much death and destruction. And as Nam-ra tells her friends in that last scene, she’s not the only one who now lives in the liminal space between human and zombie. What will the world look like inside and outside Hyosan now that the virus and zombies have both evolved into something else entirely?
Then there’s the fact that the show has also established the idea of the virus acting as a predator that feeds on fear and self-doubt, taking over some bodies and brains while leaving others half intact. This reveal comes in some of the show’s most heavy-handed moments through the video diary of scientist Kim Byung-chul, who first created the virus in an attempt to help his bullied son stand up for himself. Those kids who, like Nam-ra, react to the virus differently have some reason for doing so, but the first season had so much gore to get through that these existential questions didn’t get quite enough room to breathe. A second season would have to confront them, and hopefully could find some new ways to tell zombie stories that could keep the show fresh long beyond its first shock of rotting flesh.
So, sure, “All of Us Are Dead” could easily end on the dramatic note of Nam-ra launching herself off the roof. For as much as limited series have become common, the great gift of television is the possibility of following a story, its characters and setting beyond what might seem like the natural conclusion — and there’s nothing “natural” about what happened to Hyosan, after all.
By launching its new zombies into a great unknown absent the usual tropes, where neither the characters nor the audience will have any idea what to expect, “All of Us Are Dead” lays some truly tantalizing groundwork for a second season that can’t look anything like the first. Given how grounded the show is in some kind of reality, veering so far from the basics of survival would be a risk, but absolutely one worth taking.