As the last, desperate teen survivors in “All of Us Are Dead” do their best to stay alive through a zombie apocalypse, hoping beyond hope that adults are coming to rescue them, it takes a full day of horrors to make them realize that they’re on their own. With their high school labeled Ground Zero for the escalating outbreak, the students are left for dead (or, as is the case with zombies, something in between). Their ensuing all-out battle for survival makes up the meat of “All of Us Are Dead,” Netflix’s elaborate new adaptation of the popular webtoon, in ways both banal and epic. With the high school survivors stuck inside their school for most of the season, writer Chun Sun-il and director Lee JQ have to keep finding inventive ways to make each classroom and confrontation a terrible new challenge — and they do. Like “Squid Game” before it — the only comparison I’ll be making between this show and Netflix’s recent smash Korean hit, I promise — “All of Us Are Dead,” makes the most out of its nightmarish central location to otherworldly, dizzying effect.
With 12 episodes running at least an hour each, “All of Us Are Dead” splits its time between the nightmare unfolding at the school and the one engulfing the world beyond. At Ground Zero, best friends On-jo (Park Ji-hu) and Cheong-san (Yoon Chan-young) make it out of the initial crush of zombie mayhem to a classroom where others like the class president Nam-ra (Cho Yi-Hyun), mean girl Na-yeon (Lee Yoo-mi), and On-jo’s crush Su-hyeok (Lomon) are sheltering. Elsewhere, star archer Ha-ri (Ha Seung-ri) and blunt nicotine addict Mi-jin (Lee Eun-saem) hunker down in a bathroom, while unrepentant bully Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo) makes sure he’ll end up on top, no matter the cost. To say the least: it’s a sprawling cast, and with the addition of several adult factions outside the campus struggling to keep the outbreak under control, episodes are dense and run longer than necessary. But the school plotlines really work, in large part thanks to continued ingenuity with the props and sets and the charismatic young cast, with Yoon Chan-young and Cho Yi-Hyun as notable standouts.
The show’s weakness, then, lies beyond the labyrinthine school itself as it tries to view the outbreak from the outside in. Watching yet another military take on zombies, no matter how bone-crunchingly sickening the ones in “All of Us Are Dead” are, just isn’t that interesting after seeing so many other TV shows and movies do the same. If the drama is to continue beyond this season, digging in to the “why” and “how” of this reality having zombies in it is probably advisable. But few scenes involving the adult characters are especially compelling or different from what we’ve seen before in the zombie genre, whether they be a helpless assembly member (Bae Hae-sun), a detective (Lee Kyu-hyung), or even the miserable scientist (Kim Byung-chul) who accidentally started it all.
What this particular zombie series can instead offer unlike any other is that core group of teens running into danger, mourning constant deaths, figuring out how the virus is evolving, and forcing their way to safety through the familiar halls of their school with one ingenious scheme after another. Sequences like Cheong-san and Gwi-nam facing off on top of the library stacks, a tense tip-toeing mission down a hallway, and a mad dash across the auditorium to safety are impressively staged to bring the extraordinary and the ordinary together to thrilling effect. And when the teens do get a moment to breathe in between all the gory panic, the show lets them still be teens. They continue to nurse crushes and grudges, still crave acceptance and intimacy, still find darkness and hope in the least likely places.
Most of them might be dead. But while some of them are alive, it’s undeniably moving to see them embrace the full experience of being human despite everything trying to stop them from doing exactly that.
“All of Us Are Dead” is now available to stream on Netflix.