‘All of Us Are Dead’ Remains Netflix’s Most Damning Success – Rolling Stone

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‘All of Us Are Dead’ Remains Netflix’s Most Damning Success – Rolling Stone
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Even before Hyosan High becomes ground zero for the world’s zombie outbreak in All of Us Are Dead, its teen inhabitants are struggling to survive. Severe bullying, threats of suicide, wealth inequality and a suffocating pressure to succeed make Hyosan High — and Korean society — a kind of hell. “In some countries, they’re more sad when adults die than when kids die. And in other countries they are sadder when kids die. Which do you think our country is?” asks one All of Us Are Dead teen during a down moment between zombie attacks. Yeah, this show is bleak — but, looking around at the state of our world, why wouldn’t it be?

All of Us Are Dead is also very popular. A year after its debut, the Korean-language series sits at number 11 on Netflix’s list of most-watched TV shows. The K-drama’s global success no doubt has something to do with the popularity of the zombie genre, but it also seems tied to its central theme: the failure of a society to protect its young people. As we approach the first anniversary of the series’ initial debut — a year of climate-related disaster, a pandemic that is still killing thousands of people every day, mass shootings and a record year of police violence in the U.S., and a preventable tragedy in Korea that led to the death of more than 150 young people — it’s clear All of Us Are Dead has, unfortunately, reached new heights of thematic resonance for its global audience.

All of Us Are Dead opens on a rainy, neon-lit rooftop where teen antagonist Yoon Gwi-nam (Yoo In-soo) and his cronies slap, hit and verbally threaten classmate Lee Jin-su (Lee Min-goo). This isn’t the first time they have tormented Jin-su; this latest bout of harrassment is retaliation for a note Jin-su wrote, naming the others as his chief tormenters, before he attempted suicide. Jin-su’s life hasn’t gotten any easier since he survived the suicide attempt. Local authorities have failed to hold Gwi-nam and the others accountable in any way that sticks, and Jin-su’s father, science teacher Lee Byeong-chan (Kim Byung-chul), has started injecting his son with mutated mouse hormones in an attempt to make Jin-su physically stronger. 

If you guessed that Lee Byeong-chan’s sketchy experiments lead to the creation of zombies, then you’d be right — and the backstory represents one of the series’ clearest departures from its source material. In the webtoon on which All of Us Are Dead is based, Jin-su mysteriously contracts the virus that turns him into a rabid, flesh-eating zombie while fishing. In the series, it’s the result of a father’s desperate attempt to protect his son when the authorities will not. “We live in a system of violence,” Byeong-chan says during one of his research vlogs. “A nobody like me can’t change the system. That’s why I decided to change my son.” Byeong-chan is not a particularly sympathetic character, but Byeong-chan’s actions are as damning an indictment of the system as they are of him.

Many young people in Korea feel as though their country is an unnecessarily difficult and painful place to live. Despite the East Asian country having the tenth largest economy in the world, its wealth and opportunities are unequally distributed. In this social status quo, immense pressure is put on young people to do well on standardized tests, get into a top college and secure a job at the country’s chaebols — companies like Samsung, Hyundai, SK Group, and LG Group that are controlled by one family and that hold an outsized amount of power in society. Korea has the highest suicide rate of any developed country, with suicide as the number one cause of death for young people since 2007. In 2015, the satirical term “헬조선,” or “Hell Joseon,” became popular among young people, first in online communities and then in offline conversation and in the media. (Joseon was a dynasty that existed on the Korean peninsula from 1392 until Japanese occupation in 1910; as with other absolute monarchies, a small elite held power and pretty much everyone else lived in poverty.) By referencing Joseon, young people in Korea are drawing parallels between the dynasty’s socioeconomic status quo and life in modern Korea. 

Lomon as Lee Su-hyeok, Cho Yi-hyun as Choi Nam-ra in ‘All of us are Dead.’

Yang Hae-sung/Netflix

Wealth inequality is a global problem, including in the U.S., so it’s not surprising that Korean dramas like All of Us of Dead and Squid Game — stories that explicitly depict the pains of socioeconomic stress and trauma — have struck a chord, especially given Hollywood’s relative disinterest in exploring issues of class. In January of 2022, the same month All of Us Are Dead debuted on Netflix, Oxfam released an “Inequality Kills” report, detailing the ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated wealth inequality and led to more inequality-related deaths. During the first 20 months of the pandemic, the world’s 10 richest men more than doubled their fortunes, at a rate of $15,000 per second. Meanwhile, during the first two years of the pandemic, there were at least 21,000 inequality-related deaths each day. These numbers can be hard to wrap our heads around (which is part of the problem), but most of us know what the growing, intentional wealth inequality in the world feels like. And when we see a show like All of Us Are Dead or Squid Game depict those emotions in a concentrated, cathartic manner, we respond to it.

These problems are complex and systemic, and sometimes horrifying, preventable tragedies can expose these cracks. The Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 — when 304 people died after a Korean passenger ferry overloaded with cargo capsized and sank — was one such event in Korean society. One hundred seventy-two people survived the disaster, including the captain and most of the crew, who were themselves evacuating the sinking ship while orders were still being broadcast over the intercom for passengers to stay in their cabins. Many of the survivors made it off of the ship because they ignored those orders; a majority of those who died were students from the same high school on a field trip, who followed the orders to shelter-in-place. Following the release of All of Us Are Dead, many Korean viewers noted the parallels between the fictional zombie disaster and the real-life Sewol ferry disaster, including students recording farewell video messages to their parents and the use of yellow ribbons, which became a symbol of the Sewol ferry disaster following the tragedy. Both are examples of kids who put their faith in the adult-built systems to save them, and who were completely failed.

Yoon Chan-young as Lee Cheong-san, Park Ji-hu as Nam On-jo in ‘All of us are Dead.’

Yang Hae-sung/Netflix

In the year since All of Us Are Dead’s initial release, the theme of a society failing its young people has only become more resonant — in Korea, in the U.S. and around the world. In October of 2022, more than 150 people died in a crowd crush in the Itaewon district of Seoul. Of the known victims, a majority were in their 20s and 30s, though one middle school student and five high school students also died. The preventable disaster happened when more than 100,000 people visited the neighborhood for Halloween celebrations. Only 137 police officers were assigned to the district for the evening, and most were not ordered to do crowd management but rather to look out for crimes like sexual harassment, theft and drug use. People in the area began making emergency calls about dangerous conditions several hours before the fatal crowd crush occurred, but an adequate emergency response was not provided. Most of the victims died from crush asphyxia or brain swelling caused by a lack of oxygen; the pressure on their bodies was too great for them to take a breath.

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As an American watching All of Us Are Dead in early 2022, it was impossible not to think of school shootings. The series features many scenes of terrified kids barricading themselves in classrooms and running for their lives through school hallways. Presumably, this parallel was not intentional on the part of the webtoon creator or the director of the Netflix adaptation, who are both Korean. Gun control laws in Korea are strict, which makes gun violence rare in the country. However, in the U.S., there were 648 mass shootings in 2022 (defined here as an incident in which more than four people are shot, excluding the shooter), with more than 6,000 children and teens injured or killed in shootings. This statistic includes an incident in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. Despite emergency calls from kids and adults inside the building, police officers waited for more than an hour before entering.

By the end of All of Us Are Dead’s first season, a handful of teens have managed to fight their way to safety in the quarantine zone without the help of the Korean military, who actively abandon them mid-rescue on the school’s rooftop when they get orders to leave the kids behind. “I won’t ask adults for anything ever again,” series protagonist Nam On-jo (Park Ji-hu) tells a soldier in the final episode, when he asks her for information. On-jo has lost her father, her best friend and most of her classmates. She is severely traumatized and has completely lost faith in the adult institutions that failed to protect her. On-jo may be a fictional character in the midst of a fictional zombie apocalypse, but she feels representative of a generation of real-life young people who, even when living in the world’s richest countries, are being failed again and again, in so many different ways. If a society’s success can be measured by how well it protects its children, then All of Us Are Dead is so much closer to reality than any zombie apocalypse should be.

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