All of us are Dead, Netflix.
The zombie genre began in the West with the likes of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Walking Dead. But recently Korean zombies are outwitting and outpacing them to a global success, especially on streaming. What makes K-Zombies so virulent?
The K-Zombies factor
Do you know South Korean actors undergo three to four months training to play dead zombies? Their facial expression, walking gates, and acrobatic moves. The way they attack humans and the seizure response after infection. These all require rehearsals to get them right. Plus it takes up to two hours to do make-up for each zombie character. Imagine the time and manpower to prepare costume and make-up for a horde of 100 zombies, with high attention-to-detail.
Moreover, the Korean zombies are fast and aggressive, unlike their slow and dopey Hollywood’s zombies counterpart. This makes the former much more frightening and engrossing for the audience.
The Koreans don’t treat zombies like a joke where humans could spit, joke, and laugh at them like they do in the western version.
In short, Korean producers invest more time and energy into thinking about and producing zombies to capture the audience, taking it to the next level.
The social commentary factor
Another reason I find K-Zombies successful is its political and social dimensions, exploring culture at large. Consider Netflix’s Kingdom (2019), which has 27 subtitles, 12 languages, available for streaming in 190 countries. Yes, it’s about zombies rampaging in the 16th century Imperial Korean Joseon dynasty. Dig underneath it, however, we witness the political intrigues and palace machinations for the throne. Insurrected as a zombie, the king is used as pawn for the Chief State Councilor to get his daughter – queen consort – to rule the throne, sidelining the crown prince.
Thus, there are two simultaneous wars in the Kingdom. The zombies war and the palace power-play war, and their interplay. Both the queen consort and her father weaponized the zombies for political gains. They live in a luxury bubble, while the mass peasants are dying from poverty, hunger, and the epidemics. (Sounds familiar?)
In All of Us are Dead (2022), the latest K-zombies on Netflix, the setting is in high school. It turns out that a science teacher created the virus for his high-school son to fight back his bullies. Out of love, in other words. Invariably, the virus leaked, got out of hand, and infected the whole city.
Like Kingdom, on the surface All of us are dead is just about zombies, but it’s so much more. It exposes viewers to human cruelty and South Korean society. The bullies recording a sexual assault, and threaten to post it on Facebook if she exposes them. Compounding this is her teacher’s discounting her plea, telling her that “Because they bully you regularly, you must’ve done something to them.” This drives her to a suicide attempt.
Another girl, who hates her classmate whose family is on welfare, purposely infected his wound with zombies’ blood.
Kingdom’s zombie horde hungry for “McHuman burgers”
The not-so-gentle reality
The reality is the high pressure of South Korean students to excel academically to enter top-notch universities, backed by parents’ high expectation, is driving them to depression and suicide.
What makes K-zombies addictive is their exploration of inequality, greed, and political oppression. The zombies merely shine light and exacerbate existing societal problems, much like Covid-19 has accelerated existing tensions. China and the US are at odds with one another prior to Covid-19. The virus has only magnified the rivalry: E.g., Pfizer vs. Sinovac battle.
Do you know what is scarier than zombies? South Korea has the highest suicide rate in industrialised nations, with 25.7 deaths per 100,000. 13,000 South Koreans took their own lives in 2020. That’s 35 people per day who died by poisoning, hanging, or bridge jumping – the three most common suicide methods. Suicide is the #1 cause of death for Koreans aged 10-39.
When you think about it, the zombie virus is no different than Covid-19. Both are viruses that replicate and mutate, given time and enough hosts. Most disturbing is people weaponizing them for business and/or political gains. Dictators around the world are declaring “You see, we are helping our people by giving out vaccines, masks, and alcohol gel” – while preparing for election to steal more taxpayers’ money. Some have declared curfews to expand governmental overreach, throwing people’s privacy out the window. Pharmaceutical companies choose to keep vaccine patents, ensuring poor countries will continue to suffer from the epidemics.
In other words, I find the characters of the Chief State Councilor and the girl who purposely infect her classmate far more disturbing and evil than the zombies themselves.
Remember that zombies are stupid. They don’t enroll in “Zombies University” to learn how to infect the whole world efficiently and effectively. Smart humans, however, who use their intelligence for menacing goals are very dangerous. So, I am pleading to all the rich countries and the pharmaceutical companies to release the patents so poor nations can produce their own vaccines. The sooner done, the sooner the world will recover.