‘All of Us Are Dead’: a Quiet Korean Zombie Invasion

Explaining the lack of coverage of the latest South Korean hit

Netflix has a new worldwide hit–th eSouth Korean high school zombie show All of Us Are Dead has blown away all competition at the streaming service for February. All of Us Are Dead racked up more than 360 million viewing hours in its first ten days following a January 28th release, according to official Netflix figures. This compares to 510 million viewing hours for Squid Game last year over that same ten-day period. All of Us Are Dead has done especially well considering the American entertainment press has given it almost no coverage. Which kind of begs the question. Why not?

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As a specialist in South Korean media, Squid Game hype in the American entertainment sphere genuinely caught me off-guard. It’s not that I think Squid Game is especially bad (even if I did get my fair share of hate mail for giving it a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but rather that the show’s unsubtle metaphors for class consciousness aren’t particularly unusual in South Korean media culture, despite that being the main talking point for its cross-cultural appeal. Looking back, I’m pretty sure the main reason Squid Game got as much attention as it did is because the show’s distinctive visuals translate really well into thumbnail form. Let’s face it, thumbnail appeal is how most people decide what to watch on Netflix.

Aside from the capitalist critique angle, positive press about the success story of South Korea on political and artistic terms shaped the Squid Game conversation. There were plenty of thinkpieces about the successful agitation for democracy in 1987, and then again in 2017, as well as reminders about how Parasite conquered the 2019 zeitgeist in similar fashion. It seemed inevitable  that another South Korean cultural property would take the world by storm. Yet with All of Us Are Dead, that’s actually happening yet nary a word for the resurgence.

The main culprit for this is just genre. Zombies are passe, finally, probably thanks to a combination of The Walking Dead and Zack Snyder. The genre has been nearly as popular in South Korea as it has been in the United States, with flicks like Train to Busan and the first season of Kingdom getting decent international attention. All of Us Are Dead is decidedly low-brow in taste compared to those more semi-pretentious treatments of class consciousness and palace politics. But the fact that All of Us Are Dead is a show about high school students just adds to the zombie overload factor. Critics assume that creators have, by default, sanitized any program about children, because children are also usually the typical target audience. Yet in a somewhat hilarious twist, guidance-ratings-obsessed parents likely won’t let their kids watch All of Us Are Dead at all just because it’s TV-MA.

All of Us Are Dead also suffers from the fact that it truly is an international hit–it’s popular mainly in markets that aren’t the United States. All of Us Are Dead was only the number one drama in the American market for exactly one day, February 4th. American media writers tend to think of American media as the center of the universe, with anything else being a random aberration, even in the face of our declining relevance. Netflix’s biggest strength remains its strong lineup of internationally produced and licensed entertainment, just because of the sheer variety it offers.

South Korea isn’t the only such region that’s producing popular worldwide shows either. The Spanish series Money Heist is huge, with the sum of its five seasons even eclipsing Squid Game by a large margin in terms of viewing hours. Nor is ambitious source material any real help in spreading that kind of word. In the case of All of Us Are Dead, we’re definitely looking at the dark side of high school. The virus exists in part because a helpless teacher was trying to find a chemical solution for school bullying, having long watched the relevant authorities cover up any and all abuse. In one especially dark scene, a suicidal girl with unwanted pictures of herself online glibly remarks, observing the apocalypse from a relatively safe vantage point, that she’s an outsider once again and hopes that everyone else dies.

For the most part, All of Us Are Dead sticks to a core group of mostly likable students. But then Squid Game also gets disproportionate credit for its second episode that takes place entirely outside the death game core concept, despite connecting Joseon Hellworld and Squid Game Hellworld only metaphorically and not textually. At least with All of Us Are Dead the strained relationships between students pre-zombie outbreak are integral, and directly inform their survival strategies afterwards. In that way, Netflix has badly timed All of Us Are Dead for Americans for another reason. There’s a big push for in-person learning again, pandemic notwithstanding. And no one in the professional managerial classes advocating for this position wants a reminder that high school was a war zone even before a malicious virus started killing people.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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