This All of Us Are Dead article contains spoilers.
As anyone who has watched Zombieland knows, different zombie dystopias have different zombie rules. The zombies in All of Us Are Dead, which is based on a webtoon translated under the same name, follow basic zombie rules (e.g. they are mindless, undead creatures hungry for brains), with a few quirks thrown in for good measure—most especially the inclusion of the “hambie” and the focus on students as undead.
“We see many films about zombies, but only a few have students as main characters. In an enclosed space like a school where teenagers are clustered, they have to survive on their own,” said All of Us Are Dead director Lee Jae-kyoo about what sets the Netflix series apart from other zombie fare. “They have to run away from friends becoming zombies. These aspects can make this show different from other zombie films, and make it interesting and fresh.” Let’s discuss the strengths, weaknesses, origins, and exceptions of the undead in All of Us Are Dead…
All of Us Are Dead Zombie Strengths
Zombies in All of Us Are Dead have a heightened sense of smell and hearing—while this is mostly a strength, as it can be used to hunt prey, it can also technically be a weaknesses when there is a loud sound or heightened smell, as is the case when a thunder and lightning rainstorm descends upon the school. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the zombies in terrible horror flick Patient Zero.) The undead in the series are also super strong, and more or less impervious to damage—these are not slow zombies of Shaun of the Dead. Gwi-nam falls off buildings no less than three times, and keeps on trucking. When we see Nam-ra after the time jump in the final episode, her sunken eye seems to have repaired itself, suggesting some kind of regenerative capability.
As we learn later in the series, those affected with The Jonas Virus, as Lee Byeong-chan and Detective Jae-ik call it, are medically dead. Their heart stops, but the virus stimulates their brain stem and moves the body. We see some hints that physically weaker humans, like Cheong-san’s mom, make for physically weaker zombies, but the bone-crunching flexibility of the zombies (Lee had the cast work with a choreographer and dancer to create the undead’s eerily clunky movement) and their determination to eat brains make them much scarier than their human hosts ever could be.
All of Us Are Dead Zombie Weaknesses
While the All of Us Are Dead zombies have heightened smell and hearing, they lose a degree of vision in the process. They’re also pretty dumb, and can be easily tricked by humans working together with a solid plan. As in other zombie stories, taking out the brain stem—with a bullet or by bludgeoning, takes out the zombie altogether.
Another potential weakness for these zombies is the fact that the characters in this world have knowledge of movie zombies, making references to Train to Busan almost immediately. While characters don’t utilize this meta knowledge as much as I wanted them to, it sometimes factors into the humans’ decision-making process, giving them a working knowledge of what to do and not do when facing off against a zombie.
How Are the All of Us Are Dead Zombies Created?
“We live in a system of violence. A nobody like me can’t change the system. That’s why I decided to change my son.”
One of the less intriguing subplots in All of Us Are Dead is the “mystery” of how the zombie virus was created. It all connects back to one man: Lee Byeong-chan, a scientist who used to work for a pharmaceutical company before he was fired and found a job as the science teacher at Hyosan High. When Lee’s son is bullied to the point that he attempts suicide, the teacher develops a substance that he thinks will make him more capable of fighting back. Unfortunately, it, um, turns him into a zombie.
Lee’s son is Patient Zero, and his wife quickly follows. The scientist experiments on them for more than a month before the virus eventually spreads because Lee leaves infected mice just bopping around the Hyosan High science lab. (Honestly, he is the worst.) Though the science teacher eventually seems to have a slight change-of-heart after being bitten, telling Jae-ik about the laptop with all of his information, he remains relatively remorseless for the horror he has unleashed.
All of Us Are Dead Hambies
“If this virus manages to learn the human mind, a new breed of human will be born.”
All of Us Are Dead throws an In the Flesh-like twist into their zombie story: some humans respond differently to The Jonas Virus. Rather than being turned into a zombie, they are half-human, half-zombie, or a “hambie,” as Dae-su decides to call it. These hambies are something new (“You know how students are not children but not yet adults either? I’m like that. I’m neither a human, nor a monster,” says Nam-ra), with all of the strengths of a zombie while holding onto their brain function. They are hungry, but they more or less keep the personality that defined them before they were infected withe the virus. This leads to horrific consequences when applied to Gwi-nam or even Eun-ji, who have a lack of empathy for other people and use their increased physical might to kill and eat, but allows Nam-ra to help her friends survive using her hambie senses.
How Does Someone Get Infected?
It takes a while for the Hyosan High students to learn the rules of how The Jonas Virus is spread, but it pretty much only happens if someone is bit by a zombie—yes, this includes hambies. Notably, Gyeong-su doesn’t turn when he is scratched by a zombie, but he does turn when Na-yeon (never forget) uses a rag with zombie blood on it to “tend” to the wound. Also notably, Nam-ra does not spread the virus to Su-hyeok when she kisses him—which, yes, I was worried about.
How All of Us Are Dead Fits Into the Zombie Genre
While the zombies in All of Us Are Dead have some specific quirks, they are more or less your Classic Zombies: Fast Edition. Much of the interest in this zombie show comes not on a fresh take on the genre, but in the way it is all executed. As you can see in the featurette above, Jae-kyoo put a lot of thought into how to make the series visually interesting: “For those who aren’t fans of zombie films, we tried to incorporate many different tools in this for a fun viewing experience,” said Jae-kyoo. “We tried to make the school look animated and bright at first. We gave a lot of thought to lighting and colors for every single space. To perfectly convey our intention, we built a set 100 meters long. So we can safely say that we built a four-story school. And red blood contrasts with their green uniforms. Through this color contrast, we wanted to show the intensity.”
Jae-kyoo grounded the genre horror of the zombie apocalypse by using one-takes and long-takes, especially in the first half of the series, to make the drama more immersive and realistic. “Rehearsing was everything,” said Jae-kyoo. “Hundreds of crew and actors spent the whole day rehearsing it. In fact, how the actors acted and reacted changed the whole storyboard. All the cameras did was try to capture how the kids reacted.” Jae-kyoo’s attention to detail expanded to his direction of the young cast, with an emphasis on “realness as well as chemistry among actors.” Following the casting process, which prioritized finding unknowns to play the students, Jae-kyoo held a workshop that allowed the young cast to bond. As part of the process, he had them swap roles in the hope that it would help allow each performer to also understand the other roles in the drama.
While All of Us Are Dead may not be doing anything particularly new with the zombie drama, it is being released during the COVID era, which has unfortunately given new life to many of these classic tropes. Interestingly, COVID is mentioned on a news broadcast in-universe, which means these characters too are living in a post-COVID outbreak world. All of Us Are Dead will hit differently in different countries and communities, as not all people have experiences the global pandemic in the same way, but they are relevant no matter where you live on this Earth.
At one point in the drama, one teen character asks another: “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?” Later, someone reflects: “When kids die, you lose hope. When adults die, you lose their wisdom. Hope and wisdom. Which do we value more?” These are questions that are always relevant, as societies are constantly making decisions about how to divvy up their collective resources—which is one reason why the zombie genre is so popular—but they have become more visible during COVID. All of Us Are Dead comes to some pretty bleak conclusions in its analysis of these themes, but viewers may find some catharsis in that bleakness, in the depiction of collective and sustained trauma, in the recognition that everything is in fact not OK.
Where do you think All of Us Are Dead’s zombies fit into the undead pantheon? Let us know in the comments below.