Warning: This article contains minor spoilers
With the start of 2022, Netflix was quick to release another South Korean hit TV series All of Us Are Dead. Titled 지금 우리 학교는 (Now at Our School) in Korean, the series is set in the fictional city of Hyosan and follows a group of high school students during a zombie virus outbreak. Its debut on January 28 brought immediate success worldwide, peaking at No.1 in 53 countries and 2nd in the United States. All of Us Are Dead has already cemented itself as one of the most popular Netflix series in history. It is the Netflix’s 5th most popular non-English series debut, and the 2nd most popular Korean series after Squid Game.
All of Us Are Dead redefines the zombie horror genre by examining an array of societal issues, such as school bullying, socioeconomic disparity, and teen pregnancy. The outbreak begins with a high school teacher who intentionally injects his son with the virus to empower him against his bullies. As the show explores the hierarchies and relationships between teachers and students and bullies and victims, director Lee Jae-kyoo uses these relationship dynamics to, “offer viewers a chance to reflect on where they stand in that society.” The series also draws heavily from the COVID-19 pandemic. The show focuses on quarantine, and even asymptomatic zombies. However, some topics specifically reflect prominent issues in South Korean society, such as the academic stress and the rigorous college entrance system. For example, one student continues to worry about her college entrance exams in the midst of the zombie apocalypse and at the isolation center advocates for relaxed admission standards for students affected by the crisis.
Perhaps the show's most important exploration is the responsibility adults have for children. As high school students fight for their survival, they constantly wonder when law enforcement or the military will come to their rescue. Despite following the adults’ instructions to remain in the school, the students ultimately realize they have been abandoned. The situation directly alludes to the 2014 MV Sewol Ferry sinking, where 304 passengers, mostly high school students, were killed on a school trip. There was public outrage at the government for its delayed rescue efforts, at the captain who escaped first without helping passengers, and at crew members who instructed students to stay in place. At the end of the series, yellow ribbons, the same symbol used after the Sewol Ferry sinking, hang from trees to remember the victims. Through these various topics, All of Us Are Dead exposes international and US viewers to unique elements of South Korean society.
All of Us Are Dead is the first of many South Korean Netflix shows in 2022, with 25 in total scheduled for this year. These shows include Juvenile Justice, covering the South Korea juvenile justice system, and Money Heist: Korea-Joint Economic Area, a heist series about a hostage situation. This boom in South Korean TV shows could expand the Korean wave from generic pop-culture consumption to an active discussion of South Korea’s culture and society.
Jae Chang is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where he studied Government and China & Asia-Pacific Studies.