“All of us are dead” and the dystopian reality of epidemics

“All of us are dead” motion picture. Source: Netflix

The latest Korean TV series on Netflix uses fiction to reflect the threatening reality of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Whenever we’ve either experienced an unprecedented crisis or monumental event in history, we look to movies and TV shows to either escape our reality or understand it better. The HBO series Chernobyl gives us a cinematic insight into the nuclear accident that occurred on April 26, 1986. Nollywood’s 93 Days helps us see the severe impacts of the Ebola outbreak on families and healthcare workers in Nigeria.

In spite of these disasters and more, TV and film production continued, reflecting history to us on our screens. But when COVID-19 broke out in 2020, they took a dramatic halt. The latest seasons of our favorite shows were postponed till the next year. Going to the theaters was almost impossible and producers resolved to deliver blockbusters through streaming services. We’ve seen deadly diseases and outbreaks come and go, but COVID-19’s unique nature prompted us to reassess what life would be like after. With new mask mandates and lockdowns stretching for more than a meager 2 weeks, we started grappling with what a new normal would look like. In the final months of 2020, TV shows and movies attempted to adapt to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic in interesting ways, causing us to debate whether or not we should have full escape from our reality from our favorite shows. Some shows would present life as it’s always existed — no characters wearing masks and outdoor activities going on as usual. Streaming platforms like Netflix begin advertising movies and series showcasing us different versions of dystopian realities. Raising Dion’s latest season shows us an interesting look into COVID-19’s airborne nature and our responses to disease outbreaks. In the show, we see parasitic spores that infect the host, feed off their matter and energy, and reproduce. as the series continues, we see from infected individuals that the disease is — like COVID — airborne and rapidly mutates and overwhelms the host if not treated on time.

Korea’s latest series on Netflix — All of us are dead — also tells the same story of an outbreak’s drastic impacts on our society. However, the show goes further in its depiction of the COVID-like disease and presents us with a mirror through which we begin to reckon with our instinctual responses to epidemics and global crises.

A short series with 12 episodes, All of us are dead is a story about a fast-spreading virus overwhelming the lives of individuals and families in Korea. The first episode opens with a high school boy, Jin-su (played by Lee Min-goo), who is bullied by two boys on the roof of a building, while two onlookers watch with umbrellas protecting them from the pouring rain. One of the bullies, Gwi-nam (played by Yoo In-Soo) beats Jin-su and thrashes him against some equipment and tools. Jin-su begs for the beatings to stop, until he grabs onto a pipe closest to him and tries to fight Gwi-nam back with it. But, one of the onlookers kicks him in the gut and Gwi-nam joins in, forcefully stepping on Jin-su’s hand as he lies helpless on the floor.

As Gwi-nam presses his right foot onto Jin-su with strong force, Jin-su struggles to escape. Soon, we start to hear the bones in his face succumb to the pressure from Gwi-nam’s foot. Jin-su’s eyes start going red and the veins in his face appear more visible as he gathers enough strength to free himself from Gwi-nam’s hold. As Gwi-nam kicks him again, Jin-su’s bones begin to crack, snap and take on new forms. He’s able to fight back against his bullies but is pushed from the rooftop of the building.

Despite his brutal fall, Jin-su is still alive…

As the story unfolds, we learn that Jin-su’s behaviors were symptoms of a virus Lee Byeong-chan (science professor and Jin-su’s dad; played by Kim Byung-chul) created to give his son extra strength to fight his bullies. In his school lab is a hamster experimentally infected with the virus, living in a cage covered under a black fabric covering. A student — Hyeon-ju — wanders into the lab and starts to inspect the movement inside the cage. Intrigued by the rat, she inches her hand close enough to pet it. Unfortunately, the hamster bites her and with time, the viral infection takes over her body, spreading within her in a matter of minutes. As soon as he finds out, Professor Lee Byeong fatally attempts to quarantine Hyeon-ju. She manages to escape and walks mindlessly to her classroom, her face painted with blood streaming from her forehead and nose. Immediately her classmates and professor surround her and one of the students carries her to the school clinic for care. Unfortunately, no one besides Lee Byeong is aware of Hyeon-ju’s sickness. The school nurse tries to contain Hyeon-ju and prevent her from causing more harm. But, Hyeon-ju bites her and soon she starts to exhibit similar symptoms of the virus.

The lack of knowledge about the virus and how it spreads causes numerous school staff and students to be exposed and infected, resulting in over half of the school population transforming into zombies in a matter of seconds…

Sound familiar?

COVID-19 crippled cities around the world with infections thanks to a lack of accurate information.

As I watched more episodes of All of us are dead, I paid attention to the speed by which the unknown virus spreads. Soon, the fictional virus shared similar traits with the diseases we have (and continue to) battle in our present world.

Yes, there are many shows and movies about zombies and other-worldly creatures. What’s fascinating with the zombie-virus in All us are dead, however, is the scientific focus on it.

Lee Byeong’s analysis of the virus — how it rapidly overtakes the cells and important organs of the host it inhabits in and how it quickly subdued it — reminded me of how life-threatening diseases like Ebola and Covid-19 overwhelmed millions of bodies before we learned how to prevent or at the very least reduce their spread.

Source:Netflix

Like COVID-19, the virus in All of us are dead mutates quickly — especially when you’d think you’d seen the last of it. The military in the show responded to the violent outbreak by shooting on-sight any zombie they saw. With every successful annihilation — followed by an affirmative “all clear” — was a subsequent retaliation of the virus — either by creating in its hosts an immunity that allows them to function as both human and zombie or by creating full zombies that are able to withstand lockdowns and breakthrough barriers designed to contain them. With COVID-19, we see a new variant emerge when we’d think we’ve done enough to protect ourselves with our masks and vaccines. We also see communities of individuals around the world sharing their experiences dealing with ‘long Covid’ — the extended symptoms of the virus that remain with them after no longer testing positive. This is similar to Nimra’s — alongside a community of others — experience with the zombie virus after fighting against the virus’ tendency to take over her body.

Nimra (played by Cho Yi-hyun) in “All of us are dead”. Source: Netflix

Another amazing aspect of reality that the directors of All of us are dead revealed to us is the relationship politics and society play in life-threatening viral outbreaks. As the spread of virus intensified throughout major cities in Korea, we began to see in the series buses of immigrants and refugees — who routinely arrive to Korea for a better life — greeted by an angry mob of people demanding them to go back to their countries. As COVID-19 intensified in its spread, we began to hear racially motivated nicknames used to describe and target Asians around the world — Chinese virus, kung-flu, etc. The idea of the virus originating from China was enough motivation for people to discriminate against Asians around the world. Between March 2020 and June 2021, Stop AAPI Hate recieved more than 9,000 incident reports. Noel Quintana was violently attacked while taking the New York city subway. Vicha Ratanapkdee was murdered while strolling during the day. These are just a few examples of the issues Asians and Asian Americans faced in the wake of the global pandemic.

The poster in the picture translates to “Coronavirus: It has made more people racist than sick.” Source: The Atlantic

Wherever a pandemic goes, xenophobia is never far behind” — Yasmeen Serhan and Timothy McLaughlin for the Atlantic

As Asians around the world were targeted and abused due to xenophobic rhetoric about COVID-19’s origins, Africans on the other hand were advertised as suitable guinea pigs for vaccine trials. One of two French doctors in the heat of the COVID pandemic suggested that vaccines trials should be carried out in Africa, reminding us of the West’s well-known history of using Africans as social experiments. In response to South African experts warning about Omnicron’s fast-spreading rate, countries in the West responded with travel bans and skepticism and news outlets responded with racist and obscene graphics about Africa being a breeding ground for diseases.

All of us are dead pushes us out of our comfort zone and encourages us to pay attention to our instinctual behaviors during crises. Anti-Asian racism didn’t start with COVID-19. Racist and xenophobic remarks towards Africans didn’t start with COVID-19. The Asian community’s history of pain and discrimination have been ignored for so long, allowing the crisis to continue. With the violent spread of COVID-19, deep-rooted bias and hate towards Asians and Africans were on full display.

Scenes from “All of us are dead”: The police push back against zombies. Source: Teen Vogue

“All of us are dead” presents us with a televised mirror through which we can see ourselves and truly sit with our behaviors and relationships when faced with unprecedented and overwhelming circumstances. We receive a profound glimpse of how we perceive and treat people different from us as we struggle to make sense of evolving global issues.

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Avid Reader. Aspiring professional storyteller. Human rights advocate

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Chisom Onyekwere

Chisom Onyekwere

Avid Reader. Aspiring professional storyteller. Human rights advocate

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