'All of Us Are Dead' director thrilled but dumbfounded by series success
The highly-anticipated “All of Us Are Dead” seems to be living up to expectations.
Netflix Korea’s original series has remained atop the Top 10 TV Shows on Netflix in the World for 11 consecutive days after its release on the streaming platform on Jan. 28.
The series currently tops the daily charts in 42 nations.
The zombie apocalypse drama also retained its No. 1 ranking on Netflix’s weekly viewership chart for the second consecutive week, according to the streaming platform Wednesday. The series garnered 236.2 million hours of streaming for the week between Jan. 31 and Feb. 6 to top the list for non-English TV programs.
The series rose to No. 5 on the all-time viewership chart for non-English TV programs by accumulating 361 million hours of streaming in the 10-day period since its release.
While it’s no longer a novelty that a Korean series ranks within the global Top 10 charts or even skyrockets to No. 1 immediately after its release, director Lee JQ is still thrilled — but also dumbfounded — by his series’ global success.
“Director Hwang Dong-hyuk of ‘Squid Game,’ as all of you are already well aware of, is actually [one of] my closest friends,” Lee revealed during an online interview Monday.
“When ‘Squid Game’ hit it off globally last year, I called him to offer my congratulations, but I also admitted that I felt pressured to be next in line as it had already been decided that ‘All of Us Are Dead’ would be released early this year. Hwang told me that I should be thanking him instead of feeling burdened. He said, ‘I’ve opened up this door [for you] and you only have to step through and enjoy it.' I didn’t really understand what he was talking about then, but I do now. I feel that ‘Squid Game’ has opened up the gateway for Korean content and also for me as well. I’m just so excited and dazed that the series is hitting No. 1. on the charts and that there are so many positive responses.”
“All of Us Are Dead,” adapted from a Naver Webtoon with the same title, is a zombie series set in a high school. It centers around a group of teenage students trying to grapple with a sudden zombie outbreak.
Director Lee believes that the basis of his series’ popularity lies with hardcore zombie fans.
“A universal fandom exists behind zombie genres, which is the No. 1 reason behind the success of ‘All of Us Are Dead,” he said. “There’s lots of interest in the genre, but the reason why K-zombies are so beloved worldwide is because the K-zombie genre is so passionate. The emotional capacity of the characters [is bigger] than others and they can just lurch closer to the audience [in terms of empathy].”
Lee elaborated on what message he wanted to spread through his series, and some of the question marks the audiences have raised regarding the narrative. The following are edited excerpts from the online interview.
Q. A lot of fresh faces show up in this series. What did you look for at the auditions and which character did you deliberate on most when casting the actor?
A. I tried to find actors who could be dimensional, because many different layers exist within each character. Even though they might be a villain in the story, I tried to find actors who could portray the dilemmas these characters are facing. The actor that I contemplated about casting the most was Na-yeon. She goes off on her own in Episode 3 and briefly shows up again in Episode 8 but Na-yeon’s state of mind and her actions ignite a bigger reaction from her classmates, so she was crucial to our narrative. As I said before, I wanted to find an actor who could portray her multiple layers. During the casting process, I saw actor Lee You-mi in the film “Park Hwa-young” (2018) and other projects as well, and from the conversations I had with her I thought she was the most adequate person to represent Na-yeon. There were initially scenes explaining Na-yeon’s narrative like what happens in front of her home and with her parents, but we deleted them because I thought what the actor had expressed [in other scenes] was enough to explain Na-yeon’s situation without the backstory.
Some of the responses from local viewers said that the degree of school violence portrayed in the series was too much. A lot of series covering similar themes usually describe them implicitly, but you decided to directly portray them. Why did you decide to do this?
I researched this [school violence] beforehand, and it is actually happening in reality. In order for the viewers to feel something, I thought it might be cathartic to have the victims take revenge upon the perpetrators, but from another point of view, I thought it was [just as] important for the viewers to empathize with what kind of pain these victims of violence were going through, although it might make them a little uncomfortable. If people could truly feel the victims’ pain, it could lead to actual action, to make sure that people feel it’s wrong to make others suffer in this way. [Creators] often want their work to spark discussions and debates among audiences and to ultimately change society through their works. When thinking about my hope to eliminate the misery cast upon this world, I thought maybe in part that could be achieved through scenes showing how people who are unhappy find happiness in their lives. But, in contrast, I also think something can be gained by showing why people are in agony […] Not all the scenes from ‘All of Us Are Dead’ are arranged this way, but a part of the setting had to be written this way in order for the audience to understand why Eun-ji [the victim of school violence and sexual harassment] climbed up to the rooftop to commit suicide, and why, even at the cost of her life, she decided to venture inside the school again to erase the video that inflicted so much pain on her. I thought [her story] was necessary in order for people to truly feel her pain and what led her to make such choices.
It was interesting that the science teacher Lee Byeong-chan named the virus after German philosopher Hans Jonas, who emphasized responsibility even for unintended consequences. In one of the scenes, when students are trapped within the school, they have to suffer from such unintended consequences and they each record a video message for their families, which was very reminiscent of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014. How did you come up with the name of the virus?
After audiences watch ‘All of Us are Dead,’ they might think that what is really scary isn’t zombies — it’s humans. But it’s ultimately humans who can overcome their fear and come up with a better social system. As for me, I veer strongly toward the belief that humans' nature, in essence, is good, and even though all these problems might arise from humans, they also have the ability to resolve all of the problems. The philosopher Hans Jonas emphasized responsibility over life — and we initially named the virus the anti-Jonas virus instead of the Jonas virus.
Right now, the majority of us struggle furiously to survive in this highly competitive society. But what’s more important than our will to survive is to feel responsibility over life, and to contemplate over the meaning behind our existence.
Are there any plans for season 2?
There are no official plans for season 2 as of now. However, as I was writing the story with writer Chun Sung-il, we did think about how the narrative could expand [into another season]. When you get bitten, not only are there zombies but there are also mutants like Nam-ra, who is immune to the virus, and people like Eun-ji and Gwi-nam who become zombies, but they’re alive. So [the next season] could center around conflicts between the immunes, the undead who are alive and the humans who make up the majority of the group. I think a gripping story could be created from how they view each other. If season 1 is about survival among humans, season 2 could ironically be about the survival of the zombies, and if the story could grow into something more, season 3 could be about the war [between different groups]. I have such hopes.
The virus has different effects for each person — some seem to be immune to it, while there are cases like Gwi-nam and Eun-ji who appear to retain their consciousness while they are still in essence, zombies, or half-bies, as Dae-su calls them. How can they be categorized and how did you come up with this setting?
Like the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, if 10 people are exposed to the coronavirus all of them have different resactions. Some develop the disease while some don’t. Some remain dormant for a day, for 10 days — the virus manifests differently for each person. [Similar to the actual viruses], I came to think that zombie viruses can too have different responses depending on the person. Close to 100 percent of the people will turn into zombies when infected, but there might be people who are immune and some like Gwi-nam or Eun-ji. The ‘normal’ pattern of infection is that the zombie virus stops the heartbeat of the people it infects, but for those two, they are zombies with heartbeats. We have dubbed them ‘immortals’ — the zombies who don’t die, and people like Nam-ra as the ‘immune.’
Like I said before, the next season could be about what happens when these three different groups meet — the humans, which constitute the majority, who try to eliminate the other two groups in fear of being harmed. I think it’s going to be highly entertaining to find out how these groups clash over different interests and priorities.
The Korean title of the series is the same as the original webtoon, which can be translated to “Now at Our School.” Why is the English title different?
I just didn’t think that the direct translation from the Korean title would reach the global audience, and the Netflix department suggested a couple of names for the English title and this one hit me the strongest. People say that they get to truly find out who they are at their darkest hour […] I liked the notion that people self-reflect and think about who they are, what they are and what they’ve lived through only when they are on the brink of death. “All of Us Are Dead,” in literal sense, means that everyone dies, but I think the title paradoxically shares the idea that nevertheless, we are constantly trying to live in hope [amid despair].
BY LEE JAE-LIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]