The zombie genre has become as tired as a groaning corpse. Even the megahit "The Walking Dead" will end with its 11th season. Yet, 2020 and all it's unleashed upon the world should make the zombie genre relevant again. Director Il Cho’s #Alive feels incredibly timely at moments, especially in its portrayal of isolation and a global crisis. The film’s main flaw, and it’s a big one, is its deus ex machina ending. The conclusion mars an otherwise solid zombie flick.
The premise of #Alive is one that’s been in plenty of zombie and post-apocalyptic tales. A young video game streamer, Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-In), spends his days hauled up in his family’s high rise apartment in Seoul, sleepwalking through reality by playing video games. He’s ripped from that world when chaos unfolds outside. He’s jolted by people screaming in the streets, chased by zombies with bleeding eyes.
It’s an effective opening. Typically, in a zombie narrative, the world has already gone to hell. In the first issue and episode of “The Walking Dead,” for instance, Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma to a zombie apocalypse. Here, our protagonist witnesses the moment that the infection overtakes his neighborhood. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, he watches the zombies haul a police woman off to her death, dragging her down the street. We don’t see them fully devour her, but observing her terror-stricken face moments before her death is nerve-rattling. The zombies are fast, mean, and lean, resembling the undead in the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) or 28 Days Later (2002).
While the zombies are generally scary, that’s not really what makes the film relevant. Rather, it’s how isolation and the infection are portrayed. When Joon-woo sits down at his empty kitchen table and writes “I must survive” on a post-it note, before sticking it on a framed photo of his family, it’s hard not to relate to his pain. We’ve spent much of 2020 in quarantine, wondering when we’d see family and friends face to face again. Meanwhile, he spends hours listening to talking heads and scientists on TV theorize about the source of the infection and how it spreads. Those scenes in particular call to mind the early days of COVID when so much about the disease was unknown. One talking head mentions that the infected can remain asymptomatic for a while and still spread the disease. Sound familiar?
Furthermore, Joon-woo is so relatable because of the simple things he misses. When he watches a commercial for ramen noodles, he devours his last pack of them, which he’s labeled as a final meal. After months of quarantine, who can’t relate to missing the normal and familiar things in life that we took for granted pre-COVID?
The film features one more main character, Yoo-bin (Park Shin-Hye), a resourceful neighbor. Watching the relationship between Yoo-bin and Joon-woo deepen is another one of the film’s highlights. You generally want them to survive, especially as they grow closer to each other through their means of survival. For instance, when Joon-woo can barely stand, due to hunger pains, Yoo-bin attempts to get him food from across balconies.
The two characters are nearly zombie food on more than one occasion. Eventually, they’re swarmed by zombies upon a rooftop. Their death seems certain, and without spoiling the ending, I must state that the solution to their predicament is an easy way out. It’s the film’s only major flaw. It comes across as lazy writing, though maybe Cho, who co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Naylor, wanted to leave the door open for a sequel. Still, in an otherwise engaging film, the ending is a real letdown.
Overall, #Alive strikes a chord because it dropped months after we’ve endured a year of isolation and a pandemic that’s ravaged the world. Joon-woo’s depression and anxiety resonate. The zombies do their thing and their bleeding eyes are haunting, but it’s the protagonist’s inner-turmoil and friendship with Yoo-bin that are the film’s real highpoints. It’s just a shame that the ending deflates what’s otherwise a strong zombie movie.
#Alive is currently streaming on Netflix.
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