(May contain spoilers)
Among the Netflix Originals that managed to squeeze a release, the South Korean film #Alive (2020) was received with great anticipation. Be it the cult-favouring of the zombie-horror genre, a craving for content that isn’t homemade vlogs, or just the persevering fandom keeping Park Shin-hye’s career alive, the film reportedly garnered the highest weekend box office since the Coronavirus pandemic struck.
But I’m not here to give a review about #Alive — I’m more interested about the message #Alive is trying to send.
The zombie-monster genre has long been used by filmmakers for social and political critique. Seeing as “zombies” are a well-known cultural icon, the logic is that it’s easier for people to grasp whatever message the filmmaker is trying to send.
To break it down: zombies commonly are used to represent the evil in society, or the result of evil in society. Revolt of the Zombies (1936) used zombies to discuss American xenophobia about Chinese immigration. Xenophobia indicates a segregation of the zombies from “humans like us”, where in this context, racism is the evil. But of course, attacking fascists head-on isn’t a good way to open a discussion. And so instead, the zombie-horror film creates an avenue for issues to be discussed without raising a ruckus. As Denise Cook argues:
“Zombies help to not only highlight this fear, but also allow people to distance themselves from xenophobia: fearing a monster is almost certainly more accept- able than fearing other people”
On the other hand, films like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) suggest that consumerist culture is the result of the evil in society, where perhaps shopping malls and phones are turning us into mindless slabs of flesh with an incessant craving for self-gratification.
So, what does #Alive critique?
The first and most glaring critique is about the middle class’ quality of life in metropolitan parts of Korea. #Alive posits that living in an apartment complex is not ideal. The troubles begin with the loss of telephone and internet signal, then the water outage — but not the electricity, for some reason. The film emphasises the issue of close-quarter living conditions on a few occasions:
- When the announcement about the infection’s spread is made in the first arc of the film, hordes of people squeeze out of the apartment complex, indicating the high population density of the apartments.
- During later major zombie attacks, the zombies also squeeze and topple on one another in the hallways.
- When the fireman scales the apartment, we are given a clearer measurement of how far each apartment is from one another: about a fireman-zombie and a half?
- The newscaster’s voice over at the end confirms that the infection spread particularly fast in the metropolitan area because the apartment units were constructed very close to one another.
Observing how the film is set in an apartment complex populated by middle-class citizens, the first critique could be how the middle-class feel neglected during national crises.
The second critique
This part is a bit more nuanced. Considering how our two main characters Joon-woo and Yoo-bin are young and tech-savvy, it’s quite clear that the target audience for #Alive are the ones watching the film on Netflix. I’m also inclined to believe that among those tuning in, most perceive themselves as able to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Like Joon-woo and Yoo-bin, the audiences have all sorts of gadgets, access to information via search engines, and may even play survival games online. However #Alive shows us that when the signal is cut off, our generation is only as smart as our devices allow us to be.
To put it simply, #Alive is unmistakably calling out the technological “tech” generation (referring to the tail-end millennials and Gen Z) for lacking survival instincts.
While it’s a stretch to say that Joon-woo represents the entire tech generation, the main characters do reflect the negative attitudes that the tech generation exhibit. For example, Yoo-bin’s survival instincts are incredible, especially in the scene that I’m very sure was inspired by The Book of Eli (2010) (iykyk) — but even she contemplated suicide. In the same way, social media pages populated by university students (such as the Facebook group, “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens”) seem to express a certain hopelessness in the way they talk about graduation, exorbitant school fees, unemployment, being unable to afford rent— the list goes on. The concerns shared among the tech generation aren’t new, but I’d argue that the Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated feelings of anxiety about this expedited “midlife crisis” we’re having.
In the final scene of #Alive, the horrifying nightmare draws to a close. A calm washes over Joon-woo as he regains signal on his smartphone. The newscaster exposits how rescue missions are ongoing, as connectivity is slowly returning to the city. The final scene exposes the tech generation’s immense reliance connectivity to the online sphere.
Has technology weakened our generation’s survival instincts? I’m inclined to say, perhaps. Despite what we think of ourselves and the amount of hours we spend on PUBG, our generation isn’t climbing through the overhead compartment to evade a train carriage full of zombies, or taping protective shields to our limbs as we bash through — No, we probably just broke into our dad’s expensive booze collection and are dancing to music on our bluetooth headphones right now. We’re the people who posted an SOS on social media, and are now sitting ducks in wait of rescue or death.
But I suppose even though #Alive posits that our generation will not survive a pandemic, it’s nonetheless difficult to quantify what exactly “pandemic-ready” looks like. In other zombie films like Train to Busan (2016) or Shaun of the Dead, nobody was actually ready for any of the events that transpired. And so I don’t think the main message of #Alive is that we should be ready for any and every situation, because the film proves that even the most meticulous planning can be thwarted by unexpected situations. Instead, I found that #Alive challenged me to be more proactive as we wait for the world to regain stability.
Surviving is not so much getting out of it unscathed, more than it is fighting with all our might on the slim chance that we might survive. Just like Joon-woo and Yoo-bin, I hope that #Alive will challenge you to live in spite of your circumstances.