Alive is the newest entrant in what I’ve started calling the new sub-genre of thrillers—quarantine thrillers. Before the year is over, I’m sure we will have many more such films joining the club. I know, it’s set in a zombie apocalypse, while the world is currently dealing with a pandemic, but how different are they, really? In more ways than one, this film perfectly mirrors the experience of being stuck in home isolation for the last six months.
We’ve raved about South Korea’s big-budget, dramatic zombie thrillers like Train to Busan (2016), its sequel Peninsula (2020), and the Netflix Original Series Kingdom (2019–2020). No one is tackling the zombie apocalypse genre better than South Korean media. Because of this, you might be tempted to write Alive off as another film rehashing the same genre. But make no mistake: this is unlike any other zombie movie you’ve ever seen.
For starters, this film had less than half the budget compared to the others mentioned in this review. That’s nothing to be sad about, because lack of a big budget works perfectly for the story this film wants to tell. Despite big name actors like Yoo Ah-in (Default) and Park Shin-hye (Heart Blackened, Call), the film manages to stick to an understated vibe—rooting its telling of a zombie outbreak at a densely-populated urban city in subtle performances and adherence to the reality rather than special effects and dramatic scenes.
Most of the film takes place inside the apartment of our protagonist Oh Joon-woo, a very relatable character. He scrolls aimlessly through Instagram, vlogs on YouTube, and owns a slew of fancy gadgets. He hates doing grocery runs, prefers ramen over real food, and does not own a single set of wired headphones. Then one day, Joon-woo wakes up to discover that there is a zombie outbreak in his city, with his family stuck outside, possibly dead. His life comes to a grinding halt, right there in his apartment.
Alive was shot much before the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world, but it could not have released at a better time. Right now, most of us have been in home isolation for months, unable to go out and working from home. To see a film with a protagonist struggling against similar circumstances is both horrifying and comforting. I think this film does a very good job of capturing the loneliness and hope in the struggle for survival.
Yoo Ah-in has a face that lends itself very well to the everyday loser kind of character, forced to do extraordinary things by their circumstances. Yoo nailed this character in his 2018 movie Burning, too. His initial struggles of making sense of the outbreak and trying to save himself from zombies breaking into his home are painfully relatable. That’s why this movie works where so many other zombie movies fail—it shows you how someone like you would deal with zombies if they were real.
My favorite thing about the movie is how it uses social media to drive the plot. This is a refreshing change from all the thrillers about the dangers of social media and technology, when the truth is, should an apocalypse happen in real life, social media is what will save all of us. In fact, we needn’t imagine at all. Phones, laptops, the internet, and our social media accounts—usually the source of much distraction—have saved all of us in the months we have been quarantined at home. Can you imagine going through the past few months without your Twitter or YouTube? Or being unable to video call friends and family? Exactly. It’s gratifying to see this movie recognize the power of staying connected in the age of the internet.
As Joon-woo figures out ways to survive, he uses everything at his disposal— from social media, TV news, radio—to stay connected with the outside world. Besides information, these connections serve as a reminder that as the (seemingly) lone survivor in an apartment building full of zombies, no matter how lonely Joon-woo is, there is still life outside. The film also utilizes urban architecture—apartment stairs, railings, doors—as defenses against the zombies, which is another thing that makes it so realistic, because these are the exact tools anyone else would also have.
Interestingly, despite being second lead, Park Shin-hye makes an appearance close to the halfway mark of the movie. Her character Kim Yoo-bin enters at a crucial time—when Joon-woo is losing the will to live. She manages to inject enough hope and energy into the plot so as to usher it into an exciting second half. When Joon-woo and Yoo-bin team up in their fight for survival, you can’t help but root for them to make it.
I’m not the biggest fan of Park Shin-hye as an actress, but I do think she tends to do well in more understated roles such as this one. This movie does not explore her character’s backstory well enough, which was slightly disappointing, but the mystery works in the context of the movie. In the middle of a zombie apocalypse, when you have run out of food and are close to passing out because of hunger, backstories are not as important as just finding out that someone else around you is also alive. At the same time, the mystery makes sure we don’t trust new characters blindingly.
Despite the bleak setting, the movie manages to include some light-hearted moments into the plot. The humor in this film is unexpected and so millennial—from Joon-woo not owning wired headphones to work the radio, to devouring his carefully rationed food after watching one ramen commercial. Even a whole building apart, Joon-woo and Yoo-bin manage to form a bond that is equal parts funny and warm. The scene with them cooking their ramen in different buildings, while adding the exact same toppings that most Koreans enjoy was hilarious.
The stakes are still high, though, because while sharing light moments, they also manage to save each other’s lives several times. Eventually, Yoo-bin and Joon-woo realise that laying low in their apartment cannot be a permanent solution and decide to do something about their situation. Just as we are inching towards the climax thinking these two are the only survivors, the film drops a surprising cameo by Jeon Bae-su (King Maker). He appears like a knight-in-shining-armor to rescue our leads from a particularly vicious horde of zombies. This arc was a nice shake-up before the climax, however, Jeon’s character reminded me that even in the middle of an apocalypse, I must stop and think before I trust another human. More often than not, it’s the humans who turn to be bigger monsters than the zombies.
This was not a movie that had the time or intention to make anyone cry. However, towards the end, there was one scene that made me really emotional. The scene is simple—we have an aerial view of the city skyline where the outbreak has occurred. The sky is littered with buildings in the area, and little bubbles of Instagram posts pop up above the buildings. “I’m alive here!,” “Rescue me!” the posts say, like survivors sending the equivalent of digital flares to signal their locations. Soon, it turns into a social media-led rescue operation of survivors.
This was such a heartening scene because it stood in stark contrast to the loneliness and desperation we felt during the movie. It puts into perspective that everyone in the age of the internet has a voice that they can use to save themselves. Even in the middle of destruction, or a pandemic, these threads of the world wide web keep us connected. Things might get bleak, but there is hope as long as someone, is listening and #Alive.