Though it ironically runs short of nightmare fuel down the line, it offers up just enough adrenaline-pumping jump scares for horror fanatics stuck in quarantine
The classic complication of cannibalistic undead has been approached in countless ways as it is. Filmmakers who take it on now have the tough task of presenting it with a fresh perspective. Yet the latest Korean thriller #Alive succeeds in reexploring this movie genre. (Tired: leaving SOS messages on rooftops during a zombie apocalypse. Wired: posting proof of life on social media.)
Netflix, the streaming service where the movie is available, describes it as “quarantine meets Train to Busan.” In this vein, the premiere is perfectly timed. It’s an adrenaline-pumping yet bleak quarantine watch that reimagines nationwide stay-at-home orders––laced this time with blood, gore and zombies hungry for flesh.
Based on the 2019 film script of Matt Naylor for Alone (the US version of the film starring Tyler Posey and Donald Sutherland and is slated for an October release), #Alive takes into account a modern city dweller’s survival story.
In screenwriter and director Cho Il-hyung’s version, a gamer named Joon-woo Oh (Yoo Ah-In) is introduced through a glimpse of his day-to-day: He wakes up, gets out of bed, logs on and plays video games. With doting parents who leave him sticky notes and cash for household errands, his life is comfortable. He lives high up in an apartment in the district of Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, where much of the story takes place. It is here where breaking news on the television steals his attention, which reports rising cases of infected people attacking others in the streets. Soon, the pandemonium finds itself right outside his window.
The film doesn’t look into the cause of the rabid outbreak, but does reveal a unique characteristic of the undead: they retain at least some behavioral patterns that reflect their old selves and are capable of things like opening doors and windows. This is an added complication for someone like Joon-woo Oh: a young city guy decked out with cool gadgets but with close-to-zero survival instincts. He does manage to work the former to his advantage as he takes a video of himself on a live broadcast to his subscribers, admitting he doesn’t know how he’s going to survive. With cell signals jammed and social media being his only lifeline, he sees others posting their addresses along with the hashtag #Alive and decides to do the same. It’s a cry for help for a rescue team they don’t even know is coming. The waiting game then ensues…and only gets harder.
The theme of reverting to old ways of life in order to survive is charming (throwing it back to radio broadcasting, walkie talkies and Boy Scout skills is a nice touch). But Joon-woo Oh’s days in quarantine are marked by lack of planning to the point of helplessness more than anything. When he realizes the water gets cut off, in one scene, he is shocked and is visibly upset. As if common sense wouldn’t enable him to put two and two together: that once phone lines get jammed and go down, there’s a chance other amenities will too. But perhaps this is a point #Alive wishes to make: common sense in an outbreak, with days spent self-isolating, might not be so common. It’s amiss, too, that a movie about a gamer doesn’t lean into this aspect of his life or that this all seems to be happening in a world where zombie video games don’t exist as some form of reference.
It’s in shaking off expectations of the protagonist, a viewer might realize, that #Alive becomes more about the vulnerable parts of the human experience. To step up to the plate in the name of survival isn’t always the immediate, most evident choice. And this is where Joon-woo Oh exists for a portion of the movie––as a mere spectator of the events happening around him––before he throws in the towel and tries to commit suicide.
Believing he is the last survivor in the now-overrun apartment complex, he hangs on a noose but soon notices a laser beam coming through the window. He isn’t alone, it turns out. This other lifeline comes in the form of a laser pointer-wielding neighbor from across the street named Yoo-bin Kim (Park Shin-Hye). His first sign of life in over 20 days.
Yoo-bin Kim’s character is what energizes the plot. She has a more systematic approach to survival, so much so that she is able to spare food and water and share them with Joon-woo Oh. An unlikely pairing but they’re all the other has. The thoughtful Yoo-bin Kim versus the spontaneous Joon-woo Oh. Stoic versus emotional. A survivor thanks to planning versus a survivor thanks to luck. And they now have to work together to make it out in one piece.
#Alive does the zombie genre right by considering an unpopular angle for its main character: the art of getting by and basically being lucky to last this long. In that sense, it presents Joon-woo Oh as flawed and human: a character that the audience might root for, well, for the sake of humanity.
It is unfortunate, though, that the desire to see a gamer such as himself “gamify” his survival in real life isn’t actualized in a more triumphant manner. Instead, #Alive spends more time comfortably leaning into the film trope where a male protagonist (“semi-competent” being the baseline, as Vox put it) manages mainly with the help of a more able-bodied female supporting character.
Thanks to the strategic peppering of jump scares, viewers can expect to be pumped with enough adrenaline to want to see the movie through. Perhaps, and on a more somber note, they might even observe that a lifeline in a crisis can come in many forms: instant ramen, finding company and even the mere eagerness to live.
Stream ‘#Alive’ on Netflix here.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver