Film Review: ‘#ALIVE’ (2020) — Game All Night, Live Longer7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
Written by Murphy B.
When his online friends debate about the veracity of some shocking footage on the news, a gamer dude emerges from his den – only to find out zombies are now everywhere.
Joon-woo (You Ah-In) is a gamer who plays MMORPGs, a genre that’s become synonymous with the terms “grindfest” and “timesink”. Accordingly, his room is dark and lit only by the multicoloured pulsing lights on his gaming rig. He was presumably up all night gaming, which is why his curtains are drawn and why he happens to be home alone.
Gaming all night may have well saved his life.
As he will soon discover, the world has gone upside down while he was snoozing.
A look outside the balcony reveals people screaming, fighting and tripping over each other to get away from their aggressors.
As #ALIVE wears on, we find out that these zombies are not particularly strong. Nor do they have enhanced senses; although they are rather noise-sensitive. Compared to classic Romeros, who plod and shamble, the zombies of #ALIVE definitely move with more urgency. They are not quite the running, rampaging Rage-infected hordes from 28 Days Later, however.
The most striking thing about #ALIVE’s zombies is their wonderfully jerky movements. The movements are reminiscent of certain creatures from the Silent Hill universe, whose jerky movements were in turn inspired by Jacob’s Ladder (1990).
The first moment fraught with tension is when Joon-Woo’s desperate neighbour, Sang-Chul (Lee Hyun-Wook), barges into his home. Sang-Chul tries to negotiate with Joon-Woo but our protagonist has played too many rounds of Left 4 Dead to know where that decision will end up. Sang-Chul begs to use the bathroom and promises he will leave right after that.
Unfortunately, he turns pretty much right after. As if on cue, the news channel in the background reports that it only takes a few minutes after someone is bitten, for them to die and then rise as a member of the undead.
As Sang-Chul panics, his body begins to shut down via spasms that look like they hurt — a lot. Watching Joon-Woo at his wits’ end as his neighbour dies and then reanimates makes for a genuinely tense buildup.
Which ultimately leads to Joon-Woo being confronted head-on with the seriousness of his new zombie problem.
You guessed it; Sang-Chul isn’t the only zombie in the house.
Joon-Woo is forced to make big decisions fast.
He’ll have to leave behind his home and everything he’s known to survive. His virtual and physical safe haven where he has everything he needs is history. The zombies have taken everything away and forced him into a strange, hostile new world.
It’s not hard to see the parallels to adulthood and the jarring “real world” that awaits young adults here. Despite being marketed as a zombie thriller, #ALIVE has all the building blocks to be a coming-of-age story.
Such stories, however, are often heavily character-driven.
The problem with that is that characters don’t appear to be #ALIVE’s strong suit.
They are not particularly well-developed, not even Joon-Woo himself. The movie doesn’t really do much with his being a gamer or his gamer persona. I’m not sure what exactly I expected when I first heard about #ALIVE and its premise of one gamer against the flesh-eating hordes. But it wasn’t this. This being, well, nothing.
Nothing would have changed if Joon-Woo wasn’t a gamer, as long as he still had something to do to keep him up all night.
Then there’s Yoo-Bin (Park Shin-Hye), the overachieving Type A against Joon-Woo’s Type B. While Joon-Woo mucks about, Yoo-Bin gets shit done. So far, she’s built a cute little tent in her living room, set up a booby-trap right at the entrance to her apartment and carefully organised and rationed her food. She also knows a thing or two about how to swing an axe.
Too bad we don’t know anything else about her. If Joon-Woo’s character is cardboard-thin, Yoo-Bin’s character has all the heft of baking paper.
The Masked Man
Though he’s only in the movie for but a fraction of the time, compared to Joon-Woo, the Masked Man’s character is just as solid or perhaps stronger.
A middle-aged man rich in canned food and bottled water, he lives on the eighth floor of a different apartment block. To reach him, Joon-Woo and Yoo-Bin took the risk of abandoning their safe houses. It’s implied that his child is dead, though we don’t know if the cause of death is zombie-related.
Because his motivation for staying in the game is so strong, the Masked Man’s segment is gripping to watch. I won’t say anything further, for fear of spoilers.
Social Media, Instant Messaging and The News
#ALIVE’s use of social media elements in its storytelling is fascinating viewing. Joon-Woo utilises it as a self-soothing, support-seeking tool in the face of utter isolation. For a time, in his darkest moment, he even contemplates recording his last message to the world. It’s easy to relate because it’s likely that by now, everyone has lived through the alienation that comes with weeks of lockdowns.
This is #ALIVE at its most relevant and timely.
#ALIVE also uses texts and voice messages to great effect. This is the main way we “see” Joon-woo’s family and get updates on them. It is through a text from Joon-Woo’s Dad that #ALIVE gets its title, as he instructs his son to stay alive, for him.
Some of the most chilling and enjoyable moments in zombie movies come from the news segments within. Shaun Of The Dead’s titular protagonist channel hops as he watches the news because he is bored and weary. Rather than diminish the impact of breaking news that is the zombie apocalypse, it sets a frenetic pace hinting at the chaos about to unfold. There’s even a postscript version of this, set after the main events of the movie unfold. They give us a window into a bizarre world that uses zombies as cheap labour and fodder for reality TV hijinks.
We don’t get any such luxuries in #ALIVE.
The telly doesn’t tell us what happens after humans in #ALIVE regain control of the situation. There is no update on Joon-Woo or Yoo-Bin. The news segment in #ALIVE is largely confined to the background and manages to be both somewhat stress-inducing and boring.
What the world rebuilt in #ALIVE look like? Will there be an all-zombie K-Pop band? I guess we’ll never know.
Directed by Cho Il-Hyung, #ALIVE is now streaming on Netflix: