HOW THE WRITER OF “ALL OF US ARE DEAD” MAKES YOU CARE FOR PEOPLE WHO EAT YOUR GUTS
Or The Art Of Creating Irresistible Love For Zombies
Do you have a crazy love for zombies?
I was a big fan of Walking Dead, the comic, when it came out in early 2000’s. When it was adapted into a television series, I was one small voice in the rousing cheer that echoed around the world. I followed every season avidly. I was also reading the ZOM-B series of young adult zombie apocalyptic thriller novels written by Irish author Darren Shan. Then the Brits did a variation, combining zombie horror with comedy and a love story, and created Shaun Of The Dead. The writers, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg christened the new sub-genre as a “rom com zom.”
Then the Koreans came along with their version of zombie mayhem movie — Train to Busan.
And just when you thought zombie fever had died down, along came Kingdom, which combined period drama and political intrigue with zombie horror. Korean screenwriters took the very American genre of zombies, turned it inside out, infused it with Asian elements and sent it out into the world, creating yet even more love from zombie fans. The most recent being All of Us Are Dead, a Netflix zombie action series set in a high school.
What is it about these Korean genre flicks? What ingredient do they add that makes it such a satisfying meal? And what can we learn as storytellers?
Love In The Time Of The Zombie Apocalypse
At the heart of the series All Of Us Are Dead is a love triangle between three teenage characters, Cheong San, On-Ja, and Su-Hyeok.
Cheong San has been friends with On-Ja ever since they were kids. One day, he sees her as more than just a friend. But he’s too proud to admit he likes her that way. On-Ja is disappointed at how he constantly makes fun of her. Never confessing the three magic words — I love you. So she directs her attention at Su-Hyeok, a good-looking boy in her class who also happens to be Cheong San’s friend.
If you were to remove the zombie bits, this set up would have worked as a series on teenage infatuation and love. The depiction of their heart aches, and secret crushes was very relatable and well-written.
But the Korean screenwriters took it one step further.
They threw in zombie action that constantly tested this love triangle. They pushed the heart aches, the wants, the secret desires, throughout each episode. Every lull between two action sequences was a chance to explore where they were, in terms of how they felt towards each other. And in so doing, they made you care very much when each of them was caught in a tense zombie attack.
Contrast that with the recent American disaster movie, Moon fall.
Earth Nearly Got Destroyed And All I Felt Was Meh
Moonfall is Roland Emmerich’s latest entry in the global disaster genre. Moonfall’s premise was this — the moon has broken away from its orbit, and is now circling towards Earth, causing huge tidal waves, and earthquakes. Halle Barry plays an ex-astronaut, who, because of a tragic failed mission, ended up divorced from her husband who just happened to be an army general in charge of turning the key that would launch nuclear missiles.
Why they got divorced, and how their current relationship was tested throughout the movie, was not clear. I did not even know why they got divorced in the first place. As a result, I did not feel as invested as I ought to be when their characters were in jeopardy.
The Secret Sauce In Korean Genre Treatments
In 2019, South Korea released their version of a disaster flick, Ashfall, which went number one in the box office when it came out. Amidst falling buildings, gigantic fissures opening up the ground, cars flung in the air and nuclear missile threats, we were riveted by the lengths by which a father would go to protect his daughter.
In a recent Korean Netflix sci fi series, Silent Seas, we learn that in the future, the world has run short of water. A team of astronauts travel to the moon in search of a solution. At the center of the series was a mystery. One of the astronaut’s sister had died on the first mission. Now the younger sister goes to the moon, determined to solve the mystery. Along with all the action and suspense sequences, which involved a strange child with inhuman powers, I was riveted by the poignant relationship between the two sisters.
This then is the secret sauce.
Korean storytellers invest as much attention to character relationships as they do, the action sequences. Maybe even more so.
They recognize that explosions and what not are mere sounds and furies, signifying nothing if the audience does not care or feel for the characters and their relationships.
Takeaway For Writers
For all beginning genre writers, the next time you conjure the next cool premise, be it vampires, werewolves, or zombies, remember to invest time in character and relationships. It’s been said before, and it bears repeating.
Make the audience care for the one whose guts get eaten.