Netflix's Zombie Thriller '#Alive' Puts the Apocalypse on Lockdown
Stay inside. Stockpile food. Sound familiar?
Can posting hold off the apocalypse? While many modern horror movies present the devices characters cling to as symbols of society's inevitable collapse, positioning social media and the virtual realm as the favored terrain of the prematurely braindead, #Alive, a South Korean zombie thriller that recently arrived on Netflix, strikes a hopeful note that our tech overlords might approve. The end is here, with the news reporting "cannibalistic behavior" and images of flesh-gnawing playing out right outside an apartment complex in Seoul. Blood everywhere; carnage galore. The twist is that the smartphone might be the hero's most valuable weapon.
Like a riff on Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart has a gaming console, a drone, and a taste for Nutella, #Alive follows sweatpants-clad slacker Jun-u (Ah-In Yoo of 2018's excellent Burning) as he attempts to wait out the spread of a deadly virus at the apartment he previously shared with his parents. Though the film was shot in 2019, director and co-writer Il Cho clearly stumbled on a premise that has heightened resonance in a year when people all over the globe are experiencing the anxiety and tedium of quarantine. From the jump, Jun-u is presented as an observer, a character who watches chaos unfold from his balcony and on his screen. He's not searching for a cure or rescuing loved ones. He just wants to survive.
In its opening half-hour, the movie finds bleak humor in the lockdown of the undead concept. Used to chugging energy drinks and slurping down instant ramen while gaming with his online pals, Jun-u needs to stockpile his food, but he breaks the seal on his "last supper" meal right after catching a particularly tantalizing commercial on TV. He watches a video of a kid falling out a window while testing out a selfie stick. He rolls his eyes at the experts on the news telling citizens to use "breathing exercises" to deal with the anxiety. In the obligatory suspense sequences, the filmmaking is less disciplined, cutting away to the action on the ground in the parking lot as the zombies chase down a fleeing police woman, but the material in the apartment is mordantly clever.
That cleverness occasionally curdles into sentimentality, particularly as Jun-u strikes up a friendship with a young woman (Shin-Hye Park) who lives across the street. The two trade messages, food, and cooking tips. They both wear cool coats. As the film progresses, the scope of the story expands, leading to even more running, hiding, and limb-hacking. This later material lacks ingenuity of the more patient early sections, focusing on a series of largely contrived setpieces, and it's clear that the filmmakers aren't terribly excited by the weary moral cynicism of the zombie genre. Human cruelty doesn't interest them. With so many mindlessly nihilistic zombie stories in movies and TV, can you blame them?
Still, it's not exactly a compelling excuse for the rather perfunctory approach to action here. Even as the bodies pile up and the tears flow, the movie maintains a vaguely chipper tone; desperation never fully sinks in and survival always feels like an option. The genuine dread of George Romero's films like Night of the Living Dead, the uneasiness that drives the best examples of the genre, remains out of reach. True to its protagonist, #Alive never stops asking you to smash that like button.
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