#ALIVE: Self-Isolation, But Make It Zombie Apocalypse

It’s hard to not think about our current situation — the pandemic, the lockdown, the self-isolation, etc — while watching Cho Il-hyung‘s zombie thriller #Alive. Granted, Cho, in his directorial debut, takes the somewhat generic formula of zombie apocalypse movies to tell an incredibly resonant story about what loneliness can do to people in a time of crisis (sounds familiar?). Not all of it works, of course; some elements feel overly familiar and cliche. But for the most part, especially when the movie focuses on the emotional and mental damage of isolation, #Alive truly delivers.

Being Alone

Based on the 2019 script Alone by Hollywood screenwriter Matt Naylor, #Alive centers its premise around Oh Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in), a gamer who struggles to survive a zombie outbreak in his apartment by himself. When we first meet him, he has just woken up from his sleep while his parents and sister have already left the apartment. Nothing dangerous seems to be happening at the moment though. Joon-woo goes about his day as usual; he opens his computer and turns on the game he always plays every day. That is until one of his gamer friends tells him to look at the news.

#ALIVE: Self-Isolation, But Make It Zombie Apocalypse
source: Netflix

Yes, there’s been a zombie outbreak happening around Joon-woo’s apartment. When he looks outside his window, he sees people running amok and start biting and eating each other. The whole city has fallen into chaos due to the outbreak. And Joon-woo, alone in his apartment, must think of a way to somehow survive this nightmare. Throughout the first half of the movie, #Alive focuses on Joon-woo’s desperate and clueless attempt to stay alive. We see him gathering all the food left in the apartment. We follow him as he’s trying to find cellphone service to know whether his family is still alive or not. We also see him encounter a zombie for the first time in the apartment. And while all of these seem a little mundane, it’s actually at this moment where #Alive gets to shine.

Instead of leaning heavily on the formulaic tropes of the subgenre, like running away from hordes of zombies or meeting other groups of survivors along with all the high-octane actions and all that, #Alive offers a portrait of the toll that loneliness and isolation take on people. And the result is more effective than the usual zombie thrillers that we’ve seen before. Joon-woo’s devolution from an optimistic gamer into a depressed, suicidal man struggling to cope with the outbreak proves to be very affecting, even at some point, a little gripping. And this obviously gives the movie a lot more emotional weight even without knowing the character’s backstory.

#ALIVE: Self-Isolation, But Make It Zombie Apocalypse
source: Netflix

Cho‘s gift as a director and writer is also on full display during the first half of the movie. He’s able to create an environment that is so intense and depressing without doing a lot. What he does mostly is just observing Joon-woo in every given moment. The cinematography from Son Won-ho, along with the excellent production design from Seo Seong-Gyeong, heightens the feeling of claustrophobia that the movie is clearly trying to capture in the first place even more. That it has such a brilliant talent in the hand of Yoo Ah-in certainly doesn’t hurt either.

As Joon-woo, Yoo always keeps everything understated. He doesn’t need to put on a fleshy performance to show the fear that his character is feeling. But thanks to his controlled facial expression and uncomfortable body movements, we can sense how afraid he is with the whole situation, and how depressed he is when he assumes that nothing or no one will ever help him to survive the outbreak. It’s a testament to his incredible talent that even though the first half of the movie moves relatively slowly, almost every moment in #Alive always feels enjoyable and never dragging.

The Plot Thickens

While things are relatively simple and small during the first half of #Alive, Cho decides to widen the scope of the movie by adding a new character named Kim Yoo-bin (Park Shin-hye) into the story. Like Joon-woo, Yoo-bin is trying to survive the zombie outbreak by herself in her apartment. But where Joon-woo has shown a sign of losing hope, Yoo-bin appears to be more optimistic and practical; she sets out a trap in her apartment in case a zombie is breaking in, and for the majority of the time, she seems to know how to navigate herself in a critical situation.

#ALIVE: Self-Isolation, But Make It Zombie Apocalypse
source: Netflix

At the beginning of Yoo-bin’s introduction, it’s clear that she’s meant to bring a certain hopefulness to both the movie and Joon-woo’s life; to be the antidote to an otherwise dark and depressing first half. And for a while, she serves exactly that function to a great result. Her interaction with Joon-woo is where #Alive is at its most hopeful. But the minute Cho decides to go full zombie cliche in the final act, all the understated character work that’s been established before suddenly gets undone just like that.

Of course, it’s understandable that Cho wants to bring Joon-woo and Yoo-bin together at the final moment of the movie. And plot-wise, it makes sense to bring those two stories into one — after all, their chance of surviving the outbreak is bigger if they’re working together. But the problem here is the transition doesn’t feel seamless at all. Every decision seems rushed. And to make matters even worse, Cho unnecessarily adds another character just for the sake of tension. If there’s one saving grace, it will be, Park‘s performance, which like Yoo, is always solid even when the movie gets weaker toward its final moment.

Final Thought

#Alive may not land as smoothly as it hopes for. The tonal shift is a little disappointing, and what starts off as a portrait of the psychological damages of loneliness and virus outbreak ends up as something more formulaic. But for the most part, and compared to a lot of other zombie apocalypse movies right now, what #Alive offers here is still refreshing. That alone should be enough to warrant this movie a watch.

What would you do if you’re put in the same situation as Joon-woo? Let us know in the comments below!

#Alive is currently streaming on Netflix. 

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