I have a friend who’s a little too excited about the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. I imagine what thrills him is the prospect of getting to live in a world where survival skills will be key — the niceties of our reality will be stripped away and only the strongest will make it out alive. I think he’ll also dig the solitude, the idea that society has collapsed and we’re now left to fend for ourselves. He’s clearly not the only one who feels that way: There’s a strain of post-apocalyptic fiction that feeds on the allure of aloneness. Whether it’s “Time Enough at Last” or I Am Legend, the image of a solitary figure free of the restraints of civilization is disconcerting but also weirdly liberating. Just imagine if we didn’t have people around all the time.
I understand the appeal, and there are certainly periods of time where I find it novel to be all by myself, cut off from everything and everyone. But I know I’d crack after a while. That certainly seems to be the case with Jun-u, the hero of #Alive (out today on Netflix), who finds out just how much he misses people once they’re gone. This South Korean import doesn’t offer much new to the ever-growing ecosystem of zombie cinema, but its most interesting notion is that, as isolated as we are because of our devices, deep down we crave connection — and not necessarily the kind you get on social media or the internet. Already a big hit in its home country, #Alive has an unmistakable resonance during our coronavirus age. (After all, the film is about a strange virus wreaking havoc on the populace, sowing death and devastation in its wake.) But it also speaks to a time in which we’re in each other’s orbit but still far away. It’s a zombie flick about how loneliness can be as frightening as the undead.
The film stars Yoo Ah-in, superb in 2018’s masterful Burning, as Jun-u, a twentysomething dude who doesn’t seem to be the most motivated of young men. Lazily waking up one morning around 10 and absentmindedly calling out to his mom, who doesn’t respond, he discovers his family has gone on a trip without him, leaving Jun-u in their high-rise apartment in Seoul. Although not too bothered by this development — hey, more time to play video games online — he quickly realizes that something terrible is happening. Infected locals are biting their fellow citizens, and widespread panic has taken hold. Yup, the zombie apocalypse is here, but Jun-u is hardly the sort of strapping action hero you need for a moment like this. A gadget freak more comfortable recording video messages for his online followers than fighting his way out of danger, Jun-u is usually the first guy to die in a zombie movie. But we’re gonna be with him for the duration.
#Alive’s ideas are hardly original. Sort of a mixture of Home Alone and Cast Away — plus zombies — director Il Cho’s feature debut is a pretty straightforward action-thriller in which Jun-u has to keep the infected masses from getting into his apartment while figuring out how to find food and supplies. Sometimes in movies like this, an ordinary character thrust into extraordinary circumstances will tap into heretofore unknown depths within himself, becoming a better person in the process. Initially, Jun-u doesn’t seem like that kind of character: He’s not particularly resourceful and also a bit ineffectual. But, mostly, he seems crushed by the enormity of his loneliness. With hordes of undead feasting on victims on the street down below — and occasional zombies roaming the hallway — Jun-u is cut off from everything. And with the Wi-Fi no longer working, he can’t make contact with the outside world. No wonder he considers killing himself.
That’s when the movie’s second major character shows up. That’s Yu-bin (Park Shin-hye), a young woman who lives in the apartment building across from his. She’s also alone, but she seems much brighter and more composed than he does. But although she’s handy with an ax, she’s no ass-kicking machine, either. In reality, their most valuable quality is that they’re another person out there in the world. Even though they’re separated by their apartment buildings, only able to see each other from their respective balconies, they’re a constant reminder that they’re not so alone.
We’re now six months into a pandemic that shows no signs of abating. When it started, there was a lot of talk about reaching out to those who didn’t have anyone: Those who are single and living by themselves, like an elderly relative. But that was during the initial days when the urgency was more pronounced. Half a year later, I wonder how we’re all coping with the slow erosion of the social bonds we used to have. We can Zoom as much as we want, but there’s still that realization that we’re separated by a screen and by distance. Even those of us lucky to be living with someone we love understand that we’ve never been more solitary than we are right now.
That COVID reality, which #Alive couldn’t have anticipated, gives the film an extra jolt. Jun-u and Yu-bin don’t develop a romantic rapport, in part because romance isn’t the most pressing concern on their mind. They’re just craving another person to ward off that feeling that they’re up against this menace all by themselves. Initially, they communicate by walkie-talkie from their separate apartments, but once they finally share the same space after battling a bunch of zombies, all he says to her is “Nice to meet you.” Her response: “Likewise.” Who needs love when safety in numbers is more important?
There’s a Gen-Z/young-millennial commentary running through the film, if you want to read into the story’s subtext, that argues that Jun-u, Yu-bin and so many their age have metaphorically been abandoned, left to their own devices. In #Alive, parental figures are too far away to do anything, and the adults our main characters do encounter prove to be too concerned about their own self-interest to help. Growing up in a digitally hooked-up culture, these characters don’t know any other way to live, and when the unimaginable happens, they’re ill-equipped.
But I prefer to see #Alive as more hopeful than that. My friend might talk a good game about thriving during a zombie apocalypse — and we may all occasionally fantasize about the purity and simplicity of the solitary life. Ultimately, however, it’s good that we need one another. It’s not just the cannibalistic undead that we need to fear — it’s the everyday hardships that get a little bit easier when we’ve got folks around us for support. Jun-u and Yu-bin aren’t anybody special, but in #Alive their survival is entirely dependent on working together and caring about one another. Even when the world is ending, it’s nice to have someone to share it with.