If there’s one thing that defines us as a species, it’s a desperate, driving, impelling desire to live … and to do whatever it takes to remain in the land of living when life itself is threatened.
It’s a core driver in all kinds of stories but especially in apocalyptic tales where sheer survival, by any and all means necessary, is the narrative order of the day.
This is manifestly apparent in the thrillingly intensive but also emotively thoughtful Korean zombie film, #Alive (살아있다), in which staying alive, against overwhelming, undead odds, trumps absolutely everything else.
The set-up of the film is not that dissimilar to the way many films in this burgeoning genre begin their tale of the end of civilisation.
A lone figure, in this case video game live streamer Oh Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in), wakes up late to discover that the world he knew when he went to sleep is fast on its way to no longer existing.
Alone in the apartment he shares with his mother and father and sister, all of whom are out together, he checks his phone and the TV news, which is awash of people engaging in violent or cannibalistic acts, with many of the gruesome scenes finding their way, rather disturbingly onto the coverage.
Like anyone would be, Joon-woo is seriously unnerved then frightened as he witnesses most of the people with which his family share their massive apartment complex, running out into the streets, only to be mowed down by the rapidly-building zombie hordes.
It’s a terrifying scene, and Joon-woo reflects all the shock and horror you would expect of someone who’s only concern minutes earlier had been how to stream his latest telecast and who now must contend with the fact that he has minimal food and water and no way of contacting anyone reliably with mobile coverage already patchy to quickly non-existent.
While it’s so far, been-there-done-that in its depiction of the opening nightmarish horrors of the zombie apocalypse, #Alive excels in bringing it fiercely and frighteningly close to home.
Filmed almost like a documentary, you feel completely consumed by Joon-woo’s finely wrought and emotionally evocative reactions which run the believable gamut from ignorance to bewilderment to shock and then, quite understandable panic.
Director Cho Il-hyung brings a cinéma vérité feel to proceedings, evoking the sheer terror of the world collapsing around you even as you look down upon its destruction and wonder how on earth anyone can survive this kind of flesh-hungry cataclysm.
As the action quickly moves up into the apartment block itself, with Joon-woo having to shove the fridge against the front door to stop his now-undead neighbours from streaming in, we watch Joon-woo steel himself to survive even as he also, and again, his reactions feel incredibly grounded and authentic, gives into despair and a mounting sense that he is ill-equipped to deal with events of such magnitude.
It’s at his lowest point that the woman across the courtyard in a neighbouring block, Kim Yoo-bin (Park Shin-hye), makes contact with him by way of a probing red laser pointer.
She is everything Joon-woo is not at that point – level-headed, capable, calm and able to defend herself against attacks by way of a deftly-used hand axe and a front door booby-trapped to repel all invaders.
Far from a femme fatale in need of saving, it’s Yoo-bin who gets him food and water, who keeps his spirits up and with whom he forges a crisis friendship that proves key to their survival in a world where staying alive seems like an impossible ask.
#Alive is, at its still beating heart, a film about living and not just surviving.
It’s a tough proposition as water supplies dribble to a stop, power shuts down and the undead find ever more creative ways to imperil our two ever-more capable protagonists (it’s Joon-woo who grows in his abilities thanks to Yoo-bin’s calm guidance and not the other way around; strike one for feminism in the zombie apocalypse).
Just how badly these two survivors want to live becomes obvious as scene after scene, and challenge after challenger tests their tenacity and will to go on.
For a movie that is full to the brim with tension-inducing, edge-of-your-seat action sequences, there is a surprising intimacy and meditative thoughtfulness to a film which goes to considerable lengths, thanks to Cho Il-hyung and Matt Naylor’s nuanced, character-centric screenplay, to keep the humanity of its story front and centre.
Yes, the zombies are terrifying and certainly command your attention; how could they not in their fearsome terribleness?
But what keeps you riveted to the screen throughout #Alive is how badly Yoo-bin and Joon-woo want to get out of this nightmare, well, alive.
There are plenty of times when the exquisitely well-wrought protagonists could just give up – to detail any of these would be to give away some key freaky narrative moments – and honestly, they come close at times, but every time it looks like they are bested, they find a way to rise up and stare down the challenge, not with some emotionally-distancing superhuman strength but with sheer rugged, hanging on by their fingernails grit and determination.
These two protagonists are never presented as anything other than very human, capably, overcoming human sure, but very human nonetheless and this infuses #Alive with a real point of affecting difference in a crowded genre where the zombies all too often take over the narrative at the expense at any kind of meaningful emotional impact.
You don’t walk away from this masterfully-executed film unmoved or unchanged; you are invested every scary step of the way in the fate of Joon-woo and Yoo-bin, two very ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and who must find a way to stay #Alive when everything says they should just give up.