'Train to Busan'
After the last decade worth of zombie media, it can be pretty difficult to get excited about anything coming out of that particular horror genre. There’s not much that can really be done with this material that wasn’t explored by George Romero back in the 1960s and ’70s, and zombie movies have become little more than gore-soaked comfort food. That’s why it’s such a surprise that the new Korean zombie flick ‘Train to Busan’ is actually a blast.
While the movie doesn’t offer much that hasn’t been covered before, the filmmakers execute their zombie tropes so damn well that it’s hard to complain.
Following a comedic prologue that sets up a little local epidemic satire, director Yeon Sang-ho establishes his not-so-heroic protagonist Seok-woo (Gong Yoo). The guy is a workaholic who lost his marriage to his job. He has a sweet little daughter named Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), but never spends much time with her. In fact, he gets her a Nintendo Wii for her birthday completely forgetting that he’d already bought her the exact same present for Children’s Day. To make up for that mistake, Seok-woo decides to give the girl what she really wanted for her birthday: a train trip to her mother’s home in Busan. On the way to the station, the daddy/daughter duo notice emergency vehicles filling the streets, suggesting something is very wrong. After meeting a few other passengers, including a pregnant wife, her protective husband and a baseball team full of young rambunctious kids, a decidedly ill young woman stumbles onto the train before it leaves the station. Well, she’s a zombie, and then next thing you know she’s kicked off an outbreak on the claustrophobic confines of a train.
Given that all zombie movies tend to be rooted around some sort of confined space for the flesh-eating attacks, it’s surprising that no one has used a train before. It’s a perfect place for this sort of outbreak, far too tight for comfort and relentlessly moving toward new locations where fresh waves of gross baddies pile up. Director Yeon has previously been known mostly for animation, which shows in his gloriously stylized direction. The movie is a real visual feast backed by relentless energy. His zombies are the running, jumping, angry kind we’ve seen since ’28 Days Later’ (or Romero’s own ‘The Crazies’, to be really honest) and their attacks are vicious. Yeon knows how to keep tensions mounting and the attacks coming. When the movie makes a stop at a station early on, he piles on massive waves of the undead climbing over each other in ways that are truly terrifying and mercifully CGI free. South Korea has been cranking out some of the finest genre flicks for decades now, so the filmmaker has quite a budget to stage his ambitious zombie mayhem. The results are impressive, even for viewers who have been through this routine a few too many times in the past.
Thematically, the movie is of course about humans and survival. That’s just how this genre works. In particular, Yeon has created a parable about selfless heroism. Every character that reacts selfishly to the onslaught of zombie attacks inevitably ends up slaughtered or responsible for raising the death toll. Only when folks start to sacrifice does the group benefit. Maybe that’s pretty simple stuff, but it works. Yeon also establishes just enough three-dimensional humanity in his ensemble for the drama to string, building up to a genuinely heartbreaking finale.
The director also has a couple twists to make his zombies unique. They’re so purely driven by instinct that merely being unable to see their prey (such as by blocking windows or through the darkness of the train) calms them from attacks. Yeon milks those little additions for sweaty-palmed suspense sequences that aren’t easy to shake off. While blood runs liberally, the movie is never a gorefest for the sake of it. It always has some sort of human stakes to keep the blood boiling.
While ‘Train to Busan’ might ultimately just be yet another zombie movie, it’s executed with such craft, care and intelligence that it’s easy to get swept up in this overplayed genre again. It’s one hell of a wild ride for horror fans, especially those who wrote off this genre long ago. If ‘World War Z’ had been executed this well, we’d all be a lot hungrier for the upcoming sequel.