Do you know what’s worse than snakes on a plane? Zombies on a train, that’s what. It’s in this film that South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho brings true to horror to commuting, even more so than that time a guy with terrible body odor sat next to you on the subway, but what Train to Busan does bring is a fresh take on the walking or should we say running dead.
It’s clear that we are still living during a zombie renaissance; just flip the channels a few times and you’ll most likely stumble across three or more television shows about zombies, and because unlike your average superhero flick you don’t need a massive special effects budget and thus more varied artists are allowed a crack at them. Then there is the fact that some of the best horror movies of the last decade or so have come from foreign shores; Australia had one of the most original zombie movies in the form of Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead as well as the creepy psychological horror film Goodnight Mommy, and South Korea delivered a bizarre twist on the vampire genre with Thirst, so it should be a surprise to no one that one of the best zombies out there wouldn’t be from Hollywood.
What is surprising is how well Train to Busan works when it’s basically just a straight survival story littered with overused tropes and caricatures, and if there is one character trope I’d like to see retired it would be the dad who “Works to much and thus neglects his family” as if working hard to put food on the table is some heinous crime. This movie not only has the main character being a workaholic dad but the company he works for is at least partially responsible for the zombie outbreak, and he’s also a bit of a selfish asshole with terrible people skills. Yet somehow writer/director Yeon Sang-ho manages to build and explore facets of society through this jerk, all while dealing with a flesh eating mob of zombies, which puts him on the path of the hero’s journey.
The movie starts simple enough with a bitching truck driver being let through a road block set up because of some kind of chemical spill, and while “distracted driving” the guy hits a deer, but what he doesn’t notice, as he drives away like the callous bastard he is, was the deer getting back up all zombified. We then spend the next little while getting to know our cast of victims…I mean fellow passengers; first there is Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), the workaholic dad who had missed his daughter Soo-an’s (Kim Su-an) school recital (he also bought her a Wii for her birthday completely forgetting he’d already bought one for her last year) which results in this train trip to visit his ex-wife/her mother to make up for him being a forgetful dick, then we have two elderly sisters In-gil and Jon-gil who argue that one can be too nice at times, next we have a blue collar worker named Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Sung Gyeong (Yu-mi Jeong) who haven’t decided on a name for their unborn child, there’s a high school baseball team and a cheerleader to add some youth to the mix, and last but not least we have CEO Yon-suk (Eui-sung Kim), whose apparent job in this movie is to be a bigger dick than the hero is. This is your standard disaster movie opening, we’ve seen it in every Irwin Allen flick, but at least the director here manages to handled it economically. The movie then kicks into high gear when an injured, and clearly infected, young woman boards the train just as it leaves the station.
The zombies of Train to Busan are not the shambling monsters of the Romero movies; they are more akin to Danny Boyle’s rage fueled creatures of 28 Days Later with a liberal dose of World War Z. In fact the basic premise of this movie makes me think that Yeon Sang-ho may have seen that terrific zombie scene aboard the airliner in World War Z and then decided that particular sequence could actually make for a good two hour movie. Strangely enough, he was right.
We are riveted as our cast of characters must fight car by car to find safety in world that is clearly far from safe; outnumbered in a matter of minutes by the newly undead, who pop up within seconds of dying to leap and gnash at their prey, and unlike most zombie films there is nary a gun in sight. Instead our heroes must fight through the hordes of undead with either baseball bats or their bare hands. Which doesn’t seem like the best idea when even one bite is death sentence.
I do love when a filmmaker is able to add new rule to a genre; in Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead it was that zombies are slow and shambling monsters during the day but can run like a bat out of a hell at night, and in this movie our heroes discover that the undead have terrible vision, that whenever the train enters a tunnel they lose track of where their prey is in the dark. This leads to some fantastically tense scenes with the survivors trying to quietly make it passed the ravenous hordes, and it also taught me that apparently there are a lot of very long tunnels in South Korea.
Train to Busan isn’t just a zombie film; much like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead it provides a smart commentary on society. Seok-Woo, the self-centred workaholic dad, who at one point in the movie slams the door in the face of the man and his pregnant wife, thus trapping the pair in with the approaching zombies, comes to the conclusion that if you leave the weak behind you will find yourself alone and vulnerable in more ways the one. In one particular scene the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall” is bloodily illustrated, and our cast of characters have to listen on in horror as people are torn apart. This all results in a zombie film that though full of tropes and clichés, if the selfish CEO was any more two dimensional he could hide from the zombies by turning sideways, it miraculously comes together like a breath of fresh air in what is a pretty much played out genre by now.
Overall Train to Busan is immensely fun horror/action flick; we get acts of despicable cowardice as well as moments of true heroism and self-sacrifice, all within a claustrophobic setting that will keep you at the edge of your seat. If you are a fan of zombie film this is a must see, and even if zombies aren’t your bag there is still a lot to offer here as the action is spellbinding and the performances are stellar. Get your boarding pass today.