Train to Busan, 2016.
Directed by Sang-ho Yeon.
Starring Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jung, Dong-seok Ma, and Eui-sung Kim.
A selfish businessman reconnects with his young daughter on a train journey across South Korea, albeit against a backdrop of marauding zombies.
You would have thought that the zombie genre had all but dried up given that movies concerning the undead coming back to life had long ago resigned themselves to the direct-to-DVD bargain bin and the seemingly immortal The Walking Dead TV show had claimed the mantle of being the standard-bearer for all things zombie related. However, all is not lost for those still hungry for a bloodthirsty gut-cruncher with a socio-political message as j offers up all of those old-school George A. Romero-style commentaries amongst several flurries of new-school zombie action in a way that won’t offend hardcore fans of either style.
The masterstroke that seems to have eluded producers of the majority of modern zombie movies is to keep it simple and have characters that the audience can get behind, and that is where the strength of Train to Busan lies as not since the heyday of George A. Romero (i.e. pre-Land of the Dead) have we had a cast of characters whose actions and potential deaths actually mean something and warrant a reaction that isn’t a negative one. At the heart of the plot is a story about a workaholic father who has reluctantly taken a day out of the office to take his young daughter to visit his estranged wife for the little girl’s birthday, and naturally events take a turn for the worse as a virus has gripped the country and turned the population into snarling zombies, forcing the passengers on the train to either join forces and fight the infected army looking to slaughter them all or separate off into their little groups and fight each other. As the train moves onwards the numbers of passengers drop and father and daughter begin to bond as it becomes increasingly clear that there may not be anybody waiting for them at the other end.
Despite lead actors Yoo Gong as the father Seok Woo and Soo-an Kim as his daughter Soo-an performing admirably and being totally convincing as the desperate father and child just hoping to survive, it is Dong-seok Ma as fellow passenger Sang Hwa who makes the biggest impression. Sang Hwa is travelling with his heavily pregnant wife and takes an instant dislike to Seok Woo, whom he refers to as ‘Arsehole’ throughout the film, and it is his interactions with Seok Woo and Soo-An Kim that have the most poignancy, especially as he is about to become a parent himself. Of course, there is also the real rotten apple of the bunch; Night of the Living Dead had Harry Cooper and Train to Busan has Yong-Suk (Eui-sung Kim), a businessman who will stop at nothing to survive and he really does become the villain of the piece, even more so than the zombies at times; at least Harry Cooper was proved right in the end.
There are also other groups of passengers aboard who we come to spend time with and get invested in their stories, including two elderly sisters who don’t want to be separated and a team of college kids on a sports outing, and as the various characters come and go you begin to realise that strong writing and believable performances are all that is needed to make a successful and effective zombie movie – hell, it worked for George A. Romero (three times anyway) – and the obvious draw of blood and guts can be secondary if you get the script down. That isn’t to say that Train to Busan doesn’t have its moments when it comes to gore but the pace is so quick and the attacks filmed in such a way that you can see what is going on despite the camera never lingering, and so when somebody does get their neck bitten you get a quick jet of blood and then the action moves on. In other film that may be problematic as a lot of zombie movies are sold on their brutality and gratuitous munching on intestines but by sticking with the faster infected style of undead rather than going with shambling flesh-eaters means that you get enough of the red stuff flying about from shock attacks and jump scares that actually work without having to rely on buckets of entrails to gross you out. The zombies themselves also look pretty good, going for The Evil Dead-style white eyes and pulsating veins for features, and these ghouls also have a disadvantage as they cannot see in the dark, which provides a useful plot device for when the train has to go through tunnels and sets up some nice tension as the surviving passengers try to move along the train without being detected. The way that they are filmed when they transform is also pretty cool, their bodies contorting into all sorts of near-impossible angles, although you can easily spot the reverse photography on some of them if you look carefully.
All of the individual pieces of Train to Busan aren’t that original and are plot threads and character types we’ve all seen before in a dozen other disaster horror movies but the way in which writer/director Sang-ho Yeon weaves it all together, with an energy usually reserved for action movies and the actors playing their parts with total conviction, is what makes the film such a satisfying investment of your time. There is a distinct lag in the pacing as the film moves from the second act into the third, although it does pick up again for the final attack, and some of the CGI backgrounds look like they were lifted straight out of a video game, although considering how frenetic the action is you couldn’t create such a landscape without a little digital enhancement, but these small niggles aside, Train to Busan is a highly entertaining and heartfelt zombie movie that proves there is life in the old corpse yet and is easily up there with La Horde and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead as one of the best zombie movies of the 21st century.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★