To begin this review of Train to Busan, I’m going to steal a quote from a fellow writer on this site (I won’t name them, but I’m sure they will doggedly defend their opinion even while being eaten alive in a post-zombie apocalypse world) – “When you run out of imagination, you make something with zombies in.”
Night of the Living Dead laid out the formula for your standard zombie horror in 1968, and very few films have deviated since. It’s difficult to avoid the tropes that make them so popular. and it’s also way easier to merely adapt and reconfigure the template rather than create an original movie monster mythology. Here’s what you need for a standard zombie horror: a small band of survivors must defend a small patch of territory (and therefore their lives) from a legion of brainless ex-humans, which they despatch with surprisingly ruthless efficiency using skills from their every day lives. There also needs to be gory decapitations, minimal survivors and an overwhelming sense of nihilism. Boom! Zombie horror written. Direct bank transfer is my preferred payment.
Despite the assumption that surely by now zombie horror is all but played out, zombie stock has never been higher. You’d think that Shaun of the Dead’s zom-rom-com was the last possible twist on the genre, but that was 12 years ago. It’s crazy to think that a decade later a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt would get the greenlight and be such a box office hit. Zombies aren’t just the go-to monster du jour but also du cinquante années. Their slow-moving trudge into the mainstream is complete – zombies are here to stay. Sure you can hammer the doors shut, but it won’t work, they’re already in your homes.
Speaking of which, maybe that’s why zombies have been given such mainstream acceptance. They’re not that scary – they’re (typically) slow and stupid; they look like you or me (yes I’m insulting us both). In The Walking Dead the real horror comes from societal breakdown and the awful bastards taking advantage of the lack of laws or consequences. It takes real effort to make the monsters themselves truly terrifying, but new South Korean horror Train to Busan ALMOST manages it.
Train to Busan has a brilliant high-concept plot, which is necessary if you’re going to attract any attention in this zombie-saturated world. It’s basically ‘zombies on a speeding train’. Or Narrow Margin with more face-eating.
The central focus is on crap divorced dad Seok-woo, a fund manager who is rarely seen without his phone. He agrees to take his young daughter Su-an (played with an enormous range of emotion from the 10 year-old Kim Su-an) to her mother in Busan for her birthday. On the KTX (a Korean High-speed train) they encounter gruff, no-nonsense Sang-hwa and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong, as well as various characters destined for zombie-chum. These people are spread through the carriages in typical social hierarchies (although it’s more like Virgin Rail, than the distinct strata of Snowpiercer) and this will play out dramatically when the shit hits the fan. Especially when it comes to the real villain of the film, a selfish arsehole COO of the train company, Yon-suk. The callous treatment of his fellow passengers is the true horror of Train to Busan.
The shit hitting the fan in question is of course a zombie outbreak. The how or why doesn’t really matter – it never does, in fact the more exposition given, the less believable it is – so Train to Busan just says “holy fuck, there are zombies, you better run.” And that’s just fine. These undead hordes are of the super-fast 28 Days Later variety with a real taste for neck flesh, but what separate these zombies is the way they move – they pop and lock like street dancers and lurch around with a clumsy, yet terrifying unpredictability. They genuinely feel like a threat, and therefore elevate Train to Busan above its contemporaries.
Keeping the action contained to the aisles of a 40 carriage-long train creates some brilliantly tense set-pieces, especially when our heroes have to battle their way to rescue their loved ones. However some of the most effective moments occur off the train, when the KTX makes its regular station stops. After everyone disembarks at the supposedly quarantined Daejeon, the following 10 minutes are some of Train to Busan’s most breathlessly gruelling.
Also to Train to Busan’s credit, is a strong focus on characterisation, with relationships developed and flaws highlighted in the film’s more tender and humane moments. This does occasionally wander into the overly-sentimental at times, especially near the end where your own personal investment in the characters will determine whether you can tolerate the saccharine. But there’s enough throat-tearing and head-removing to keep things in the red.
Train to Busan may not be the most original horror film, but it’s certainly the most characterful and ploughs through a few standard zombie clichés with its decomposing hand rigidly pressed down on the throttle. 4/5