You’d generally forgive a zombie movie for being shallow and uninventive, as long as the story generates the proper tone and mood. Writer-director Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan deserves commendation for not only nailing the bleakness of and terror of a zombie apocalypse, but for infusing such a story with genuine heart, emotion, and intriguing subtext. It is rare that a zombie flick can elicit tears as readily as screams, but Train to Busan is the rare example of the complete package.
A knee-jerk description of Train to Busan will think “trains” and “zombies” and call it “Snowpiercer meets 28 Days Later, or World War Z”, but the film deserves better than that. Yes, this is a zombie flick on a train, but it deals with themes like family, selfishness and sacrifice, and the guilt that can come with professional success. In fact, the only real weakness of Train to Busan is the bluntness with which it delivers some its more direct ideas.
The film begins as most zombie film do, with the status quo. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a successful fund manager, but focusing on his work has cost him his relationship with his wife, and the respect of his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an). For her birthday, he agrees to take her on a train to Busan (ed: that’s why they call it that!) to spend the week with her mother. On their way to the train, they notice a strange fire in town, and by the time the train reaches its first stop, there be zombies.
The denizens of the train include the blue-collar Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), a rich CEO name Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), and a young baseball team travelling for a game. One zombie on the train does what zombies do, and there are eventually many zombies. The rules for these zombies are pretty standard. Bitten individuals who die will return as the undead, and those who do not die are afflicted with the disease and will eventually turn (though, not always at a consistent rate).
The zombie action doesn’t break any molds, but there are some interesting tweaks and exploits based on the train environment. It’s especially impressive when it allows the film to turn towards slow-building tension, and away from simple frenetic chases. Mostly, it’s standard zombie attack fare, but it is executed to perfection, even though it stays away from most of the gore during the actual assaults. The visual effects and makeup give us some pretty sweet zombies, but once again nothing that is going to astound you with its novelty.
The real draw to Train to Busan is that it works perfectly as a surface-level zombie flick, but then has a rich subtext underneath it all. There are more obvious ideas like class warfare, selfishness, and exploitation of the lower classes by the rich, but these are the weakest subtextual elements in the movie (mostly because they are so obvious). A far more interesting idea is presented by the film: that striving blindly towards financial success contains unforeseen consequences. This plays out in the plot with a reasonable amount of subtlety, and then our characters have to deal with the corresponding guilt. “Oh, what a fool is man” isn’t precisely a new idea – not even in zombie films – but the particular execution in Train to Busan feels interesting nonetheless.
Finally, one has to respect the amount of narrative work that Train to Busan does to wrench some genuine emotion out of the viewer. There are powerful character moments that make you feel the deaths more than you would in the standard zombie fare. This is especially true at the ending of the film, but happens often along the way as well. “Zombie movie with heart” may seem like a peculiar genre descriptor, but it certainly fits Train to Busan.
It’s hard to innovate in the zombie movie, but Train to Busan does a pretty good job of feeling fresh while crossing the Ts and dotting the lowercase Js of the genre. The film probably doesn’t do enough to attract those who balk at zombies in general, but fans of the undead will be rewarded with uncommon quality and an effective thematic message.
Train to Busan is now available on Netflix, so give it a watch if you’re even remotely into zombie flicks or Korean horror. Then, come back here and let me know how you felt about it, share this piece with your buddies, and do all the social media dealies.