Train To Busan is a perfect companion piece to Marc Forster’s World War Z (if you view it as parallel Korean chapter), except Yeon Sang-ho’s off-the-rails zombie ride is infinitely better in every respect. This isn’t just another two-hour South Korean zombie flick. This is an undead Snowpiercer that bastardizes humanity, engages in survivalist action, and establishes a doomsday scenario worth fearing. As an isolated KTX train hurdles towards its final destination, we’re engulfed in an anarchistic nightmare that plays out inside the sealed silver bullet. Zombies gnash their teeth, patrons run for cover and humanity turns to shit once bodies start reanimating, in what could be one of the best zombie films to hit cinemas since…well…probably the last Korean zombie movie you saw.
As expected, we follow a train full of passengers who find themselves caught amidst a zombie apocalypse (an infection that spreads through bites). We’re introduced to the situation through the eyes of Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), who are en route to Busan (Soo-an wants nothing more for her birthday than to see mommy, who has separated from Seok Woo). The train is full of your typical early-morning riders – businessmen, a baseball team, grannies, pregnant couples – none of whom can see the chaos unfolding in cities around them. As civilization crumbles, the train stays its course until an infected passenger starts a chain reaction of bites that zombify more than half the riders. As the train pulls into its first stop, it becomes obvious that every station has been completely overrun by dead-heads. Zombies inside, zombies outside – and you thought traveling was bad enough already…
By mentioning World War Z, you should already be clued into the non-classic nature of Sang-ho’s creature design. These zombies are walkers on crack, who sprint and flail around like uncontrollable marionettes. Infection only take a few minutes to turn victims, so the reaction time between trying to help someone and being bitten yourself is drastically increased versus The Walking Dead, where you can pull someone away, and still have time for a lengthy pre-death dialogue.
Nope, not here.
Survivors are constantly running from enraged, rabid zombies who present an aggressive, unstoppable force (even if they end up tripping over themselves half the time). Yet, Sang-ho evens the playing field by inserting a fun little device where darkness (train tunnels) causes momentary blindness. This gives characters a chance for escape, where the film avoids becoming doom and gloom with a finger on “Repeat.” You see? Fast-moving zombies have their place in the genre world, as long as they’re crafted strategically.
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As for the trapped-on-a-train gimmick, Sang-ho’s execution makes use of the entire transport vehicle. Early on, all living passengers are confined to one safe car, but they’re not here for long. Upon arriving at a “clear” stop, everyone evacuates with hopes of governmental intervention. Instead, though, they find a horde of turned military officers who drive them straight back to the train, where groups are split up. Seok Woo, the burly Sang Hwa (Ma Dong-seok), and the only remaining baseball player (Choi Woo-sik) find themselves a good four cars from their trapped family members/friends, so they jump into action-hero mode. In a very Oldboy-hallway-scene way, the three warriors bash their way through groups of zombies for a jolt of action/horror giddiness (luckily, this isn’t the only time). Contrasts between claustrophobic containment and open-world escapism paint a high-octane zombie nightmare on all possible fronts, commanding steely adrenaline rushes of artfully tragic destruction.
On a level higher than death-by-cannibal-nomzing, Train To Busan hits on societal breakdown in the face of damnation. Class warfare when it’s needed least. We watch as characters either find selfless heroics when they’re needed most, or selfishly throw others to the wolves if it means personal safe passage. In particular, an older businessman becomes the most hated horror coward in genre history, while he causes the deaths of at least SIX major characters out of vile carelessness. We’re talking an asshole who upstages even the dog-killer in Snakes On A Plane.
You hate this bastard with every bone in your body, which creates this seething bond with the film itself – we care so much to see heroes survive, but Train To Busan isn’t one of those flowery, everything-will-be-fine watches. Horror is reality, and reality is horror. Despite being a zombie movie, the scariest moments Sang-ho whips up have to do with the most essential component to any storytelling method…human nature.
Once Train To Busan leaves the station, it never slows down. Horror elements are balanced with dramatic graces that stress family and civility, while furious action pieces are intercut for jumps in pacing. Yeon Sang-ho shines a light on the frantic nature of man, and reveals the scummy undercoating that exists beneath “sophistication” and “intelligence.” Zombies represent the film’s physical antagonist, but danger reveals a much more unsettling beast in the face of death. Every beat works to keep this well-oiled machine of brutality racing towards certain annihilation, mashing metal and blood together with an epic, surreal effect. Hold on tight, and let the horror wash over you…
Train To Busan is so much more than "Zombies On A Train."