The zombie sub-genre is probably the fastest growing in all of horror. While it seems to have slowed down a tad, there are still countless numbers of films about the undead. Not surprising, a lot of it is waste, but there are also thoughtful, intelligent zombie movies that manage to terrify while also having something to say.
Director Sang-ho Yeon’s blistering South Korean zombie picture “Train to Busan” is one of the good ones. More survival thriller that straightforward horror, Yeon’s film pulls influence from several movies. It’s a bit of “Snowpiercer” meets “28 Days Later” but with a dash of “World War Z” tossed in for good measure. I’m not the first person to make those comparisons but they’re almost impossible to avoid. But that’s not a bad thing. “Train to Busan” doesn’t hang its hat on those influences. It has enough of its own ideas to make it unique.
The film’s central relationship is between a father and daughter (right off the bat it had me – I’m easy.) Gong Yo plays a workaholic fund manager named Seok-Woo. He’s recently divorced and spends more time at the office than with his young daughter Su-an. His disconnect with his daughter is best illustrated in one scene where he gives her a birthday gift. It’s the exact same thing he recently gave her for another occasion. Frustrated, Su-an pleads with her father to take her to her mother in Busan.
The next morning father and daughter board a bullet train from Seoul to Busan. Once onboard Yeon and writer Park Joo-suk introduce us to several side characters who will impact the story in a variety of ways. There’s a blue collar husband and his pregnant wife, two elderly sisters, a self-centered CEO, a train-hopping homeless man, and even a high school baseball team. But there is one more noteworthy passenger – a staggered young woman with a bite mark in her leg. She begins to convulse, attacks an attendant, and soon the zombie spread begins leaving a handful of survivors trapped on a speeding passenger train.
There are no guidelines to how movie zombies operate. Some creep and stumble while others run full-throttle. Some return to life over time while others turn quickly. Yeon’s zombies are fast, ferocious, milky-eyed terrors. Their transformation from victim to zombie is instantaneous. This makes for several remarkably intense sequences especially considering the claustrophobic confines of a fast-moving train. Sang-ho and cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok create some stellar scenes brimming with viciousness yet not fully relying on graphic gore. Don’t get me wrong, the zombie violence is bloody but far from excessive.
And as with the best zombie flicks, it’s the human elements that makes this one rise above genre expectations. Take the key daddy/daughter relationship. For them it becomes more than a train ride and zombie attack. It’s a wake-up call for Seok-Woo and a chance at righting his relationship with his daughter. There is also a running theme of kindness and charity in the face of great horrors. Repeatedly characters are faced with the options of working together or alone. Their decisions often impact whether people live or die. The film also examines paranoia, selfishness, sacrifice, and more.
I went into “Train to Busan” expecting a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat zombie romp and it’s very much that. It’s a tension-soaked blast of a movie but with plenty of smarts both in front and behind the camera. Its good characters, deeper themes, and impeccable execution helps it to defy any dismissive genre perceptions some folks may have. Sure, it still won’t appeal to everyone, but for me “Train to Busan” is an injection of freshness into its genre and easily in the upper tier of zombie movies.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS