Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Cast: Yoo Gong, Dong-seok Ma, Soo-An Kim
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
I’ve seen an assload of zombie movies, from Romero’s Dead series to Fulci’s Zombie to Warm Bodies. I’ve probably seen just as many rage zombie movies, starting with 28 Days Later, and spreading like wildfire to 28 Weeks Later, the [REC] and Quarantine franchises, World War Z, and so on. The South Korean zombie flick Train to Busan has seen all those movies too. Every character archetype and plot beat seems intensely familiar, but sometimes a genre movie is just a genre movie. And sometimes that genre movie is a triple corkscrew, anti-gravity roller coaster ride just the same.
Who knew trains could be so fun?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before Workaholic fund manager Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) only cares about himself. When his young daughter Soo-An (Soo-An Kim) insists he take her to Busan to visit her mother (his ex-wife) on her birthday, he reluctantly agrees. Fortunately for him, that early morning train might just be the safest place that day, because pretty much the second they depart, a full-scale rage zombie apocalypse descends upon the city.
Unfortunately for the train, one of the last passengers to come aboard has been bitten. The virus quickly spreads through the train, leaving only a handful of survivors huddled in the last car, hurtling across the landscape in a cramped tube of herky jerky, B-boying zombies. These final humans include Seok Woo and Soo-An, as well as an expecting couple, a pair of elderly sisters, a fraction of a baseball team, a rattled hobo, and a self-serving corporate stooge. Seok Woo fights to save himself while Soo-An does her best to help the others. The group desperately tries to make their way to Busan, which might just be the last safe place left.
But what kind of life are you really leading if the entrance to the bathroom is blocked?
Like I said, there ain’t nothing new under the undead sun. Any seasoned horror viewer could tell you exactly who is going to die and at what point in the story with at least 90% accuracy from frame one. But who the hell cares about plot mechanics when your heart is racing like you just chugged a gallon of Jolt?
As a close-quarters zombie thrill ride, Train to Busan has everything an adrenaline junkie could want: creative setups for new attacks that don’t just limit themselves to one car, people turning against one another, and clearly defined rules for the zombies that allow our characters to develop strategies and learn from their past mistakes.
It’s a shocker that’s constantly evolving, throwing out new challenges, new locations, and new combinations of characters in an ever-changing mass of jangled nerves. When it comes to depicting zombie mayhem, everything goes right. The slick cinematography is crisp and kinetic, with the occasional serenely gorgeous shot thrown in for flavor, the social commentary is jus the right amount of obvious, and the zombie actors manage to make the old trick of twitching and snarling seem horrifyingly, ontologically wrong. Plus, the requisite comic relief, is, to my taste, genuinely funny. I could watch a movie about these characters having a totally uneventful trip to Busan and still have a heap of fun.
The zombies are just the bloody cherry on top.
That’s not to say the movie’s perfect. Like many a Korean genre flick, it’s a wee bit overlong. There’s only so many “You go on! I’ll stay behind!” scenes I can watch without wanting to dive onto the tracks in front of the titular train. Not to mention there’s a spot right around the 90 minute mark that could, with a microscopic tweak, be a perfect ending that accomplishes the same tone. Fortunately, what follows that scene is the film’s best sequence, lending the third act an explosive second wind that obliterates all doubts about the film’s pacing. The emotional beats, especially in this segment, have a tendency to lean toward the schmaltzy, but I can forgive such a high-intensity film for winging its drama right on over the top.
This is a textbook example of how to do a horror movie right. Train to Busan takes a simple premise, a single goal, and a handful of stock characters, and works with that framework to rattle you out of your seat. It’s pure sensation, with enough intelligence to eradicate the artificial aftertaste of some popcorn thrillers. There’s a reason it has quickly risen to become the 15th highest-grossing film in Korean cinema history. Across all cultures, across all creeds, all we want is a good spook-‘em-up, and Train to Busan delivers in spades.
TL;DR: Train to Busan works within an exceedingly generic framework, but it has an undeniable sizzling energy.Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 806