Zombie movies are a dime a dozen. They’re usually easy to produce, have a rather decent sized and rabid fanbase, and have captured a slice of pop culture once again in recent years. They’re also frequently awful. Horror films suffer a lot in this way. Take some blood, throw in a few scares and some mindless characters that only exist to cease existing at some point, and you’ve got your horror movie. Personally, I’ve been waiting years for another great zombie film and it has finally arrived with Train to Busan.
The film follows Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a divorced father who is always too busy at work to spend time with his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). Su-an’s birthday is coming and all she wants is to see her mother in Busan. It’s a 280 mile train trip from their location in Seoul, and Seok-woo doesn’t want to send Su-an on her own. He eventually agrees to go with her but just as their trip begins, reports of violent riots breaking out all over the city start appearing. It soon becomes obvious that these riots are because there is a viral outbreak creating zombies, and the passengers on the train are now trapped with a growing horde of zombies on the train. The only stop that seems to be safe is Busan, so it’s up to a small group of survivors to try and reach their final destination.
Train to Busan doesn’t quite break the expectations you may have of a zombie film. You get a group of diverse survivors, from young to old, who spend almost as much time fighting among themselves as they do battling zombies. There’s a charismatic hero in Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok who is immediately likeable), who wants to protect his pregnant wife (Jung Yu-mi), along with the manipulative villain of the group, Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung). Throw in a few characters that you may want to survive, but know that they ultimately won’t, and you’ve got yourself a zombie movie.
It’s the little touches that make Train to Busan stand out though. Seok-woo may be the main protagonist, but he’s not the hero you would be expecting. His path may lead him to heroics, but it’s only through shame and guilt that he finds his way there. This is a great twist on the typical underdog must save the day kind of character that usually shows up in horror films. Those characters usually want to be the hero, but have never been able to pull themselves together long enough to do it. A dangerous situation gives them the chance. Seok-woo doesn’t want to be a hero. He simply wants to save himself and his daughter, even if it means sacrificing others. It’s only after he’s saved more times than you think he deserves that he starts to come around to the idea that helping others is the way to go.
Of course, no zombie film will be successful without some great corpses to rise from the dead and eat people, and Train to Busan does that brilliantly. There are shades of World War Z in how the zombies move. They occasionally are found to be rolling in waves towards victims, crawling over each other to get some fresh blood, and they’ll mindlessly throw themselves through windows and over balconies to achieve their goal. Separately, the zombies are brutal and quick. Praise should be heaped on the performers as they flip and flop on the ground, giving their all in physical performances that look like it would have been painful at times. They thrash around in madness, and it’s the most entertaining and frightening zombie performances put to film in years.
The somewhat claustrophobic setting of the train helps as well, and it’s only through a slight spin on what we know about zombies that the survivors can manage to stay alive for so long, especially in the close quarters of the train. Things occasionally move outside of the train, which gives the film a few moments of bigger and faster action to break up the relative calm of the train, which helps make the longer running time run more smoothly. The only problem comes close to the end, when a character’s terrible choice sets up the obvious ending. It’s not that the finale fails, it’s the way the film got there that is a bit annoying. That’s a small complaint for such an exciting, tense, and brutal zombie film though.