I always get a bit of a sinking feeling whenever I find myself having to review a new zombie film. While the genre was at the forefront of reinventing the horror genre in the 1970s, these days it is a byword in dreadfulness. Save for the odd surprise like the Dawn of the Dead remake or, arguably, Shaun of the Dead (each time I see Shaun of the Dead, I find it more annoying – but that’s another story), both of which were over ten years ago, the zombie film has become the lowest of the low in the horror world. The go-to genre for low rent, unimaginative cheap filmmakers who simply rehash George Romero clichés on a reduced scale (and sadly, George Romero himself is among their numbers these days), zombie films rarely show any originality, quality or humanity. Instead, they are at best anonymous, and at worst painful viewing experiences.
Train to Busan, therefore, held little promise despite advance festival praise – never exactly a sign of quality. But to my surprise and delight, the film turned out to be a much needed shot in the arm for the zombie film – playing with the clichés while adding its own twist on the canon, and more importantly having characters that felt believable and a pace that rarely slowed down for a second.
Blending the disaster film with the zombie movie, Train to Busan sees Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo), a work-fixated businessman, taking his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) to visit his divorced wife by train – a guilt-tripped birthday gift to the child. However, a chemical spill in the vicinity has had unfortunate side effects, bringing the dead back to life as hungry and infectious zombies. And one of these zombies is on the train. In a spectacular sequence, the infected woman soon spreads the disease, killing other passengers who then rapidly resurrect (there’s no hanging around here). Eventually, father and daughter join a group of survivors who find themselves locked in a single carriage, zombies either side of them, as the train hurtles on in search of a safe place to stop.
The film plays with disaster movie tropes – the mixed cast of characters who have to learn to work together, sabotaged by one selfish character (Kim Eui-sung being fantastically slimy as the businessman who manipulates panic for his own ends), the spectacular set pieces and the race against time – in this case, the fact that the train seems about to be emptied into a contagion area by the authorities in an attempt at containment, with the surviving passengers essentially sacrificed. We’ve seen all this before, but director Yeon Sang-ho and writer Park Joo-suk bring a new sense of emotive power to what might otherwise be a clichéd story. In a sense, it’s a fine example of the difference between Asian and American cinema (this is a South Korean film, but this is also true of Japanese and Chinese cinema) – Asian filmmakers do melodrama, and Americans do sentimentality. The two things are linked, but there’s a gulf between the emotional impacts. Melodrama allows you crank everything up, piling on the emotional manipulation to great effect. Sentimentality is just sappy and dull.
The film also smartly adds to the zombie film. It’s not so much the claustrophobia of being trapped on a train – we’ve seen similar enclosed spaces beset by the zombies in films like Flight of the Living Dead. But the sheer intensity of the zombie attacks here is impressive – the film is almost exhausting in its relentlessness. These zombies revive immediately (early on, we see a deer hit by a car return to life, showing that not only is this an inter-species virus, but also hinting at how quick the infection takes hold) – though the film fudges its own rules when it needs to, allowing major characters to die and stay dead long enough for it to have an impact.
The film also introduces a great idea that all future zombie film makers would be smart to take on board – namely the pack mentality of the zombies, who almost behave as a hive mind at times. One impressive moment has an army of them clinging to a departing train, bodies piled on bodies to form a carpet that other zombies can use to climb over and reach the vehicle. World War Z might have played with similar ideas, but here they feel more fully formed and impressive. And the film also tells us that zombies work on sight – if they can’t see you, they simply stop trying to attack. Other zombie films have implied (or out and out stated) that it is smell that propels the living dead, so this is a smart twist and allows for some nice little plot twists.
I’m not suggesting that Train to Busan completely reinvents the zombie film, and I certainly don’t hold out much hope that it is the first of a new wave of smart, slick films in the genre (though I’ve also heard good things about The Rezort, so we can live in hope). But this is a brilliantly crafted, well-acted, emotionally powerful film that shows that there is still some life in the living dead.