Released by Studio Canal, Korean zombie film Train to Busan rocks up on UK screens from the 28th of October. A box office blockbuster in its home country, is this a zombie epic worth boarding? Review follows…
What is it about the zombie genre? Every time this subset of the horror movie gets choked with aZ grade junk (you can find plenty in the bowels of Netflix) a fresh flood of invigorating ideas clears the pipes again. Since the zombie movie was invented by George A. Romero and John Russo with 1968’s paradigm-shifting Night of the Living Dead it has shuffled along, largely stumbling into the shadows and hiding only to occasionally leap out on the unsuspecting cinema goer with a Romero sequel.
Three movies really kicked the genre back into twitching action. 2002’s 28 Days Later, and 2004’s one-two punch of the Dawn of the Dead remake, and horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead. The first two of these introduced the ‘fast zombie’ or in 28 Days Later’s case the ‘infected’ (as we are obliged to call them lest we unleash the fury of the horror anorak, yawn). Suddenly the undead wasn’t shuffling around like hipsters at a silent disco anymore, they were capable of chomping at Usain Bolt’s Nikes. Hollywood zombie blockbuster World War Z in 2013, and the smash hit TV series The Walking Dead (2010 onwards) took the undead out of the shadows and into the mainstream of popular culture.
Surely it is time the cadaverous tsunami subsided? How much more can be wrung out of this most inarticulate of horror monsters?
Well 2016 (a nightmare year for so many reasons) has proved that the zombie isn’t about to waste away with two highly rated zombie hits breaking out of the genre ghetto into critical darling status. I’ve yet to see The Girl With all the Gifts (can’t wait) but Korean horror film Train to Busan will take some beating in the title race of the years most thrilling horror movie.
When we first meet Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) he isn’t the most sympathetic of characters, he is frankly a self-centred asshole. Recently divorced and locked in a bitter custody battle for daughter Soo-an, who he barely has any time for. He moves his mother into his luxurious flat to look after the girl, has to ask an office junior for ideas her birthday present, and when he eventually gives her a Nintendo Wii discovers from her crestfallen expression that he already got her the same console for a previous anniversary. All she really wants fas a present is to visit her mother in Busan, but her father can’t find the time to take her on the train, and won’t let her travel alone. Only his mother’s pleading prompts Seok Woo to grudgingly accompany her Soo-an on the train journey to her mother’s home in Busan.
This being a horror film there are complications. A virulent viral pandemic is about to erupt across Korea following a biotech leak. Just as the train prepares to leave an infected boards and soon the virus is spreading carriage to carriage turning fellow passengers into blood thirsty goons.
Train to Busan moves at a blistering pace, merciless in its forward motion, but is also unusually packed with character and melodrama. It takes quite a lot from the template of 70s disaster movies of producer Irwin Allen. Like Allen’s best productions (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure) the film takes place in an enclosed setting from which there is not any escape. It introduces a large cast of characters who are deftly sketched to have the appeal of Jungian archetypes (young lovers, good mother, obvious hero, a trickster, and at the centre, the father). These become characters you care about, but writer/director Sang-ho Yeon has no scruples about punishing them brutally, and by extension the audience. This is a film in which no one is safe.
There are clear western influences. It is indebted to 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and especially World War Z. This film’s zombies, or ‘infected’ if you want to be THAT guy (don’t be that guy), act like flesh eating versions of animated character Taz. They are super fast, super strong, and even seem to have enhanced hearing. Director Yeon comes from an animation background (in fact the film is technically a sequel to an animated feature Seoul Station which has not received a western release as of yet) but he utilises CGI sparingly for larger scale effects sequences. For the close up zombies, a variety of practical effects, disturbing foley work and very physical performances, create zombies that are creepy individually and utterly terrifying in large numbers. In one stunning sequence the dead chase a train and form a chain of bodies to climb onboard acting like angry fire ants.
For a relatively inexperienced director of live action, Yeon’s use of space and geography is outstanding. This isn’t a film like Snakes on a Plane where the location is basically just a cheap gimmick. The compartmentalised structure of a train is brilliantly employed to create tension as characters trapped in the rear of the train must battle through carriages overrun by zombies, sealing them behind them as they progress. Even in the open, these super-zombies would be formidable, but in a tight space fighting them off is especially difficult. Action moves off the train and back on again, never giving the audience time to relax. It’s so exciting you might be too full of adrenalin to realise how SCARY it is!
What makes Train to Busan really stand out, is its melodramatics. East Asian films often go for extreme emotional notes that western action films are embarrassed to hit, and this is no exception. It’s not just in the developing relationship between a father and daughter that Train to Busan rips your heart out, but all the fates that await its characters. You care for everyone in this film and you don’t want bad things to happen to them (well, with one exception, a villain as despicable as Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno).
This is an exceptional horror movie and a brilliant action movie. A fast paced express train ride to hell. See it before the inevitable inferior Hollywood remake puffs into the station.