So despite the relentless flow of the undead which surely passed saturation point a long time ago, 2016 proved that the zombie genre is still in rude health. There’s The Walking Dead which still pulling in huge numbers on TV (even if everyone officially hates it) along with I, Zombie and Z Nation having their fans. On film, beyond all the not-even-good-enough-for-direct-to-Netflix nonsense we’ve already had one out and out classic in The Girl With All The Gifts this year and now we have Train to Busan.
Train To Busan is not, it has to be said, in the same league as The Girl With All The Gifts, but then its trying for something very different. The film it most resembles is World War Z, which is never a movie I thought anyone would be inspired by. But its as if Korean director Sang-ho Yeon saw the Brad Pitt starrer and thought, hey, I could do that but better by setting it all on a train. And that’s exactly what he’s done.
The set up is kept to a minimum: a useless father takes his young daughter onto a train destined for Busan to meet up with her mother. As the train pulls out of the station a zombie infestation takes over the city they leave behind and one zombie manages to make it aboard. Various carriages are overwhelmed by the zombies whilst others fight back. That is basically your lot. But boy does Yeon exploit his scenario well.
Zombie movies are at their best when they confine the action to one location, be it a farm house or a shopping mall or a military base. The train is a great location because not only does it keep everything tightly contained but it also means that the plot is always moving along and there is an ultimate destination for the characters and the story. Even in the mighty Dawn of the Dead it is unclear what our heroes will do at the end of the film when the shopping mall becomes untenable: flying off to who knows where in a helicopter feels almost an after thought. Here though there is somewhere for the survivors to get to and it gives the film great momentum, even if we’re not sure what awaits them once they get there. The train also is a perfect set up to give the survivors something to do other than block up windows and doors (although they do their fair share of that). For example some of the survivors are in carriage 9 whilst there loved ones are trapped in a toilet in 13, the rest of the survivors are up front in carriage 15. Its almost video game like in its simplicity but it gives the middle section of the movie lots to do as the guys battle their way through to get to their partners.
The zombies themselves are a fun bunch. The World War Z influence is clear as they pour over each other to get to their next victim like a pile of killer ants. The influence is also there in that it is mostly a bloodless affair, maybe going for the PG-13 crowd, but despite the lack of gore they are still quite a threatening bunch. Maybe its because they are so relentless in their pursuit: when one zombie falls off the train and snaps his arms around the back of his neck he just gets up and carries on running after his victim despite now looking like a broken jigsaw puzzle. There’s also some great imagery: people trapped under a fallen carriage whilst zombies inside press against the window above them, hundreds of soldier zombies falling through broken gangway windows and smashing face first onto the train roof, a thick line of zombies clinging onto each other on the back back of the train, their bodies getting torn apart along the railway.
Of course all this excitement would be for nought if you didn’t care, fortunately the survivors, although thinly drawn, are a likeable bunch. You have the father who is some awful banker but learns the value of parenthood, the hard man with a heart, a terrified homeless man who becomes brave at the end and then there’s the prerequisite pregnant lady who.. okay, doesn’t get to do much more than be pregnant but is nice enough. Hmmm… alright maybe the women aren’t given that much to do except scream and be rescued by the men which isn’t so great.
Look despite its subtitles and coming from Korea where cinema is often both intellectual and highly entertaining at the same time, Train to Busan is decidedly not high art. Nor is it trying to be. It is however a rollicking good bit of horror adventure which takes advantage of its set up brilliantly and gives us some of the best zombie action we’ve had in a while. I’m still waiting for the zombie genre to run out of steam but somehow that hasn’t happened yet, and this is yet more proof of that.