In many ways, the zombie genre over the last twenty years has behaved much like zombies themselves. Uncontrollably spreading in number like a virus and swarming across the horror landscape like a horde of ants, it seemed like every nation had various movies featuring the living dead to call their own and yet one of the best of this modern batch is a triumphantly rip-roaring zombie disaster flick that hails from South Korea and stands as one of the most exciting horror movies of recent times.
Seok-woo is the distant parent of an inherently sad child, Su-an who, due to his workaholic schedule has fallen into watching his daughter’s singing recitals days later on camcorder and buying her guilt tinged presents only to find he’s already bought her the exact same thing before at an earlier date. Heading off to celebrate his daughter’s birthday with his divorced wife, they board a train bound for the city of Busan which is loaded with varied characters with their own side stories and lives going on.
Be it the burly but good-natured Sang-hwa and his pregnant wife, the two elderly sisters going on a trip or the high school baseball team and their cheerleaders that include a pair of young lovers, the passengers are many and varied but the outbreak of a virus that turns it’s victims into slathering, contorting beasts means that the only good news is that no one’s gonna be checking their tickets.
As the infection rips through the train like a literal flood, the various passengers left who aren’t trying to rip chunks out of people with their teeth, do their best to survive but an ill advised stop at a connecting station separate Seok-woo, Sang-hwa and various others and has them re-board the train at the rear meaning that they have an entire locomotive full of zombies standing between them and everyone else. As the rag tag group fight their way through the train to the relative safety of the front coaches, they remain blissfully unaware that the machinations of Yon-suk, a businessman whose panicked survival instincts are in overdrive, has made the other survivors horribly paranoid and highly resistant to reason.
As the train draws ever closer to it’s destination and the zombies start making it through the makeshift barricades separating the carriages from one another, lives will be lost, heart breaking sacrifices will be made and Seok-woo will have to up his game as a parent if he’s ever going to keep his daughter safe.
What sounds like a concept that could very easily fall into over-excitable camp (think Under Siege 2 with zombies), all involved in Train To Busan manages to keep an admirably steady hand on the throttle, ensuring that the film never once loses it’s focus or it’s unbearable levels of tension as the characters fight their way through a metal tube of death that hurtling down the track.
The various characters are well sketched out and, most importantly of all, likable – with Ma-dong Seok (soon to be seen in Marvel’s The Eternals) as the brawling Sang-hwa being a stand out, but virtually all of them manage to connect with you emotionally – which is a horrible bonus when you consider that this is a movie where 98% of the cast is down to die under a surging mass of rheumy eyes and snapping teeth.
There’s an argument to be made that you could accuse Train To Busan of standing on the shoulders of giants as it’s basic plot and the specific rules of the infected hew extremely close to both Zach Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake and the flawed but epic World War Z. While there are admitted similarities (the sheer mass of the undead making a boiling mass of human bodies is very reminiscent of the latter), director Yeon Sang Ho manages to make the familiar imagery his own with constantly nerve wracking obstacles for the leads to overcome that feel more like wonderful perversions of set pieces from such classic cast killers such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno than anything George Romero did. Numerous memorably precarious set pieces that include a train thrown onto it’s side with the survivors trapped underneath separated from the excitable zombie by only rapidly cracking windows, will have you pulling your hair out while you bounce on your seat as jittery as someone with piles as the fast-paced action unfurls before your expanding pupils.
But Train To Busan wouldn’t be half as successful as it is if it wasn’t for those ever-tragic arcs that usually rewards selfless heroism with a tragic denouement. In fact it’s hard to think of another horror movie of recent memory that goes for the feels as much as it does for the jugular with lumps forming in your throat with alarming regularity.
Be it Seok-woo’s cynical view of survival constantly being challenged by his sweet natured, angelic regrat or even the ludicrously treacherous Yon-suk’s (whom you will DESPISE for the entirety of the movie, guaranteed) tragically understandable motive for doing all the shitty things he does, the film demands you invest in these characters as their life blood sprays all over the joint and if the last couple of minutes don’t manage to wrench your heart out of it’s chest then you may very well be deader than the zombies that’s managed to escape paying the peak time fare by mob-rushing the turnstiles.
Incredibly exhilarating, surprisingly moving and a genuine instant classic of an overworked genre, Train To Busan is primed to get a sequel with the upcoming Peninsula and if it’s only only half the cinema going experience than the first film is, this Train is going to continue to be an incredible ride on a journey that’s fantastically off the rails.