Zombies…ya gotta love em!
Going back to 1968, when George Romero unleashed a new and lasting breed of the undead upon the movie-going masses with the classic Night of the Living Dead, entertainment cultures around the world have readily embraced the nightmare scenario of the reanimated corpses walking and stalking among us, often to Big Money at the Box Office.
I’ve been a huge zombie movie fan going back to when I was a kid and I’ve seen all different kinds and qualities, but I have to admit that I hadn’t seen one from South Korea.
I first heard about Train to Busan when it was released in 2016, as the buzz around it held it aloft as a surprisingly effective entry into the cinematic world of the living dead, but alas…it eluded me in the theatres and then slipped off my radar, only to pop up in zombie-related articles and videos online from time to time, and always cast in some favorable light.
Fucking COVID-19 popped onto the scene and as life outside got surreal, my need to scribble these lil movie scribbles dimmed and after a couple months of maddening inactivity I said “Fuck it! Time to review SOMETHING!”.
So here I am!
While perusing the genre offerings on Amazon Prime the other night, Train to Busan popped up unexpectedly, and just when I was in the mood for a foreign film (don’t watch anywhere near enough of them these day). Luckily, My Better Half is also a horror flick fan so it wasn’t a hard sell.
Train to Busan takes place in modern day South Korea where we meet a businessman who also moonlights as a dead-beat dad to his young daughter. When he screws up a birthday present, he’s guilted into taking the girl to her mom / his ex-wife in the city of Busan, by train. As they set out, the hinted-at zombie outbreak is fully unleashed and the passengers on the train have to fight for their lives against not only the frenzied herds of marauding infected, but also the cutthroat survival instincts of those around them as they train travel from station to station, trying to find help and safety.
So, I had a toke, we grabbed some bevvies and I pulled out the ole pen and paper.
Here lie those scribbles…
–Slow lead up to the zombie shit. Effective. This one doesn’t just hit you over the head in the opening minutes. There’s a slow burn in Act 1, with just hints of unrest on the peripherals of our main characters lives. In that respect (and others) it reminded me of one of my favorite zombie flicks, Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead in that we see small, unnerving things happening in society just prior to the horror spilling forth.
–Oblivious passengers! This may be *SPOILERS* but the train becomes infected when a bitten girl gets onboard unnoticed. And I mean unnoticed! Whether she’s slamming into the side of the train RIGHT BEHIND the railway employee manning the platform, who somehow doesn’t notice shit, to the scores of passengers she just stumbles and twitches past. For a couple minutes, it ALMOST approached Shaun of the Dead territory.
–Vibrant, polished look. This movie looks great, very ‘cinematic’, and I could easily stand it beside Dawn of the Dead (2004) as stylistic cousins.
–Creepy first zombie attack! Relentless. When the shit hits the fan…it REALLY hits the fan, and fast too. Not only do the new zombies move with a frenzied speed, so does the gestation time of the infection in those bitten. The numbers of bloody, screeching assailants multiply quickly, threatening to overwhelm the survivors as they frantically seek safety. And within seconds you know these creatures are scary ass motherfuckers!
–Great physical acting. These zombies are fucking rad! As the first full-blown zombie attack bloodied up our screen, we both wondered how many of the zombie actors were circus performers and when you see it, you’ll understand why. They do some crazy, border-line sickening contortions as they depict the frenzied attacks and charges and it lent an almost alien quality to the creatures.
– Eerie last phone call. Mom. Possible *SPOILER* but while most of the 1 hour 58 minute runtime is dedicated to what happens to the train and its passengers, we do get hints of far more widespread destruction breaking out across the country and a last phone call from our main characters mother, as she’s ‘turning’, was creepy and effective.
–This is awesome! Could tie into Zack Snyder’s D o t D. Clearly, I’m digging the movie at the point of this scribble. It wouldn’t have taken much but had someone wanted to tie this flick into Snyder’s debut film, especially since visually it already reminds me of that movie, it wouldn’t take much to do…and that would be super cool!
–Hmmm…pregnant…zombies…where have I seen this before? Yep, that’s yet another reference to Dawn of the Dead. Luckily, they don’t follow that flick’s example when it comes to young lives emerging out into the beautiful, zombie-plagued world. One of the main characters is a young pregnant woman, who fights to survive for her and her unborn child. Dawn…goes in a different direction, I guess you could say.
–Escalators! There’s a clever attack scene in which victims are essentially herded toward a literal army of undead soldiers rushing up a running bank of descending escalators. Good stuff!
–Tense action scenes. Many of the action scenes are tense. Like it says.
–Punching zombies bare-fisted?! Not sure about that. To me, that’s just asking for a zombie infection, via the bloodied knuckles smashing and scraping off of undead dental work at high speed. One character in particular, a loud-mouthed tough guy, goes at the scores of undead with his fists just a flyin! He smashes many a zombie face / head, yet…no infection.
–I like the use of the zombie’s ‘sight’. Another aspect I felt was cool was how the undead was a visual predator, who could be fooled with changes to the lighting. There were a few good scenes that incorporated this nicely.
–I like that attention was paid to the psychological toll as well as the carnage. The best zombie films, usually directed by Romero, often highlight the survivors becoming their own worst enemies as the state of the world crumbles around them into horror and madness, often having characters turn on each other when the chips are down. Train to Busan gave me a nice balance there.
–Cat n mouse games are intense. Several times, the main characters don’t have the option to attack to undead attackers to get past, instead having to figure out ways to fake them out and completely circumvent the various frenzied clusters that lurk both on the train and at the various stations along the way, using observations of the creature’s behaviours and reactions as a guide. Tension was derived equally from the crazy and bloody attack scenes and the suspenseful slower moments.
–Clever use of environment and props. This falls right in place with the one above.
–Train is a microcosm for overall societal collapse. This is pretty obvious, but it’s easy to see how conditions on the train mirror the conditions of South Korea beyond the stations.
–Solid acting throughout. Kinda says it right there.
–Bleak and somber. The way a zombie movie should be! I’m a pretty happy-go-luck dude…but in my opinion, the best zombie films shouldn’t leave us feeling happy when the final credits roll (Prime Example – the original Night of the Living Dead). Train to Busan got that memo and ran with it. I appreciated the horror it dwelt in as the situation got worse and worse, back-dropped by the knowledge that there was no easy escape from the spread of the zombie plague.
–Good finish, nicely abrupt. And that one about wraps up my scribbles.
Train to Busan is a solid entry into the admittedly over-saturated zombie genre that delivers a harrowing and suspenseful tale that cleverly makes use of its settings while steadily ratcheting up the tension as the disturbing narrative plays out. The acting is solid, the music is good, the gore is messy and the zombies are fucking cool! Those actors deserve mad props for their obvious dedication to their craft.
If you’re a horror movie fan, or specifically a zombie fiction fan, then you owe it to yourself to give this South Korean flick a shot. As the first major horror movie of it’s type (that I know of) to get a shot at a mainstream audience here in North America, it more than succeeds in carving it’s own unique spot in the line-up of great, classic, or just plain awesome zombie movies from here on this side of The Drink.
Book a ticket on the Train to Busan!
*Train to Busan can be currently seen on Amazon Prime