YOU’VE SEEN zombie outbreak movies that are more horrifying. You’ve certainly seen zombie outbreak movies that are heavier on the gore. But trust me when I tell you, you have never seen a zombie outbreak movie that is anywhere near as flat-out thrilling as Train to Busan.
If you’re familiar with Korean action films you are probably not surprised to hear this. Korean action filmmakers have developed a signature aesthetic that’s built on hyperkinetic movement and wildly imaginative set pieces. Where a western director might choreograph three movements into a single shot for an action scene, a Korean director will settle for nothing less than five—all done very quickly and with as much brutality as possible.
So don’t even bother asking whether the zombies in Train to Busan are fast or slow.
Though primarily a creator of animated films, writer-director Sang-ho Yeon has crafted something very special with his first live-action feature—an edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride that pays homage to everything from 28 Days Later to Dawn of the Dead (both versions) while managing to be something all its own.
You know you’re in good hands right from the beginning. Yeon opens the film with a tight close-up on the face of a roadside hazard dummy, pulling back to show it mechanically waving its flag in an imitation of life. After that, a deer is struck and killed by a truck on a lonely road, only to rise moments later on shaky legs, staring milky-eyed into a world in which it no longer belongs.
It’s a quiet sequence, even poetic, but it sets us up perfectly for the unthinkable chaos that’s coming.
The central storyline involves a father (Yoo Gong) escorting his little girl (the excellent Soo-an Kim) by train from Seoul to Busan to visit her mother. Dad is a workaholic fund manager who has sacrificed both his marriage and much of his relationship with his daughter to the pursuit of success. It’s changed him; made him selfish. And when he sees himself reflected in the cruel demeanor of a fellow passenger—basically an older version of himself—he begins to realize that he’s got to make a change. But then other passengers on the train begin attacking and biting each other, and suddenly Dad’s got more urgent problems.
It’s a credit to Yeon as a storyteller that he manages to fully flesh out the movie’s emotional father-daughter storyline without once slowing the action or dimming the dread of the unspeakable phenomenon that’s taking place—not only on the train but around the country, and, more importantly to our characters, at every station on the line.
A commuter train doesn’t offer much in the way of weaponry, or even useful props for that matter, but again, Yeon is a smart storyteller, and here he demonstrates how to cleverly wring every available opportunity out of what’s available in a limited space.
And he manages to give a fairly large cast of characters enough good moments that they all become memorable, especially tough-guy actor Dong-seok Ma (The Good the Bad and the Weird), who emerges as the most accomplished zombie-fighter ever.
Look for all the familiar themes that have been popularized by zombie movies past—a dim view of materialism; desperate people fighting amongst themselves; a breakdown of civilization. It’s all here, with one notable exception: Yeon almost completely foregoes the standard bullet-or-bash-’em in the head device. The characters in Train to Busan wouldn’t have time to figure that out, anyway.
As I stated way up top in the headline, Train to Busan is the best zombie action movie I’ve ever seen. Not the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen, but the best zombie actioner.
Catch this Train as soon as you can, and see if you agree. Here’s the trailer.