If you want to see the beautiful and highly improbable spectacle of your nearest and dearest in floods of tears at the end of a zombie film, Train to Busan is your ticket. While Sang-ho Yeon’s film doesn’t do anything particularly radical with the rulebook in a way which Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later attempted, it’s able to frame the sparse narrative within an entirely relatable (and plausible) human context, while still ratcheting up the mass zombie mayhem and often almost unbearable bursts of tension and suspense.
Much like the multitude of films out there which still manage to unearth something fresh from within the vampire mythos, zombie folklore is beginning to show real longevity on both the big and small screen, owing to superior efforts like this. Dispassionate businessman Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) reluctantly agrees to deliver his young daughter Su-an back to her mother (and his ex-wife) via Korea’s high-speed rail service from Seoul. But something very wrong and disturbing has taken hold of the world outside, with Su-an catching a fleeting and chilling glance as their train departs the station.
Fevered news reports alert the passengers that a dangerous pandemic has broken out, and before long, Seok-woo and his daughter find themselves fending off the hordes of undead which are (at moments, literally) stream-rolling through the train’s compartments towards the plucky band of survivors, which also include a pregnant couple, a high school baseball team, two elderly sisters and a jittery homeless man. It’s true that Train to Busan hardly wins points for originality. We’re introduced to a number of archetypes that have played out before in similar apocalyptic situations on screen, but director Yeon and his screenwriter Park Joo-suk are interested in exploring themes beyond the usual blood and guts carnage and victim tick-list.
As the journey thunders along, elements of class war and siege mentality are touched upon, where the lack of empathy and mistrust amongst the living prove to be just as tough to avoid as the unwanted train guests. Throughout all this, the filmmakers never skimp on the action and the blistering zombie attacks (one white-knuckle scene, as the passengers are forced to temporarily disembark, will have you flailing around on to your cinema seat). These moments are considerably more effective than anything in World War Z, and are achieved on undoubtedly a much stricter budget.
The film’s pantomime portrayal of the main villain (whose increasingly desperate actions sometimes tips things into unintentional hilarity) is a little frustrating, but this is a minor quibble in an otherwise exhilarating and gut-wrenching thrill-ride which savagely gnaws on its rival State-side competition, excelling in both the emotional and dramatic stakes. We can all look forward to Hollywood completely dropping the ball with its inevitable remake, but Train to Busan is the best genre offering of the past twelve months by a zombie mile.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76