The zombie flick. It is a long-standing genre within cinema. Since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the late filmmaker’s influential first foray into the world of the undead, zombies are now a mainstay within filmic society. And as Romero himself understood, it is a genre that needs to evolve and stay fresh, rather than decay and lumber around as many zombies love to do. This is where Train to Busan (2016) triumphs; it is set against the classic and well-known premise of infection breaking out in society, but the triumph is in the setting (yes, on a train, and yes, heading for Busan) and the zombies themselves.
Trains are, more often than not, crowded and claustrophobic. A whole bunch of different people with different personalities are thrust together at random. Director Yeon Sang-ho and writer Park Joo-suk must have had this thought process and then had the lightbulb moment of “let’s add zombies to that”. The result is ingenious and terrifying, and makes for some brilliantly tense set-pieces. One infected woman convulsing as the train departs the station is all it takes, as she rises seconds later as a zombie, biting a train attendant and thus infecting most of the other passengers. The zombies tear through the train carriages, swarming those on board. It turns out it is very hard to escape zombies on a train carriage… very hard. It would be cruel to spoil the set-pieces, but let’s just say the survivors are impressive in their ideas of how to escape being bitten. Apart from one stop at an already infected train station, the film remains with our group of survivors on the train, all the while heading to Busan, where a quarantine zone is reportedly established. It is this fresh setting that really makes the film tick; there is tension, there is terror, and all of this created within the confines of a train.
The Walking Dead (2010-), for example, had zombies that were slow and cumbersome; the terror in that show is the sheer number of zombies, hordes numbering thousands at times. In Train to Busan, the zombies are more akin to those seen in 28 Days Later. They are terrifically quick and fevered, as well as being high on number. Add in some gruesome contortion and movement during and after transformation, and it makes for some of the most frightening zombies ever seen in the genre.
As can often be the case in this genre, there are a notable amount of archetypical characters – the teenage schoolchildren, the evil one who cares only about themselves, the pregnant lady and doting partner – but even these are executed well enough by the actors. Gong Yoo and Kim Su-an, meanwhile, are great as father and daughter, showing their stilted relationship to the audience but also highlighting the love that keeps them together. Ma Dong-seok, however, steals the show, trying to protect his pregnant wife and giving you moments of laughter and fist-pumping, sometimes simultaneously.
The story too can be thin at times, especially with the lack of explanation as to the cause of the outbreak, but really this film is about the zombies, and the terror they cause upon one single train. And it delivers.