Zombies are everywhere in the media. I was going to say ‘nowadays’ but I honestly can’t think of a time when zombies weren’t popular – from George A. Romero’s genre defining Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to The Walking Dead, currently airing its eighth season, there have been countless depictions of the cannibalistic undead preying on the living. With so much to choose from it’s understandable how South Korea’s Train to Busan went under the radar here in Australia – screening at festivals before being released straight to DVD and streaming sites like Netflix. The story is a simple one and it never feels like director Yeon Sang-ho is trying to reinvent the zombie movie formula, but instead he playfully explores the conventions to bring some much needed life and ingenuity into a genre that can at times feel done to death.
A workaholic recently divorced father (Gong Yoo) who only cares about himself has to accompany his young daughter (Kim Su-an) on the titular train to Busan so she can see her mother. Along the way people start turning into zombies, and some of these zombies end up on the train. That’s about the extent of the story. Like the best high concept films Park Joo-suk’s screenplay fully realises this simple premise with moments that manage to be funny, tense, heart-warming, and tragic. The characters all fit within the familiar roles of potential victims: A selfish businessman, a pregnant woman and her tough but kind-hearted husband, two elderly sisters, and a high school baseball team, but nearly every character gets at least one small personal moment to elevate them beyond a simple caricature. Even Train to Busan’s zombies manage to feel different from the typical shambling threat, with jerkier movements, flailing limbs, and a weakness to darkness.
Train to Busan eschews the hyper-realistic oversaturated visuals of a zombie film like 28 Days Later, as well as the dark and gritty tones of other recent horror films, to instead emphasise the mundane nature of travel. The train is clean, colourful, and brightly lit, and all the passengers are just regular people. There are no real fighters or weapons on board, so the action scenes are more focused on escaping or holding the zombies back. Even when things in Train to Busan are going to Hell it manages to feel grounded through offering something that feels real, be it the believably human characters or just the universally recognisable location of a train station. It’s a minor thing, but it helps make the situation all the more accessible – after all, I catch the train nearly every day.
Train to Busan is a pure, unashamed, zombie flick. It’s tremendously fun, inventive, often feels like it has something to say, and is all the stronger for never pretending to be anything more than it is. If films like this are still being made, it seems that zombie films have plenty of life left in them.