It’s been almost 50 years since George Romero defined the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead (it’s crazy how fresh that movie still feels), and those decades have been full of countless takes on the subgenre. Hell, there are even subgenres within the subgenre—one of my favorites is the Nazi-zombies-in-bodies-of-water subset. While there have been monumental achievements using this framework, as time goes on, things have become stale with age. There’s not much to do that hasn’t been done, but every once in a while a movie comes along and infuses the undead with a bit of freshness. Danny Boyle did it with 28 Days Later, and South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s latest, Train to Busan, has a similar effect.
Set almost entirely on a moving train, the “Snowpiercer with zombies” comparison has been thrown around quite a bit. While that’s not an entirely inaccurate analogy, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. This movie is much more than that reductive description.
The set up is straightforward and simple. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo, The Age of Shadows) works too much at his corporate day job and has little involvement in the daily life of his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an). When he takes her to see her estranged mother in Busan, they, along with the other passengers, become trapped on a speeding train as a zombie plague engulfs the country outside.
Most known for animated work like The Fake and The King of Pigs, Yeon Sang-ho makes a seamless transition to live-action with Train to Busan. Also the writer, he gives the characters time and space to develop before throwing them to the wolves. Seok-woo and Su-an’s relationship is nothing we haven’t seen before, but in a relatively modest span, we feel the full emotional weight and the sting on both sides.
And when Yeon hits the gas, Train to Busan roars out of the station and never slows down. The result is one of the most propulsive, urgent zombie movies in recent memory. Clocking in at nearly two hours, this is still lean and ferocious, without a wasted stroke to be found.
Train to Busan mixes breathless action with ravenous flesh-eaters. And all of the horror business is built upon rich emotionality and fully realized characters, which lends the action that much more consequence.
Throughout the breakneck pace, Yeon continues to build the world and flesh out the characters in subtle, clever ways. Never dumping a boxcar full of information on the audience in a single moment, the script doles out the necessary information in well-timed bits and background reveals. An authentic, lived-in feel permeates the setting.
It would be easy to lose the side characters in the action and let them be little more than throwaway zombie fodder and cardboard cutouts. But again, Yeon provides enough detail and allows these people to shine through. The story of tough guy Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok, Doomsday Book, The Good, the Bad, the Weird) and his pregnant wife, Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-min, Silenced), isn’t particularly surprising, especially if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie before. These characters and others—like selfish, out-for-himself asshole who will do anything to survive—could have been background noise, but there’s enough earnest conviction in the performances, and legitimate connection, investment, and texture, that the audience cares what happens to them.
Train to Busan doesn’t blaze any new trails, but it transcends the tricks and tropes of a genre that so often feels it has nothing more to offer. Vicious and gore-soaked enough to sate hardcore horror fans, Train to Busan infuses the zombie action with emotional weight, resonant characters, and a frenetic pace, and the result is much greater than the simple premise belies. [Grade: A-]