Whether, like me, you feel the zombie genre hasn’t offered anything new or exciting in a while, or whether you’re still in thrall to the wave of undead films, games and TV shows swarming across our screens, Train to Busan will offer up fresh meat on those rotting bones. To put it simply, this South Korean horror movie has become a late entry on my top films of the year.
The plot is straightforward; a disparate group of passengers board a train just as we are given glimpses that something bad is happening around them. The bad thing, of course, is a zombie apocalypse and director Yeon Sang-ho handles the perfectly timed build like a master, cluing us in ahead of the characters just enough so we feel the noose tightening around them.
Really, saying anything more than that regarding the plot would just spoil the fun for you, suffice to say that all hell breaks loose and the passengers of the train must survive long enough to reach the promised safety of the final stop, the city of Busan.
The film knows what it wants to be and revels in the pleasure of a non-stop barrage of thrills and chills. But, much like George Romero’s high point in the zombie genre, Dawn of the Dead, Sang-ho uses the film to make some barbed comments on society. That it makes them is worthy of attention and even though the film makes them a little bluntly on occasion these moments tend to be undercut with character building emotion, so they’re rarely wasted. One particular revelation is actually groan-worthy in its attempt to tie things up too neatly, but the director is smart enough not to linger on it too long before leaping into the next bravura sequence.
And bravura these sequence are. In the interests of keeping this review spoiler free I’ll just mention a favourite, prolonged sequence where our core group of passengers attempt to rescue another group trapped at the rear of the train, meaning they will need to pass through several train cars of zombies – and back again. It’s a sustained line of set pieces highlighting both the film’s ease with character development and its ability to ratchet up the tension, making smart use of some interesting wrinkles on the usual zombie characteristics and in particular of the location and its surroundings. You might even shed a tear or two.
There are some clichés here to be sure (the noble sacrifice gets more than one airing), but Sang-ho and writer, Park Joo-suk give their characters enough life (the living ones at least) to carry you through any hiccups and do enough with the nail-biting action and visuals to make this a first class journey (…oh come on, I had to say it at some point in this review).
Train to Busan is a wonderful, high concept action/horror movie told with breathtaking confidence. Stylish, elegant and exciting, this is destined to become a major cult horror movie, regarded in the same revered breath as John Carpenter’s run of work from the late 1970s through the 1980s. A far less interesting Hollywood remake surely beckons.
Just when you think there’s little left to be said or done with the walking dead, along comes a movie which shows there’s life in those shambling old creatures yet.