Train to Busan succeeds more as an action showcase than a horror film.
Train to Busan, director/co-writer Sang-ho Yeon’s tale of railway zombie terror, is an example of movie that got major buzz internationally (even snagging an out-of-competition screening at Cannes), but in the US it has been hidden behind mediocre branding in the Netflix horror listings. The film was a huge hit in its native South Korea and other Asian countries, but watching its trailer will lead the casual observer to assume it’s just a zombified version of Unstoppable. If skeptics are willing to look beyond the bland marketing, they will find a smart, scary and socially relevant fright flick lurking beneath.
In terms of comparisons, Train to Busan would best be described as a blend of Snowpiercer, The Poseidon Adventure and World War Z. The Snowpiercer comparison isn’t just about the train setting but also the commentary on tension between social classes. Like The Poseidon Adventure, Train to Busan concerns itself with a group of disparate survivors fighting towards safety, and the film mimics World War Z’s speedy-zombie pile-up CGI effect.
Train to Busan begins with a truck driver venturing into a quarantined area of the South Korean countryside and subsequently colliding with a deer. After the trucker drives off, the deer slowly rises, snapping its joints back into place, its eyes pale. Premise established, the action shifts to Seoul, where Yeon and co-writer Joo-Suk Park provide some exposition about why businessman Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is a bad father, abandoning his daughter, Soo-an (Soo-an Kim), to the care of her grandmother during long workdays. When Soo-an demands to go to Busan to stay with her mother instead, Seok-woo reluctantly agrees and they board one of South Korea’s beautiful bullet trains. The action begins shortly after they board the train and continues relentlessly until the end of the film.
The zombie genre is so overcrowded that it’s hard for any film to stake out a claim on original territory. And even if it achieves originality, that on its own doesn’t mean it will be a satisfying experience (see Zombeavers). Train to Busan’s originality lies in its bullet-train setting, which allows for a potent mix of claustrophobic terror and social commentary. The satisfaction, however, comes from the interesting blend of characters and their relationships with one another, a characteristic that also defined zombie classics like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Yeon’s true success comes from using the action to build character, often placing hordes of bloodthirsty zombies between significant characters and wringing tension from their fight to reach each other. This setup allows him to keep the action steady without neglecting the film’s central relationships.
Though the special effects are a mixed bag, the visual style of the film is attractive, with the metal-and-glass trains and stations serving as a perfect canvas for streaks of bright red blood. There’s also a very clever gimmick involving how Train to Busan’s zombies deal with the train’s frequent passage through tunnels that adds both tension and visual variety.
Train to Busan isn’t perfect, and it succeeds more as an action showcase than a horror film, which is a shame given how creepy these zombies are. The film also struggles when it comes to its female characters, who are almost always in the position of being saved by a male character. This is particularly disappointing, as the two most interesting characters are the grumpy, dryly funny mother-to-be Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung) and the precocious Soo-an.
Still, it’s hard to ask for a much better streaming-horror find than Train to Busan, which is superior or equivalent to many of the films that inspired it. In addition to making American viewers feel better about not having access to high-speed rail, it is also a refreshingly deep, character-driven action thriller.