Once we hit peak zombie, we probably didn’t need a movie that mashed up Snowpiercer and World War Z, but somebody in South Korea thought it was a good idea, and before they asked the rest of us, they went ahead and did it. And thank goodness that they did, because the result is Train to Busan, one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen in either the zombie genre or South Korean cinema. I have always thought that a zombie outbreak story on a train would be a cool premise, what with the train’s regular stops at presumably infected stations where the train could re-infect itself, and where the end of the line might or might not be a safe place. Train to Busan largely follows that concept, but it executes it in such an ingenious and compelling way that it completely blows the doors off of its audience, providing a zombie story more terrifying and touching than zombie movies ought to be anymore, and more clever than its gimmicky premise would suggest.
The story involves Seok-woo, a divorced workaholic who is doing a pretty good job of neglecting his little daughter, Soo-an. When he misses Soo-an’s recent singing performance at school and then drops the ball on being there for her birthday, the next time she is with him, she simply demands to be taken back to her mom, in the city of Busan, a lengthy train ride away from Seoul. Realizing he’s screwed up his parental duties perhaps beyond repair, Seok-woo books a trip for him and Soo-an on the KTX and off they go. Only right as the train leaves the station, they see people attacking each other on the platform, and an injured passenger with a bite on her leg swiftly transforms into a zombie and begins infecting the other passengers. In short order, chaos breaks out, the train fills with the undead, and the remaining survivors band together in an uneasy alliance as they hope to stay secure until the train stops in Busan, which reportedly is a safe zone from what has become a nationwide zombie outbreak. The infection seems to be moving faster than the train itself, which is a little hard to believe, but once the action starts in Train to Busan, you don’t really look for the inconsistencies. First, because there aren’t many of them to spot, and second, because this is just an expertly executed film from start to finish.
What makes Train to Busan work especially well is how our survivors are portrayed, each given enough detail to make us care whether they live or die. Most won’t make it off the train, but who perishes matters less than how they go, and throughout the story, we see deaths that are tragic, horrifying, heroic, and stirring. Each one delivers an emotional payoff. Each one makes this more than just a cannibalistic splatterfest. We actually care who makes it to the end credits, if any of them. And that is more than can be said for most zombie movies. The zombies themselves are, of course, another big standout here. These are not just fast zombies; they move in a collective surge that spills over obstacles like a tidal wave, and breaks apart into a mass of skittering pieces like a ball of spiders hitting the floor. There is something deeply inhuman about these zombies that so removes them from their former human selves that you fear the infection that drives them more than the bodies that infection inhabits. As bad as these zombies are, they are only the symptom of something worse.
It’s said in any zombie movie that the real enemy isn’t the undead, it’s other survivors. There is something about the undead apocalypse that brings people’s worst instincts to the surface as they try to survive. I think it’s the zombie setting in particular that does this, because there is both the sense that the world has ended and yet, the old order is still so fresh that it feels like it can be maintained, and some pursue that with an insane tenacity. We see that in zombie movies all the time, and we definitely see it here in Train to Busan, as the train itself becomes a kind of social microcosm between South Korea’s haves and have-nots, with senseless rules determining who gets to stay in a safe car and who gets to fight through the horde of zombies one car over. Business corruption runs rampant in South Korea, and we see a deep, and mostly deserved, distrust of businesspeople in general. But like any good apocalypse story, the destruction of the old order gives the opportunity for anyone to reinvent themselves, and even the biggest heel can turn out to be a hero if he or she suddenly starts paying attention to where their moral compass ought to be pointing
And that is where we get Train to Busan’s moment of truth. Throughout a series of escalating escape scenes that throw our heroes into increasingly dire straits, we see those working hardest to secure the safety of the group and those least deserving of it separate from each other. And eventually, we get a scene where the self-appointed elite of the train betray our heroes to the infected cars, where they must fend for themselves against impossible odds. While the story is really about whether Seok-woo can become the hero his daughter needs him to be, the moment of truth is what happens when two old sisters find themselves on opposite sides of a vestibule door separating the zombie horde from the uninfected survivors. What happens isn’t just a great moment of heroism and revenge, but a statement on how decent people will always stick together through a disaster–even if that means opening certain doors that probably should remain closed.