Yesterday, the world received the heartbreaking news that George A. Romero had died. He was a cinematic icon, and he reinvented the zombie movie genre with his seminal classic Night of the Living Dead over half a century ago. In some ironic twist of fate, I found out about his death around the same time I finished watching Train to Busan (Korean: 부산행 or Busanhaeng), a film that revolutionizes the zombie genre, making something truly original and audacious. I won’t use previously existing zombie movies to discuss Train to Busan because its success lies in how original it is, and to compare it to others would serve to just detract from this film and others. There are notable differences in execution between Train to Busan and other films in the genre, but for the most part, it is able to stand as a great film all on its own, something that serves to inject some life into an otherwise typical sub-genre of horror film.
The premise is simple – a biochemical mistake unleashes a lethal virus into the world, and slowly people become infected. A group of people board a train (without the knowledge of this outbreak) and start heading to Busan. However, an infected individual finds her way onto the train, and slowly, more and more passengers become infected. Like any great disaster film, the film is assembled out of various characters, each one with their own story, and tracks their attempts to survive. The central figures are Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a businessman who promises to take the daughter he has neglected (Kim Su-an) to see her mother in Busan. Other passengers include a married couple (Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi) who are expecting their first child, an elderly pair of sisters (Ye Soo-jung and Park Myung-sin) and a high-school baseball team, as well as a bitterly resentful businessman (Kim Eui-sung), who becomes the villain of the film simply through his efforts to only care for himself.
The reason why Train to Busan is such a remarkable film is purely because it is a simple film – the execution is as straightforward as possible. Disaster films are often the most underappreciated sub-genre of cinema, and when they are done properly, they can be towering successes. Train to Busan fits into the same category of some wonderful disaster films, because despite being a thrilling and complex film, it is so uncomplicated and basic in how it presents the story – there was not an unnecessary moment throughout this film, and a total absence of excessive flairs made this is a raw, gory and thrilling film that wants nothing more than just to be a simple action-horror film, and to tell a story that may be commonly told, but in such a way that it feels so original.
Train to Busan boasts a thoroughly impressive ensemble, which each actor giving incredible performances. Gong Yoo commands the screen as the man who has to go from absent father to savior of the people around him. It may appear clichéd to have another zombie film lead by a young male who becomes the hero and saves everyone – but trust me, each and every zombie movie cliché and stereotype is addressed here, and subverted in some wonderful ways. Kim Su-an plays Gong’s daughter, and her performance was nothing short of utterly amazing – such a young performer being able to give such an emotionally resonant performance was a revelation in every sense of the word. The entire cast works well together, and the chemistry between the actors was only amplified by their dedication to making these characters as realistic as possible. There are so many amazing performances hiding in this film, and the cast is simply absolutely perfect.
Bong Joon-ho made a film in 2013 that felt thematically similar to Train to Busan. That film was obviously the worldwide phenomenon Snowpiercer, which had a central theme of class warfare. It was also set in a train and featured characters trying to survive by traveling through the compartments as they try and reach a destination that will bring them their salvation. However, while Snowpiercer was a brilliant genre film, Train to Busan is far more serious, and while it may not be as overt in its approach to class differences, that theme still lingers. The central tension is caused by the juxtaposition of wealthy characters with working class people, as well as some impoverished characters. In the end, everyone on that train is equal, all at risk of being infected – and while it may make some stereotypical judgments, such as the rich CEO being selfish, and the poor homeless man sacrificing himself to save others, for the most part, Train to Busan makes some terrifyingly apt statements about modern society.
Train to Busan has something else most zombie films don’t have – emotional resonance. There are many zombie films and television shows that try and create pure terror and fear, but very few that tackle the emotional undercurrent that undoubtedly exists in these situations. It becomes commonplace for zombie films to attempt to be macabre and horrifying, but very few that are able to create genuine melancholy. There are a handful of moments in Train to Busan that actually summons a tear or two. The final moments of this film are absolutely heartbreaking and utterly haunting and remain with you for a long time. If anything, Train to Busan deserves praise for its unique approach to telling a story of the zombie apocalypse, with the focus on creating characters we care about rather than merely on the cataclysm surrounding them.
However, that isn’t to say Train to Busan isn’t exceptionally well-made. It is absolutely visually stunning, with the pure terror and dread coming from the complete and utter commitment to representing these zombies as unlike anything we have ever seen before. Their design is simple but so terrifying – and kudos to the large ensemble of extras playing zombies – they may not receive any character development, but each one is a valuable member of a large collective that is utterly and completely terrifying. There are several moments of awe-inspiring horror in this film, where the visual aesthetic is just so unbearable macabre, and working in conjunction with the central character drama, it becomes even more terrifying and emotionally powerful. Kudos to everyone involved in making this film – it is absolutely stunning beyond all belief. It isn’t overly extravagant but still manages to be brilliantly well-made.
I implore everyone to watch Train to Busan – it may be one of the greatest zombie films ever made. The cast is exceptional, and the story is far more original than what one is used to. The execution is simple but still incredibly moving. It has an emotional core that is unlike anything you are likely to see in similar films. It is a wonderful film, and if there was any other reason as to why South Korea is one of the most audacious and important modern filmmaking nations today, then Train to Busan is just another reason.