Of Zombies and 'Train to Busan'
Train to Busan (2016) - Dom's rating: 8 / 10
It’s 1981, and my mate Steve is taking a video cassette from a Tesco bag. “This is a zombie film,” he says. "It’s really, really gory.”
Back then, we rented videos by post. “Where’d you get it?” I ask.
A bootlegged zombie film? Cool. I slide the cassette into our Betamax VCR, and so it begins...
Zombie Holocaust – a ragtag bunch of survivors is a common zombie movie trope.
Extra points for the safari jacket.
The movie was a schlocky spaghetti-zombie / cannibal exploitation extravaganza called Zombie Holocaust (1980). It offered everything an eleven-year-old could want from an ‘X’ rated horror, including voluptuous cannibal queens and enough uber-violence to make Mary Whitehouse spin out of her grave.
After Zombie Holocaust, I began working my way through the forbidden 80s catalogue of ‘video nasties.’ This lead me, like Van Helsing tip-toeing through a graveyard, to Zombie Flesh Eaters and the feeling there must be better zombie movies. There was no internet then, so a young geek’s sources of information were word-of-mouth, adverts in comics and magazines like Fangoria. I’d already become a prodigious reader, working my way through Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert. And, dammit, I wanted a proper zombie movie. One with a story.
Little did I know it had already been made, by George A Romero in 1978… so I was late to the party when I finally discovered Dawn of the Dead.
No, it’s not ‘The Breakfast Club’, it’s ‘Dawn of the Dead.’
Possibly the greatest zombie movie ever made, Dawn of the Dead established many of the Zombie genre’s conventions. Including, of course, satire and social commentary – DotD’s survivors are famously holed-up in a shopping mall, the zombies a metaphor for mindless consumerism. Distrust of government and big business is also a common trope – zombies are often the result of secret and ill-conceived research projects. This was cleverly subverted in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, when activists raiding a research laboratory become infected by the animals they’re trying to rescue.
What DotD really did, though, was cement the three genres-in-one model common to zombie movies – a combination of Horror, Disaster and Dystopian / Post-Apocalyptic. Look at, for example, The Purge. It’s a zombie movie without zombies, right? Contagion? If the infected wandered around a bit more, it’d be a zombie movie. And the zombies were all GWYNETH PALTROW’S FAULT! Disaster / societal collapse elements fizz with dramatic possibility. For me, zombies are the icing on an already satisfying cake. And zombies, of all horror creatures, are especially terrifying because anybody can become one. You might be a cute granny, but once zombified you became a flesh-chomping death machine. That, for me, is the cool thing about zombies – superheroes in reverse (Q. what’s your special power? A. I’m dead. And hungry.)
Which brings me to Korean zombie movie, Train to Busan (2016) – forget ‘Snakes on a Plane’, this is ‘Zombies on a Train.’ I discovered the movie via my son, who’s interested in all things Japanese and Korean, and I’d heard good things about Korean cinema in general.
My faith was not misplaced.
Train to Busan has, like most good stories, a simple premise; a divorced father sets out to take his daughter to visit her mother on the titular train. However, a biochemical accident intervenes, creating a ravening horde of zombies. Much of the film takes place on a bullet train, which like everything else in director Yeon Sang-ho’s version of Korea, is spotlessly clean and efficient. The train’s staff are immaculate, efficient and polite. It’s the sort of train you’d never see in the UK, to the point where I began to wonder if I was watching some kind of niche trainspotter porn.
Things aren’t looking good in the ‘Quiet Carriage’
Of course, the sense of order is a metaphor for Korean society, about to be ripped apart by whatever it is the zombies represent. And the zombies themselves are a treat! The genre has spawned many different varieties of undead – fast zombies, shambling zombies, fast-turning and slow-turning zombies, cunning zombies and even semi-sentient zombies. Train to Busan’s zombies are very, very fast. They also ‘turn’ their victims in moments, creating even more havoc, the action scenes frenzied and genuinely exciting. The actors playing the zombies are incredible – like athletes – running around despite shattered limbs and all the scarier for it. Their only real vulnerability is poor low-light vision, something the survivors turn to their advantage.
Setting a zombie movie on a train should feel claustrophobic, but Yeon Sang-ho turns every inch of the train into a space for action – a bathroom, a luggage rack, the vestibule between carriages, the gap between seats… only when the lights fail, and the darkness-sensitive zombies go quiet – and the survivors are ironically at their safest – does the train feel claustrophobic. The rest of the time, it’s a churning mosh-pit of violence, with survivors trying to seize and defend carriages as the undead army grows.
I’m not going to dwell on the social commentary aspect of the piece for too long. To be honest, I enjoy zombie movies for the zombies. However, Train to Busan’s message seems to be common people working together achieve more than a selfish elite acting for their own interests – hardly controversial. And Snowpiercer had already used a train as a metaphor for society, the marginalised trapped forever in the cheap seats. Interestingly, Snowpiercer also has a Korean director – maybe there’s something about living in a country with efficient public transport? The cast are solid, the direction crisp and precise. Standout performance? Ma Dong-seok as chonky everyman Sang-Hwa, acting as a commonsense foil to the yuppy protagonist.
The verdict? Train to Busan gets a solid 8/10 from me, a truly excellent addition to the zombie canon. There’s also a semi-sequel, Peninsula, which I’ve yet to see. Hopefully it won’t suffer too much from sequel syndrome (like 28 Weeks Later).