I have to admit that when my friend Jim (a fellow film buff with very similar taste and informed opinions) recommended 2016’s horror thriller TRAIN TO BUSAN, my first thought was, “do I really need to see another Zombie movie?”
After “World War Z”, “28 Days Later” and George Romero’s genre classics, is there really ANY fresh take to a zombie movie?
Yes. A Huge Yes.
BUSAN is first and foremost a compelling drama with flesh & blood characters.
Sok-woo (Yoo Gong) is a busy young financial executive in South Korea, separated from his wife and struggling to find any time with his estranged young daughter Soo-an. She wants to go see her mother, so her father agrees to take her to Busan to be with her.
Just as he boards a bullet train, a quickly spreading virus hits the city and people turn into blood thirsty killing machines. These aren’t the lumbering, silly zombies of Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Like “World War Z”, these vicious killers are fast and single-minded, with gnashing teeth around every corner.
A just bitten girl stumbles on to the train just as its doors are closing.
We watch her transformation, taking about five minutes from bite to full-on zombie.
This scene does a couple things at once. It gives you a full understanding of the infection process and timing, which comes into play many times later, and it fills you with tension, knowing that the train’s doors are sealed, and every passenger aboard is potentially about to become dinner.
Dong-seol Ma is terrific as Sang-hwa, a muscular passenger with a very pregnant wife. His instant dislike for Sok-woo as a hedge fund manager is balanced by his humor with Soo-an and his wife. He’s physically imposing, a great light comic foil and always believable.
What’s most impressive about BUSAN is that it avoids virtually every cliché.
There is a large group of young baseball players on the train with one fellow female student. Not one of them act the way they would in a lesser film. They’re fun, responsible and terrified.
The film deftly interweaves tiny flashbacks of Sok-woo, Soo-an and her mother that have high emotional impact In key moments later. They never feel forced.
Sok-woo’s quiet moments with his mother about his personal life are painfully real.
Suffice to say that the moments after a blood-soaked zombie battle in an enclosed train going over 100 mph aren’t typical times to have a realization about your work/home priorities, but the dramatic payoff in the midst of the action punches you in the gut.
I loved the two-minute sequences inside tunnels, when the zombies visual cues are stolen from them and our good guys must escape THROUGH them to safety.
The glimpses of the unfolding mass global terror glimpsed on TV and cell phones are pitch perfect.
The sequence in which passengers get off the train halfway through the journey is an intense, bloody and suspenseful 15-minute example of how to stage horror action in broad daylight.
With fantastic action, emotional power and nearly non-stop suspense, TRAIN TO BUSAN is one hell of a ride, earning a well-deserved A.
The hilarious Edgar Wright, director of my fave zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” called this the “best zombie movie I’ve seen in forever”. Bloody right.