So I have been recommended and asked by a lot of people this year to watch Train to Busan. I bought it (from a closing store) because I realized that I should give it a shot at some point. And there it waited and waited, until finally after watching Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse made me realize how much I needed a new good zombie movie. Hence why I finally decided to sit through it and I think by the title you can see that I liked it. I think the better question is why did I like it because by all accounts this isn’t something that we haven’t seen before. Zombies on a train? Oh there is Resident Evil Zero or even one could say the claustrophobic creature feature could also be filled by Snakes on a Plane. Social commentary within a zombie film? Please refer to Romero. That being said, this film with a simple set-up and execution ultimately won me over when so many other zombie films and series lost me.
Train to Busan is a story of Seok-Woo taking his daughter, Soo-an, to see her mother when a zombie apocalypse breaks out while they are on the train. We see him react to the situation from a man of power, someone with connections due to his status in life and over the course of meeting strangers in this outbreak he is forced to look at life and others differently. The story goes through his trials while trying to survive the outbreak and make it to Busan, where he must face off against hordes of zombies and even other passengers in order to ensure the survival of himself and his daughter. What is so great about how this simple premise and choice to go with the classic zombie virus, is that it allowed the film to fully realize each of its cast. There is never a moment that doesn’t help to characterize the cast and the outbreak is purposefully left simple to allow the story to not be bogged down by needless exposition. This way even when details of the zombie outbreak are given to our cast it is through broadcasts or in a way that is relevant to them. Everything for the most part is to allow us to sympathize with the cast and to see who they are in a time of crisis.
It is often hard to say that a cast in a thriller or horror is given ample time to showcase their character. Primarily this comes from a decision to focus more on the excitement or the story rather than the characters at play. The film can still be good, but often the people who perish in such movies barely leave a mark. Train to Busan however has me caring less about the story and instead allowing me to care more about the trials of our main cast. I feel for those who die, I understand the pain that they feel and in turn it made the experience that much more gripping. Good zombie films allow us to feel more for the ones involved in the outbreak trying to scrape by while still making us engaged with the action on screen. The Walking Dead indeed did have this in its opening season, one that had you gripped by the reality of those left alive and wondering if they were all going to be okay. Train to Busan feels like a zombie story that, while still adhering to the tropes of the selfish upper class, allows us to see characters from different walks of life handle the situation differently. These are people who grow from crisis or merely show their true colours.
A lot of zombie films follow a sense of stereotypes, and I feel like Train to Busan does as well to some degree. It’s social commentary on the higher ups of society and the working class is a bit overdone in most horror films. Yet I feel like having the worst of humanity embodied in one man, Yon-suk, really helps to put some elements into perspective. This is a man who selfishly has his own view of the world and that the only person on this train that matters is himself and he is willing to step over others in order to keep himself alive. He is one of the better interpretations of this type of character as his terror and ferocity really causes you to feel queasy in moments. At the end of the day though, you can see a person within this character. He doesn’t feel so much a caricature, but someone you honestly would meet on bus during a commute. This film, to me, takes the stereotypes used in zombie films and goes further with them and fleshing out who they are. Some remain simplistic, but the actors portraying them do in fact make the characters stand out with their performances.
The zombies and action sequences in this film, I thought would be weak. I mean look at Resident Evil Zero, where the weakest part of that game was how dull the train sequence was. However Train to Busan uses its setting wisely in order to take the claustrophobic train cars as obstacles to surviving zombies and even to the zombies themselves. This is what I like about these zombies, they react haphazardly. They are tripping over themselves, while still trying to ravenously hunt for those alive. Their bones break, they are hard to beat back, and can cause a clog clamouring over each other to find a victim. These zombies feel like ravenous creatures, ones with the physical ability to feel like a threat but still unable to think. There are weaknesses exploited in these zombies, there are ways humans work around them in this film and the train setting helps them to find ways in order for this to happen. Just a few zombies are a threat instead of feeling like a road bump like other zombie movies that thrive more on brutally murdering zombies in cool ways. This isn’t Dead Rising, it treats its world with a bit more reality (well as much as the scenario can allow) and that is always appreciated when a horror film wants you to care.
None of what I talked about is not unique within the reality of a zombie film. The beats are there if you notice them and have watched other films or played games that use zombies. Even other thrillers or horror movie tropes are apparent, yet that doesn’t hold it back from the solid effort noticeable within each element of the film. From the characters, to the production design, to the pacing, everything feels up to task. That is not to say that predictability is not a problem with this film in moments. You know how some moments play out because of the fact that you have seen elements from this film in other material. It comes with the territory of creating a more simplistic work, yet that doesn’t diminish the magic inherent in this film. It only proves that with familiar beats that it can still execute great action sequences and still endear us to the struggles of its characters. It breaks through class barriers to the point where it only really matters to Yon-suk in the film, making us realize that behind the thin veneer of money it is more about the person rather than how they look.
We have a film that makes no leaps and bounds to be unique in the genre and that’s okay. You don’t need to be the next gamechanger with your unique ideas and complicated plot and themes. There is nothing wrong with simply making a solid movie that thrives on a great cast and well-written moments and characters. Where the action is engaging and still terrifying, and where the emotions are ever-entrenched into the viewing experience. At the end of the day people want to be delighted by your work or feel whatever emotion the tone of the movie should elicit.
Wow…just wow. Those were the words I spoke after watching this film. I have watched enough zombie material to last me a lifetime. It is a broad genre with a lot of b-list material with nothing well done about them. Sometimes being unique is the very thing that tears them down in moments, like Warm Bodies. Others forget the very meaning of “gore does not equal good”, like House of the Dead. There is those couple films however that do make the search worth it. Not because they change up the formula or restructure the subgenre at hand, but rather that they are just solid movies. Ones that don’t soar above every other film in the genre mockingly about their brilliant subtext, but are down in the dirt with the others and rise above due to solid filmmaking and understanding that your audience merely wants to be entertained for two hours. Train to Busan is one such film. A film that in moments you can say to yourself, “I got invested in their struggles”. The reasoning as to why that happens is simple, because they cared more about making you care than being the most unique take. Train to Busan cares, Yeon Sang-Hu cares, and by George I cared too. And at the end of the day I can gladly say that this is a zombie film that deserves a shot.
Thank you to Karandi from 100WordAnime for getting me back into the mood for zombie films with her post on the evolution of zombies from creature to characters. As well as I want to thank raistlin0903 for recommending me the film, here is a link to their review of Train to Busan. I am very thankful when people recommend me stuff, whether it is good or bad because it just allows me to see things that I might not normally have seen or is so far back in my backlog that it might not see the light of day.
So have you watched Train to Busan? What do you think makes for a great zombie film? Feel free to leave a comment down below and don’t forget to have yourself a marvelous day!