While a zombie-virus breaks out in South Korea, a couple of passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.
Ever since George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the zombie genre has seen every reincarnation imaginable. We’ve had domesticated zombies (“Fido”), Nazi zombies (“Dead Snow”), hell-bent-on-apocalypse zombies (“28 Days Later,” “World War Z”), beaver zombies (“Zombeavers”) and even, yes, cockney zombies (in the aptly titled “Cockneys vs. Zombies”). While stylish and consistently inventive, “Train to Busan” borrows freely from these films (well, maybe not the cockney beavers), struggling to spice up the undead genre with a limited setting and a ferocious, “assault on the senses” approach. It winds up highly entertaining, but treading familiar ground nonetheless. Kudos to director Yeon Sang-ho (“The Fake”) for all the legitimate thrills and spills – he’s limited by the genre itself. What’s next, half-alligator, half-alien Slovakian zombies? (I would actually watch the shit out of that.)
The film’s intro is intensely effective. A man drives down to a biohazard outpost and has his car sprayed down. “There was a tiny leak at the biotech district,” he’s informed. Uh-huh. We all know what this means. Next thing he knows, the guy runs over a deer. In a superbly creepy scene, as he drives off, the deer shakily gets back up, pupils missing. (Zombie deer! Yes!) In the meantime, Seok-wu (Gong Yoo), a “fund manager,” is having a bad day. Not only is his financial institution on the brink of bankruptcy, he’s also getting divorced – AND it’s his daughter Su-an’s (Kim Su-an) birthday. Clearly not a “Father of the Year” contender, Seok-wu gets her a Wii, forgetting she already has one, the dimwit. No wonder Su-an begs him to take her to see her mother in Busan, a town apparently only reachable by train and impossible to get to in Seok-wu’s brand-new, slick ride. “While you’re down there,” his mother urges, “have a heart-to-heart with your wife.”
Signs of the looming apocalypse are everywhere – armed guards, squealing fire trucks – but, in a (purposeful?) nod to “Shaun of the Dead,” they are only apparent to the viewer and not to the film’s preoccupied protagonists. Just as the train is about to depart, an injured girl stumbles in, with what looks like bite marks on her legs… And so the mayhem begins. And by mayhem, I literally mean utter chaos is unleashed. Those zombies don’t mess around. They turn instantly, post-bite, and attack the closest bystander with unstoppable fury. The caveat? They can’t slide doors open, ramming up against them like a bunch of morons instead – which provides the survivors a means of escape, and the film with several white-knuckle scenes. Oh, and those zombies are useless in the dark. Comes in handy during those nifty tunnel sequences.
Sang-ho builds the tension well, immersing the viewer in a suitably claustrophobic setting, with superb make-up and special effects. Fans of the genre will find plenty of reasons to gorge on this cinematic treat: standouts involve the devouring of a baseball team; the inventive use of a bottle of water with some newspaper; a weirdly funny conversation with a zombie-turning mother over the phone… I loved the bit where the train goes past a station, with folks throwing their bloody selves against its windows. The station attack halfway through “Train to Busan” is by far one of the film’s two major highlights, the second involving three central characters, steadily, and gruesomely, making their way through the zombie-infested locomotive.
A train in flames derails (I was a spoken-word artist before this gig). A horde of zombies form a centipede, attached to the moving train. Sang-ho’s loving tribute doesn’t skimp on memorable bits (or trains, for that matter). I also loved how bleak the film is. Not a lot of folks survive on this ride. To counter-balance the moroseness, there are dashes of humor. In a misleading scene, a husband is patiently waiting for his presumably zombie wife by the bathroom. “Are you okay, honey?” he asks, receiving a harsh knock on the door in response, which sends him stumbling back. “It’s okay, take your time,” he mumbles. Talking to a terrified zombie witness, the train conductor warns Su-an: “If you don’t study, you’ll end up like him.” “Why is your ring tone so tacky?” Seok-wu asks the “alpha-male” at one point, making the dude question his masculinity.
The film’s messages about compassion and not just “looking out for yourself” in a time of crisis are especially – and surprisingly – potent. However, as a cautionary tale, the film lacks credibility. The political subtext is where the film particularly falters occasionally. So potent in the similar (but better) “Snowpiercer,” here it gets muddled – and when it’s not, it’s painfully obvious. The film’s also too long; clocking in at two hours, the zombie attacks and limited location become repetitive. Not to beat a dead horse, but at least in “Snowpiercer” the train represented social hierarchy, each cabin a different, invigoratingly imaginative setting. Some moments of sentimentality are also unnecessary. Without revealing crucial plot points, let’s just say that ONE cheerleader with common sense among dozens of sensible human beings barricading themselves – well, that’s a hard pill to swallow… As is the “twist” towards the end (involving Seok-wu’s job), for that matter.
The director clearly knows how to choreograph action, pace and structure a film. Though we’ve seen it all before, one can’t blame the filmmakers for failing to bring the dead genre back to life. However, one CAN blame them for not utilizing their prowess and making a more original film. Let’s hope Sang-ho takes cues from fellow South Korean filmmaker Bong Joo-ho, who made the unpredictable and wonderful “The Host,” and takes us on a truly original ride next time, be it plane, train or automobile.
In theaters Friday, July 22nd