Train To Busan is the zombie epic the horror genre has been needing for the better part of five years. Set amidst an outbreak of an unknown pathogen, the latest film from Seoul Station and King Of Pigs director Yeon Sang-ho compiles a bevy of familiar tropes and uses them in a way rarely, if ever, seen before. It’s not a complete reimagining of zombie terror as much as it is a greatest hits feature set in an unusual location, and as far I am concerned the result is one of the most white-knuckle-inducing thrill rides of 2016.
Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) is a busy business man who has become increasingly estranged from his young daughter in recent months. After much debate with his former spouse he agrees to travel with his daughter from his home to Busan so that she can spend some time with her mother. The trip starts off perfectly fine, but things soon go sideways when it is revealed that an epidemic has begun to sweep across South Korea. People are inexplicably eating other people, and those who are bitten are quickly converted to flesh-eating, soulless versions of their former selves. In order to survive, Woo, his daughter, and the other passengers must work together to keep the quickly growing hordes of undead monsters at bay, but collaboration among those still living proves far easier said than done.
As I mentioned in my introduction, Train To Busan does not have any aspirations of reinventing zombie terror. Every component of the narrative is found frequently in other tales of the undead, but never have the turns been used aboard a high-speed train filled with a brilliant and talented cast. Think Snowpiercer meets Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead, but with a World War Z-like approach to zombie design. The undead can number so high they look more like an avalanche of CGI flesh barreling through the closed quarters of a train than a ravenous group of individuals, but they lack intelligence. They also rely on sight rather than smell, which does help set them apart in some small way from previous takes on how zombies would function.
In the hands of other filmmakers the gimmick of fighting zombies on trains may feel rather flimsy, but Sang-ho (who also wrote the script) keeps dramatic turns coming fast and furious. As with most films that involve the undead, the terror caused by their presence in the world is largely secondary to the tension that develops among those left unchanged. There is a clear division among the passengers on the train almost as soon as the first zombie makes themselves known, and the divide between those who are looking out for themselves and those trying to ensure everyone makes it out alive only widens as the stakes continue to rise. By the time the third act begins, part of you is rooting for the undead to strike, if only so that the protagonists have a way to overcome those who are unwilling to work with them.
With a film as well made and genuinely thrilling as Train to Busan it seems inevitable that an English language reboot will surface, but I implore anyone reading this now to seek out Yeon Sang-ho’s vision first. Train To Busan is an incredible exercise in zombie filmmaking that never feels all that familiar despite the presence of ideas and tropes genre fans have seen over and over for the past several decades. Perhaps more importantly, the film manages to create genuine emotional tension amidst the flesh-eating chaos, and thanks to several standout performances the story remains grounded as the number of undead on the prowl grows exponentially. I don’t know how Yeon Sang-ho made this world of storytelling feel new once more, but I am thankful for his work and I hope it inspires others to think outside of the box moving forward.