The zombie genre seems pretty played out. We’ve all heard the dismissive uninterested takes on zombie films for the last several years, especially in a world where The Walking Dead is one of our highest rated shows on television. The ebb and flow of zombie culture always wains, waiting for someone to revolutionize it. Waiting for someone to take it by the reins and turn out something interesting. Something that has great thrills, but keeps us wrapped up even if we’re aware of how zombies work. That film is here and it’s called Train to Busan.
A South Korean zombie films directed by South Korean animator/director/writer Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan plays heavily on motifs from previous examples of zombie fiction. We’ve seen close quarters and extreme situations from which people have to run from flesh eating monsters. Yet, there’s so much to admire in a grand scale take on the concept that shows confidence in its characters, setting and style without any short sided element. Train to Busan is the next truly masterful example of zombie canon. Probably my favorite since the first two [rec] films. Now, that’s high praise. Really high praise to heap upon any film, much less a zombie film. However, there’s a craft on display with Train to Busan that zombie films rarely get treated as anything more than cheap exercises. Yeon takes this exercise in what could simply be “zombies on a train” and elevates it to a truly epic disaster film with zombies in the center. One gets how destructive these zombies are in every frame as they multiply exponentially.
We get the right glimpse of our characters pre-zombie infestation, allowing the zombie infestation to be a looming presence as we’re introduced to who we’ll be following. Character archetypes that are familiar, but somehow consistently interesting. There’s a man trying to reach his daughter after working so hard, a young couple expecting a child, two elderly sisters struggling with the hustle and bustle of the modern world and young love between schoolmates. We get a sense of the the gamut of the class system without going too deep into any specific information beyond what’s important to the story. Train to Busan does what George A. Romero did decades ago with the zombie genre: commenting on our modern world through this train full of people of varying class stature facing off against a common threat.
As much as it is a zombie film, Train to Busan is also a study of human behavior, where morals can be dangerous for survival and being a dick can actually work to your advantage. We know who the villains are, but they have emotional sympathies at points. There are characters we’re meant to side with who have extremely dark revelations.It’s brutal to most faults, but never forgets the real human emotions that invest us. The fear of seeing these people get past these zombies. The thrill when they do figure their way out. The disappointment when plans are thwarted by zombies or normal humans. The highs and lows are all over the place, but keep us tethered during some amazing zombie sequences. Yeon’s history with animation carries over to the way these zombies move, visceral with hints of 28 Days Later and Evil Dead. Their numbers swell exponentially, they have rules that can be exploited. There’s a method to Yeon’s madness, but when that madness unleashes it comes without mercy. All of which is contained in some damn impressive action sequences. They utilize both the brains of their characters and their ability to kick ass for as long as possible wonderfully, while also showing us their strengths and weaknesses in both.
Above all, Train to Busan keeps the disaster element firmly inserted into all of this. Humanity is at its most scrappy and unhinged with these characters. Their big emotional moments aren’t subtle, but manage to serve as perfectly executed crescendos to the gore and destruction that comes in the wake of these zombies. It’s an exhilarating fun ride full of consistent emotional highs, disturbing turns and true zombie horror. Even as a horror fan, it’s rare that I get this energized about zombie horror as of recent. It’s rare that I’m kind of scared by this enormity of a situation, but Train to Busan does what The Walking Dead couldn’t achieve in six seasons; consistent stakes and continuously engaging characters. Not only is this one of my favorite horror films of the year, but it’s honestly one of my true favorites of the year. It’s the new zombie standard, in my mind’s eye.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Zombie Bats Smashed