Underappreciated Gems: Train to Busan

Contributed by
Feb 24, 2017

From decades-old classics like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) to more modern gore-fests like The Walking Dead or the Resident Evil movies, the world isn’t exactly hurting for zombie-themed entertainment. When you add indies and foreign films into the mix, there are so many horror movies that come out in any given year that without a particular dedication to the genre it can be tough to tease out the wheat from the direct-to-VOD, paint-by-numbers-sequel chaff.

All that is to say, it is entirely possible that zombie flick Train to Busan passed you by as (yeah, I’ll say it) one of the best movies of last year. It did well in its native South Korea — was the highest-grossing film of the year, in fact — and got a limited theatrical release stateside, never screening on more than 40 theaters. Before it hit digital platforms (you can currently rent it on Amazon, iTunes and the rest of the usual streaming suspects) you probably didn’t get a chance to see it. Which is too bad, because Train to Busan? Pretty effing great.

The quick ’n’ zippy logline is that Train to Busan is Snowpiercer crossed with World War Z, if World War Z didn’t suck. (I love superhero movies, but I would deal with the devil away every. single. one of them from here on out if it meant we could get a premium cable miniseries adaptation of Max Brooks’ book done in the style of Ken Burns. Well. Maybe not Captain Marvel.)

Divorced workaholic Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is convinced by his young daughter Su-an (Su-an Kim) to accompany her to visit her mother, a few hours’ ride away via bullet train. Only, whoops, just as the train’s leaving the station the zombie apocalypse breaks out. And wouldn’t you know it? One of the infected manages to get on the train right before fully turning. As in World War Z, the zombie apocalypse is shown in a realistic, this-is-what-it-would-really-be-like light; characters watch TV broadcasts of riots breaking out in uncomprehending horror and take to social media to see that #zombie is trending. As in 28 Days Later, the zombie virus is an infection caused by scientific experimentation in a nearby lab. The zombies are faster than your typical shamblers, though with a bunch of them crammed into train cars like sardines, they don’t really get a chance to practice their sprints.

Aside from the setting, there’s nothing particularly original about Train to Busan — which isn’t, in this case, a bad thing. Director Sang-ho Yeon and screenwriter Joo-suk Park know the zombie formula and deliver their take on it with skill. Aside from Seok-woo and Su-an, there’s a motley group of travelers trying to survive on the train until they can reach their (hopefully) non-zombie-infested population, all of them standard horror types: A comic relief sidekick character and his pregnant wife, a pair of teenagers traveling to a high school baseball game, a pair of elderly sisters constantly bickering with each other, a cold-hearted businessman willing to throw anyone else under the bus if it means his own survival, etc. It's no spoiler that, by the end of the movie, there's a death count. (Just look at the character descriptions and you can probably figure out a character or two who dies.)

For all Train to Busan doesn't reinvent the zombie wheel, it's still a consistently engaging film, parceling out suspense alongside character development. (A particular standout: The scene where our heroes must cross the length of a train car on the luggage rack, bloodthirsty zombies mere inches below them.) And even if you know certain characters are going to bite it (or, er, get bitten), they're well-written and -acted enough that it’s still sad to see them go. As for the biting itself, know that Train to Busan isn't outrageously gory; though a bloody film (hello, zombies), the emphasis is on action and suspense more than gratuitous torture porn.

Another reason to watch Train to Busan: It's getting a U.S. remake (of course it is), so you can impress/annoy your friends (let's be real, probably the latter) by saying you knew it when.