If there is one genre of horror that appears to be struggling to stay relevant in the eyes of movie-going audiences currently, then Zombie flicks would be at the top of that dissuasion. This isn’t to say that the genre is incapable of producing quality material. Still, it is tough to showcase something that can surprise audiences with the genre material while also just being good in its own right.
Train to Busan isn’t just good. It’s easily the best zombie film out of the 2010s that I have seen. It does everything you would expect but feels so wonderfully fresh from the countless waste that would find in the bargain bin.
When these stories are well-told, the central appeal of the genre is that they care about humanity in its purest form. What makes Zombies feel so alien is that while they still look like people, everything that made them a person, their personality, goals, likes, and desires are stripped away from them entirely until all that is left is a ravenous killing machine. Something that is so violating the basic concept of our existence. Furthermore, however, it puts the surviving roster in situations where their humanity is put to the test. We, the audience, can genuinely understand who they indeed are when the chips are down.
Look at the film’s protagonist Seo Seok-woo as an example. When Train to Busan first starts, he doesn’t appear as a likable person. Instead, he comes off as a very bitter workaholic that’s detached from his family and only acts in his selfish interests. However, when the zombies start to overrun the train that he and his daughter happen to be on, we see a gradual progression wherein wanting to protect his daughter at any cost regains his sense of humanity that culminates beautifully in a compelling way.
The main roster from top to bottom is some of the strongest characters I’ve seen in this genre. Everybody feels so human, and all are tested in various ways to survive the main threat. My personal favorite is Yoon Sang-Hwa’s tough-guy act that makes for a just-so excellent character and makes for a nice contrast to the main character. But an even more effective comparison comes to the closest Train to Busan has to outright human villainy in the form of Yon-suk. A living example of everything that Seok-woo could become if he tosses any compassion for anywhere towards the wayside, even when glimpses of humanity crack his rather vile appearance.
There’s also a plentiful amount of social commentary regarding classism that is prominent throughout the film. Whether it’s intentional or not, people of higher status look down upon the lower classes merely because they don’t share the same amount of wealth and are ultimately viewed as of lesser value in comparison. Something that Seok-woo comes to a painful realization towards when he’s put on the other side of the economic line in a narrative sense.
But how are the genre aspects of Train to Busan? Virtually flawless. With amazing makeup and insane physical performances from all the actors on hand, these man-eaters are some of the most terrifying versions of zombies put to screen. Their fast and unrelenting yet comes with particular weakness that our still human characters can exploit. From the moment they make their appearance, the film starts at 100 and only gives the characters only a few minutes at best to breathe. And with most of the action taking place on a train, there’s this feeling of claustrophobia as the characters are effectively trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Train to Busan is one of the best zombie movies ever made. With a touching human story at its core, the fantastic character work and insanely top-tier genre thrills make for an instant classic genre. Zombie narratives may not be the hit as they used to be still, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be ever so effective in turning phenomenal stories.