"I'll get to Busan in an hour ..." — Seok Woo (Yoo Gong)
While the classic zombie movie is a purely American invention, the brains-child of director George Romero — I'll refrain from discussion of how elements may have been gleaned from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend — there are international entries into the genre. After all, the apocalypse won't be confined to one continent. The living dead have also featured in Great Britain's Shaun of the Dead and The Dead (the latter set in Africa), France's La Horde, Cuba's Juan of the Dead, Ireland's About a Zombie, Pakistan's Hell's Ground, and were almost a cottage industry in Italy in the ’80s after Lucio Fulci's 1979 hit Zombi.
Writer/director Sang-ho Yeon's Train to Busan chronicles a South Korean outbreak aboard, of all things, a commuter train. Well, why not? We've seen airline passengers beset by hungry ghouls in 2007's Flight of the Living Dead, and, as in that film, the sense of claustrophobia contributes to the terror and sense of hopelessness. There's nowhere to run, except from train car to train car, and there's barely room to swing a baseball bat, the only weapon that can be found aboard the train. The restricted locale alone evokes memories of the elegant simplicity of the farmhouse as social metaphor in Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead. Curiously, though, my favorite sequence in Train to Busan is when the conductor stops the train at a station which he believes may be safe. The passengers warily disembark, only to be forced to return to the restrictive microcosm of the train itself — certainly not safe, but more survivable in the short term than what they find at their stop. I guess the moral is "Don't get off the train."
And even though I can't understand a word they're saying, Yeon populates his film with an interesting mix of characters, including a fund manager (Korean A-lister Yoo Gong) escorting his nine-year-old daughter for a visit to his ex-wife, a high school baseball team, two elderly sisters devoted to each other in their old age, a blue-collar soon-to-be-dad (Dong-seok Ma) with his pregnant wife, and a rat whose scramble to save himself will imperil all. There's always at least one of those, you know.
Yeon's direction and editing is brisk, breathless and suspenseful, and even with all of the zombie movies I've seen -- and I've seen a ton -- and thinking I had seen it all, he manages some stunts and action sequences that make it all seem novel again. I'm not a fan of the "running zombie," preferring the slower creepiness of the "shambling zombie," nor do I particularly like the variety which turn within moments of receiving the fatal bite, but it's not my movie. It's Yeon's, and if he chooses to tell his story within the framework of emulating the conventions of films like World War Z instead of classic Romero, then I'll respect and accept his decisions.
However, hardcore zombie fans will note that Yeon's film is noticeably devoid of the type of gore prevalent in this genre, far more tame than even most episodes of TV's The Walking Dead. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it's a movie about reanimated corpses with a single purpose: to eat the living. It certainly wouldn't be this clean and antiseptic in real life, but then Yeon's purpose isn't really to show what such an event would really be like. Instead, it's to present a moral fable of how different people react to political events in real life. Romero's farmhouse, later shopping mall, and Yeon's train are metaphors for the body politic and how we react to risk when other people need help. Some of us want to close the doors; some of us want to leave them open, at least until the last possible second.