At this point in pop culture, the zombie genre has already been exploited to the point of saturation. From the George Romero creepers of yesteryear to Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, fans have seen all the possible zombie permutations and dramatic situations that involve these brain-hungry monsters.
Night of the Living Dead had lurching slowpokes, mindless ghouls that moved like septuagenarians and could be killed through a beheading or a bullet to the noggin. The Resident Evil series played on government conspiracy, espousing fear through biological weapon experiments gone awry. Director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later introduced sprinters, rabid infected whose speed was just as scary as their bite.
All of these members of the zombie canon have had their fair share of success. So really, all it takes to get horror-action fans back on the bandwagon of the undead is a fresh spin on the tired yet favorite trope. And Train to Busan, the fearsome South Korean zombie flick that's currently showing in theaters, recharges the genre with enough high velocity power to keep any moviegoer tense and screaming in terror.
The story follows Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a businessman whose workaholism is affecting his relationship with his daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an). For her birthday, Seok-woo takes Su-an on a cross-country trip via the bullet train to visit her mother in Busan. All hell breaks loose when an individual infected by an unknown virus finds her way into one of the wagons. And while in transit, the virus quickly spreads through violent attacks, the passengers falling victim to the imminent zombie apocalypse.
Much of the film transpires within the confines of the train, a simultaneously claustrophobic and fast-moving vessel that adds a unique layer of peril to what would've otherwise been just another zombie outing. It's clear from the get-go that this isn't an isolated incident, the events of the outside world shown through TV screens present onboard.
By zooming in on a handful of survivors trapped in this carriage of carnage, the filmmakers have created a frenetic, suspenseful, and intense ride that rarely relies on plot, but instead maximizes the entertainment potential of gruesome action. It's this perpetual state of motion that fuels this movie's high-octane, heart-stopping sequences. If Keanu Reeves' Speed and Liam Neeson's Non-Stop had a threesome with Brad Pitt's World War Z, Train to Busan would be their demonic spawn.
Of course, the primal conflict is apparent—these feasters of the flesh are of the running kind, able to leap and claw and attack with mighty force. Like most zombies, however, they're still pretty dumb, which makes opening doors quite a challenge for them. This device allows the script to linger away from the horror and explore the psychological dread that bubbles to the surface in times of survival.
A prime example is how one selfish conductor, in a bid to save his own ass, influences a group of like-minded individuals into isolating fellow passengers out of a safe zone. The man is quickly molded into a sub-antagonist, a somewhat cautionary tale of how humans can be innate assholes when shit hits the fan.
But it's still the gore that takes center stage—innards and severed limbs constantly painting the train's interiors red. The tone of impending doom only wanes in moments that can only be described as Korean melodrama, a jarring quality that doesn't necessarily take away from the overall impact.
Beneath the bloodbath, there's also a message of family and humanity that abounds, of the collision course that the human spirit must endure in dire circumstances. Although this is the millionth time cinema has shown hordes of zombies taking over civilization, Train to Busan, with its heroes hurtling towards hopelessness, is solid proof that even when it comes to stories about survival, it's almost always about the journey and not the destination.