It should be abundantly evident to my readers and friends at this point in my filmgoing life that I’m a sucker for low-budget horror, especially when it’s well executed. In this case, that pun is intended, because this South Korean entry into the preternaturally glutted filmscape that constitutes the zombie genre absolutely kills. Train to Busan (Bu-San-Haeng) adheres to classical forms in all the right ways and innovates in all the ways you might hope.
This is horror storytelling on a small scale, but rather than coming across as simplistic, it reads as streamlined, like the bullet-train on which the film is set. This is a subtle but critical distinction for any film, especially for one exploiting a sub-genre as played out as the zombie mythos. And yet, somehow, writer/director Sang-ho Yeon has managed to accomplish a feat that eludes many western directors: Create a balance between story and scares that shortchanges neither.
Busan wears its influences on its sleeve, but uses them to great effect. We’re following 28 Days Later or World War Z rules here, with fast, aggressive zombies, as opposed to the slowly shambling Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead variety. But there’s one significant twist to the mythology that plays convincingly enough to sell the conceit. The film’s train setting, redolent of Snowpiercer, is possibly this film’s most effective decision, with the claustrophobic setting contributing to the narrative’s oppressive hopelessness and allowing for some creative set pieces that build tension impeccably. The script’s social commentary — in the vein of the original NOTLD — is direct without being overly blunt, portraying self-serving oligarchs as being every bit as monstrous as the zombies seeking to eat the rich.
The predictability of Busan’s script should have offended me, and I’m still trying to figure out why it didn’t. The best I can come up with is that its characters, largely caricatures with little development, progressed on the right beats to feel at least marginally believable. There are some particularly obvious character tropes that could potentially have fractured the story, but they’re managed with just enough nuance and tact that you don’t really question them. Your protagonist is a selfish corporate type with a lesson to learn about community, trying to save his young daughter (who will ultimately teach him that lesson) from the encroaching zombie hordes. There’s the working-class badass and his very pregnant wife, two little old ladies and a high school baseball team that reminded me of the Baseball Furies from The Warriors, due both to their uniforms and their general ineptitude with a bat. None of these characters are particularly unique, but they all serve their respective purposes aptly enough that I was able to overlook their superficial lack of originality.
What works particularly well in Busan is its fundamentalist aesthetic, a visual ethos that spends money where it’s needed and saves it where it’s not. The vast majority of the effects are practical, including the casting of what must have been contortionists to portray some of the zombies. The filmic effect of seeing something register on camera in the same frame as the rest of the action is still palpable, and only the most expensive CG shlockfests have any kind of shot at overcoming the inherent technical limitations of the computer crutches upon which contemporary filmmakers have become overly reliant. Even in the best-case scenarios for modern horror films, you’ll likely still find at least a few shots that take the audience out of the cinematic landscape as a result of effects budgets wasted on ineffective CG, rather than old-fashioned ingenuity. The 2013 Evil Dead remake comes to mind, wherein the tree-rape scene was far cheesier than that of its predecessor, due solely to the filmmakers’ belief that their expensive computer simulations could best the original’s shoestring inventiveness. Busan has stripped away the excess that characterizes late-period zombie fare, leaving a taut and effective genre thriller that feels particularly fresh among the bloating carcasses of other entries in the genre.
The thing that’s so great about this film is that it works in places it shouldn’t. Gore is used sparingly, and its startle-scares come from a place of genuine suspense. Seriously, why can’t American horror filmmakers get a jump-scare right if these guys can? As a nation, we must not tolerate this jump-scare gap. The answer is not in proliferation, but in more judicious and effective use. Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it just strips out all of the superfluous elements so that wheel can operate as quickly and efficiently as possible, and in the process it reinvigorates a waning genre. For world-weary zombie enthusiasts, this Train is worth the ride. Not rated
Opens Friday at The Grail Moviehouse