4 out of 5 stars

The first two decades of the 21st-century dished up enough zombie films to keep any red-blooded genre fan going for a lifetime. Each successful entry seemed to open a door for inspired (or, sometimes indolent) filmmakers. On the positive side, Shaun of the Dead’s (2004) playful hybridisation of comedy and zombie horror bred a generation of genre-savvy children across the globe, from the ingenious One Cut of the Dead (2017) in Japan, to Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan, Rust Belt mayhem of The Dead Don’t Die (2019)…

But across the chain-link fence lumbered a tiresome collection of empty-headed, bro-ish zombie films. These films seem to be born from the uninspired mashing together of zombies with, well, take your pick: wrestlers, cockneys, gangsters, strippers—they’ve all had their 90-minutes of fending off the undead.

The fatigue was—and still often is—palpable. For all its massive success, The Walking Dead (2010-2022) surely has overfilled the plates of even the most adoring fans, with an original series that totalled 177 episodes and produced six (SIX!) different spin-off programmes.

It takes a lot of effort to cut through the mountains of greying flesh that hang off the genre. Even if you manage it, you’re not guaranteed to find much substance beneath the surface. This is perhaps why, eight years on, Train to Busan / 부산행 feels like a godsend; a direct, unblinking blast that rattles along its tracks with the sort of determined purpose that reminds us what the genre is truly capable of.

Train to Busan isn’t a reinvention of the zombie film, and it doesn’t set out to be. Nor is it a kind of referendum on the state of horror; it’s simply a very good and heartfelt zombie film with an ingenious setting. It borrows the best elements from the films that came before it and fashions them into something familiar yet idiosyncratic.

For instance, the setting is instantly recognisable. A hedge fund manager first and a father second, Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo) spends his days at the office eating takeaway food and orchestrating deals. His ex-wife reminds him through phone calls just how much he’s letting his adorable daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) down.

He’s missed her singing recital and can only watch it now through the compressed digital data on a video camera screen. Her voice falters as she sings—she learned the song for him. To make matters worse, he’s bought her the wrong birthday present, completely ignoring what she truly wanted: a trip to Busan with her mother. Train to Busan isn’t afraid to use clichés, and in fact, it’s the film’s sincerity that elevates it beyond them.

Director Yeon Sang-ho crafts a patient and introspective first act. The necessary time is spent developing Seok-Woo and Su-an’s fragile relationship, aided by the sheer likeability of both actors. The workaholic father having to prove himself to his child is certainly not a new trope, but it feels believable. If a story has been told a thousand times before, perhaps that speaks to its universal relevance—execution, rather than subject matter, is key.

Yeon Sang-ho’s world is bright and spacious. Filled with daylight and warmth, captured with a steady and inquisitive camera, something is jarring about how unburdened the film feels in its early scenes. It recalled Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), and the almost cruel way it manages to wrongfoot the audience before revealing its true nature.

Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t go quite as far as Miike in this experiment—a prologue that establishes a ‘leak in a biotech unit’ gives the game away too soon, and I found myself wanting to spend a bit more time in the normal world before all hell breaks loose. But that’s a testament to both the characters and the performers—even before the first zombie snarls, Yeon Sang-ho puts us in the world of a father and daughter, a pairing you can’t help but root for.

Seok-Woo, indulging his daughter’s birthday wish, accompanies her on a train to Busan. Here, the warning signs are everywhere: the men in army fatigues patrolling the platforms, the screeching fire engines, and the hushed murmurs of violence in the city. They create a sickly, nervous contrast to the normality of the morning commute. It’s vivid and recognisable, regardless of location.

Anyone who regularly uses the trains in the UK knows the anxious hum of whispers that erupt upon finding out a person has been hit. Furthermore, anyone—anywhere—can recognise the surreality of dreadful news breaking while in the company of strangers. The safe world, the world of the commute, of coffee, ticket inspectors, and headphones, rebuilds itself from the banal to the uncharted, and finally to the unrecognisable. And it happens all too quickly.

Not long after Yeon Sang-ho introduces the passengers on the train and settles them into their temporary social order, a wildcard is thrown into the mix: a wounded and bloodied young woman seemingly making a desperate escape. What she’s escaping from remains a mystery, as does what she has witnessed—Yeon Sang-ho excels at giving us only the information we need—but it’s not long before she’s jerking and convulsing, and we realise we’ve encountered our first zombie.

A key challenge for any filmmaker in this genre is creating a zombie that feels distinctive and memorable. Here, we see fast, rage-filled zombies, not dissimilar to the speed freaks in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). While not entirely original, they are at least effectively nasty and threatening.

This is mostly due to performances—Yeon Sang-ho casts actors and stunt performers who can pop shoulders out of sockets, who aren’t afraid to take serious stunts, and who seem fully willing to sacrifice their bodies for the pleasure of the audience. There is a contorted physicality to the film’s antagonists, their movements hard to predict and insect-like. The veins in their faces bulge, their eyes turn milky white, and they want to eat anything that looks human.

As tradition dictates, all it takes is a single sneaky bite from an infected person to find yourself joining the writhing throng of the undead. It’s with this in mind that Train to Busan rockets ahead with seemingly unstoppable momentum. The camera, previously still and watchful, becomes active and kinetic. Crash zooms and handheld Steadicams imbue the action with real dynamism, a particularly tricky feat to pull off given the confines of the location.

The restriction of movement on trains is familiarly claustrophobic, and Yeon Sang-ho makes the most of the predicament. You can go forwards and you can go backwards, but that is about it. The camera barrels into the action as much as it flees from it, a tug-of-war between the survivors and their attackers. Clever usage is made of safe spaces, and necessary weaknesses are introduced to explain why the ghouls don’t just bum-rush the living.

Firstly, and most importantly, they only attack what they can see. One passenger uses damp newspaper to block the view into their compartment, while later, darkened tunnels provide an opportunity for an attack on the effectively night-blind zombies.

Secondly, since they’re presumed to be very stupid, the infected don’t know how to open doors, meaning they’re stuck in whichever carriage they find themselves in. They act as convenient blind spots, but are quickly forgiven, or at least forgotten—there’s not much time to linger on any piece of information before the film races on.

During an excellent set piece, the disembarked passengers scope out a railway station which they’ve been told is a safe area. Here, the film uses tasteful VFX to present the sheer scale of destruction. Zombies pour like minced meat from a bridge onto the roof of the train; they pile up as they run alongside the accelerating train and pull their brethren into the chaos; here, they truly feel like hordes. The video game Days Gone (2019) comes to mind, and the sheer mind-boggling scope of seeing hundreds of bodies hurtling towards you.

It’s animalistic and primal, a fight-or-flight nightmare that throws the viewer right at the heart of the action. Yeon Sang-ho also uses each attack to develop and explore character. Seok-Woo claims that “at a time like this, only watch out for yourself,” to a disbelieving Su-An. But Yeon Sang-ho isn’t a pessimist, and, apart from perhaps one or two characters, doesn’t present the survivors in broad brushstrokes of pure selfishness or sainthood.

Rather, what makes Train to Busan such an involving film is that its characters operate within a wholly human context. Panic, fear, and love all exist on the same continuum—Seok-Woo, in an act of self-preservation, refuses to help an uninfected person, while in other moments throws himself headfirst into battle to protect his fellow survivors.

The film, piece by piece, develops characters from short-sighted egotists to would-be heroes, from sensible authorities to flailing cowards, all the while making each of these developments feel natural. The director doesn’t judge; rather, he understands that a person’s bad actions under pressure can be explained, even if they can’t always be justified.

Here, inevitably, memories of lockdowns and the worst days of COVID-19 resurface. It isn’t so much the subject of infection that makes Train to Busan such a prescient film, it’s the way it captures the fear and uncertainty among people who have found themselves in wholly uncharted waters.

The desire to protect loved ones, the necessary sacrifices that entail, and the refusal on some people’s part to view events as a threat to the whole community are all present and strikingly accurate. When a society is forced to adapt to a new mode of living, it can exaggerate both people’s behaviour and their fear-governed beliefs. Skeptics become crackpots and optimists speak of superheroes, but in reality the human spectrum is somewhere between the extreme poles. It’s messy and imperfect, and rarely is it as simple as Good vs. Evil.

Train to Busan is a film that understands this, but it doesn’t proselytise, and it certainly doesn’t let itself get bogged down in cultural temperature-taking. Instead, the action is king, each observation or conflict arising naturally, given space to breathe, and woven into the breathless narrative.

Space is given to a range of textured, colourful characters, particularly the husband-and-wife team of Yoon Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-Seok) and Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi), the latter of whom is heavily pregnant and looks after Su-an when her father isn’t up to the task. The couple’s acts of kindness are understated and touching, proving to be the key to Yeon Sang-ho’s perspective. Total strangers can possess the kindness and clarity of thought—even when things are falling apart—to take the kind of actions we always hope we’ll take when the chips are down.

It’s not about being a superhero, or flawless; it’s about accessing a part of yourself that knows it can do the right thing, even if it risks your safety. The interplay between the couple and Su-an, and Seok-woo, presents moral dilemmas that are easy to become engrossed in.

Perhaps the film’s finest achievement, and the one that makes it linger even after the credits have rolled, is that it brilliantly utilises audience participation—we are not passive viewers here. Instead, we are questioning what we might do in the characters’ place, and challenging our deeply held beliefs. Yeon Sang-ho asks us to examine ourselves and to face the possibility that, for better or worse, we may never know what we are individually capable of.

Three years before COVID-19, Train to Busan presented a vision of a quarantined micro-society, and now lets us experience a fantastical version of a world that has lost its footing. A bravura final sequence literally goes off the rails in the best way possible, with a conclusion as moving as anything the genre has previously presented. One particular image, of an infected character smiling as the last fragments of their memories dissolve, is breathtaking.

Train to Busan is a film about sacrifice, but miraculously, nothing in the film is sacrificed—thrills, terror, humour, and heart all exist comfortably alongside each other. It’s a hugely impressive achievement, a film indebted to what came before it but suggesting new ways forward for the genre. An evolution rather than a revolution, Train to Busan is one of the most satisfying horror films of the 2010s


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The film’s bright colour palette leaps off the screen in this new 4K edition. The prologue is especially startling—the bruised grey skies and bright yellow of the high-vis jackets create a striking and vivid contrast. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also gives depth and weight to the film, especially during a derailment scene late in the film.

  • Making Of. At under 20 minutes, and having already been featured on previous releases, it’s a real pity this is essentially the only special feature on the disc. Such a beloved film should have a fuller set of extras, and this is the sort of EPK you’d see on YouTube, rather than something special for a 4K release. It’s better than nothing, and it does provide some glimpses at how the film came to be, but a film so full of character and ingenious inventions deserves something more expanded.
  • Trailer.
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Cast & Crew

director: Yeon Sang-ho.
writer: Park Joo-suk.
starring: Gong Yoo, Jung Yu-Mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Su-an, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee & Kim Eui-sung.