Hurtling along at breakneck speed, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan tears up the screen like any ravenous zombie horde would human flesh. After beginning his career with a number of animated features, Yeon adeptly shifts gears with this live-action zombie drama, smashing local South Korean box office records in the process.1 To establish the film as the premier zombie blockbuster from this region, Yeon simply applied a distinctly South Korean perspective to George A. Romero’s classic zombie formula, where those infected are transformed into rabid ghouls with an insatiable lust for human meat.2 In the act of transposition, Yeon retains Romero’s penchant for social critique, establishing an allegory between the zombie contagion and the oppressive nature of labour under capitalism (identical to Dawn of the Dead, where citizens are literally presented as mindless zombies). What guarantees distinction is the film’s setting – a KTX bullet train; consequently providing the effect of a high-octane rollercoaster ride to Hell.3
The story centres on Seok Woo (Yoo Gong), a divorced and neglectful father who promises his young daughter (Soo-ann Kim) a long-awaited trip to visit her mother in Busan. The work-driven father’s continual absence and inability to emotionally nurture his daughter provides the most important narrative theme in the film, as these early scenes demonstrate the ways in which the labour intensive demands of capitalism negatively impact the individual and all those in close proximity. The real action begins just moments before their train departs for Busan, when an infected woman boards, spreading the zombie virus to the first person she stumbles across. As the virus takes hold of its host, limbs crack and contort, demonstrating the immediacy of the transformation.4 Gone are the slow-moving zombies of the golden age; these recent incarnations ravenously bolt at their victims before devouring them, thus aligning the film with the modern zombie kinetics of 28 Days Later… and World War Z. As in Boyle’s film, Yeon utilises frenetic camera movements and fast-paced editing to match the speed of the zombie attacks. This is not a slow atmospheric gothic tale; the emphasis here is on speed, as the train rockets towards its fateful destination.
The action is framed in an intensely claustrophobic way, with the majority of the film shot within the enclosed space of a train carriage. We feel cramped and on edge watching characters hide inside bathroom stalls, just outside of detection. Once alerted to their presence, the undead horde jerk up attentively before swarming their would-be victims in a vicious frenzy. This visual approach means that the tight spaces are frequently overloaded with a ridiculous amount of zombies, so many that at one point they explode through a set of glass doors and flood the set with writhing bodies.5 They are so abundant that it almost seems as if the movie screen itself is about to give way and burst at the seams. This is extremely satisfying to see because, unlike some of the weaker zombie entries of yesteryear (where the undead sometimes only arrive in the final reel), Train to Busan delivers plenty of living dead action, and early on too.
During the bloodshed, audiences may be surprised to discover a great deal more thematic substance than an otherwise visceral gorefest would typically suggest. Character conflicts ramp up the melodrama, as the zombie threat persistently forces passengers to either step up heroically or cowardly sabotage the survival of others. This trope continuosly recurs throughout the zombie subgenre, particularly in recent years (most notably in AMC’s ongoing tele-drama The Walking Dead). Often, the struggle against the undead is not just a matter of survival, but also a matter of retaining a sense of humanity in the face of the apocalypse—it’s compassion that sets us apart from the otherwise indistinguishable horde.
Train to Busan relocates these themes of sacrifice and compassion to the plight of working within the highly corporate society of South Korea. Maintaining the cynical tone of his previous films, Yeon suggests in Busan that the humanity of those who toil relentlessly in their jobs gradually diminishes as they begin to resemble mindless automatons.6 The extended use of this metaphor further demonstrates the ways in which Busan draws heavily on the many tropes and themes of the zombie films of yesteryear. Yeon understands and respects these earlier offerings; Busan is not simply a cheap knockoff, but a clever tweaking of the formula. In a world overrun with zombie media, Train to Busan manages to stand out by finding new resonance in the presence of the horde, allowing the subgenre to remain firmly on track whilst chugging steadily along.