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Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” is the most purely entertaining zombie film in some time, finding echoes of George Romero’s and Danny Boyle’s work, but delivering something unique for an era in which kindness to others seems more essential than ever. For decades, movies about the undead have essentially been built on a foundation of fear of our fellow man—your neighbor may look and sound like you, but he wants to eat your brain—but “Train to Busan” takes that a step further by building on the idea that, even in our darkest days, we need to look out for each other, and it is those who climb over the weak to save themselves who will suffer. Social commentary aside, it’s also just a wildly fun action movie, beautifully paced and constructed, with just the right amount of character and horror. In many ways, it’s what “World War Z” should have been—a nightmarish vision of the end of the world, and a provocation to ask ourselves what it is that really makes us human in the first place.
Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a divorced workaholic. He lives with his mother and barely spends any time with his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). He’s so distant from her that he buys her a Nintendo Wii for her birthday, ignoring that she has one already, and that he’s the one who bought it for her for Children’s Day. To make up for this rather-awkward moment, he agrees to give Su-an what she really wants—a trip to her mother’s home in Busan, 280 miles away. It’s just an hour train ride from Seoul. What could possibly go wrong? Even the set-up is a thematic beauty, as this is more than just a train ride for Seok-woo and Su-an—it’s a journey into the past as a father tries to mend bridges and fix that which may be dead. It’s a perfect setting for a zombie movie.
Before they even get to their early-morning train ride, Seok-woo and Su-an see a convoy of emergency vehicles headed into Seoul. When they get to the train, Sang-ho beautifully sets up his cast of characters, giving us beats with the conductors, a pair of elderly sisters, a husband and his pregnant wife, an obnoxious businessman (a vision of Seok-woo in a couple decades), and even a baseball team. A woman who’s clearly not well gets on the train just before it departs, and just as something else disturbing but generally unseen is happening in the station above the platform. Before you know it, the woman is taking out the jugular of a conductor, who immediately becomes a similarly mindless killing machine. These are zombies of the “28 Days Later” variety—fast, focused, and violent. They replicate like a virus, turning whole cars of the train into dead-eyed flesh-eaters in a matter of seconds. They are rabid dogs. And you thought your Metra commute was bad.
The claustrophobic tension of “Train to Busan” is amplified after a brilliantly staged sequence in a train station in which our surviving travelers learn that the entire country has gone brain-hungry. They discover that the undead can’t quite figure out door handles and are mostly blind, so tunnels and lines of sight become essential. Sang-ho also keeps up his social commentary, giving us characters who want to do anything to survive, and others who will do what it takes to save others. Early in the film, Seok-woo tells his daughter, “At a time like this, only watch out for yourself,” but he learns that this isn’t the advice we should live by or pass down to our children. Without spoiling anything, the survivors of “Train to Busan” are only so lucky because of the sacrifice of others. And the film is thematically stronger than your average zombie flick in the way it captures how panic can make monsters of us all, and it is our responsibility to overcome that base instinct in times of crisis.
After the near-perfect first hour of “Train to Busan,” the film slows its progress and makes a few stops that feel repetitive, but the journey recovers nicely for a memorable finale. You could call it “Train of the Living Dead” or “'Snowpiercer' with Zombies.” Whatever you call it, if it’s playing in your city and you’ve ever been entertained by a zombie movie, it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t be entertained by this one.