Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Gong Yoo, Kim Soo-an, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok
Watch Train to Busan online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Just when you thought that public transport couldn’t get scarier than Southern Rail or the Central Line, along comes Train to Busan, a South Korean zombie flick that puts the “loco” in “locomotive”.
Things start off slow, as we meet Seok-woo, a workaholic dad (Yoo) who doesn’t pay enough attention to his daughter, Su-an (Su-an). He misses her singing recital. He buys her presents she already has. And he never delivers on his promises. So when she calls him out on it, asking to be taken to see her mum for her birthday, he agrees to take the day off and catch the train to Busan.
But, as luck would have it, they make the cross-country trip just as a virus breaks out on that very train – the kind of virus that turns people into undead flesh-eaters and makes your morning rush hour commute look like a relaxed stroll in the park.
We get to meet other passengers, of course, from the honest working-class husband (Dong-seok) with a pregnant wife to the snooty first class businessmen. But after a calm tour of the carriages, Train to Busan wastes no time in putting its foot on the gas. And as soon as the first zombie punches a passenger’s ticket, the film doesn’t hit the brakes.
The cast, fortunately, are good enough to give their broad-strokes archetypes just enough depth to engage on the run. The snobby, rich travellers are clearly waiting to have their suits sprayed in blood, while two sisters onboard make for a deceptively moving subplot. At the heart of it are Gong Yoo and Kim Soo-an, whose father-daughter relationship is heart-wrenchingly sincere – he’s cynical enough to screw anyone over to keep her safe, while she’s naive enough to trust that he can still be a good man. Both are traits motivated by love in some form. Sure, an estranged dad and child making their peace is a well-worn tale, but Yeon Sang-ho’s script deftly ties it to their survival: in an every-person-for-themselves scenario, is rediscovering a conscience a vital stop on the way to redemption, or a one-way travelcard to death?
And oh, what death Sang-ho has in store: he lines up his set pieces with a comic book-style energy that remains both graphic and novel throughout. The creature design, all snapped-back necks and opaque blue contact lenses, is creepily unfamiliar, while the speed at which they pile up in the aisles carries an immediate, visceral terror – one made all the more horrifying by the the director’s masterful use of location. The claustrophobic trains offer all kinds of inventive hiding places and locked doors to fend off the undead, while glass windows only provide more opportunities to see bodies pressed up against them. Things escalate to nail-biting levels of tension halfway through, when we’re briefly let off the train – only for a station to prove equally fatal, with threats posed by platforms and sidings, not to mention the most dangerous thing of all: the escalators. Judging by the carnage on display, Sang-ho could make even a railway replacement bus go like the clappers.
The result is less a train and more the Titanic on rails, with blood flooding the once-pristine floors with a relentless momentum. It’s the most energetic zombie movie since 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, full of fiendishly funny slapstick slaughter, satisfying social commentary (hello to Snowpiercer), and genuinely chilling gore. All the while, tiny emotional epiphanies mean that you’ll well up at the sound of a young girl singing as much as gasp at the endless new ways Sang-ho comes up with to dispatch corpses.
In 2017, the zombie genre has already peaked and troughed several times over, so for a brain-eating blockbuster to feel so stickily fresh is a marvellous achievement. For it to be fun, freaky and frantically realistic (well, for a zombie film) too is a bonus. The result is a brilliant bonkers, non-stop fright train to the end of the line. Get on board now, because you’ll be wanting a second ride.