When I was first approached about watching Train the Busan, I was both skeptical and open-minded about it. On the one hand, the trailers made it look like the typical zombie movie: people getting too close to someone who obviously needs medical attention that they are not qualified to provide, screaming bloody maws and shredded wardrobes, a whole lot of running…and this one also boasted the ‘obscenely large and still-growing piles of zombies’ phenomenon that I had noticed in previews for World War Z. On the other hand, though, I was open because I was told that it was a ‘zombie movie for people who didn’t care for modern zombie movies.’ Hmm, I thought. Go on.
In some ways, Train to Busan is fairly formulaic. The threat is both apparent and obscure: the zombie outbreak that has spread and taken over the country lacks detail (and in some ways, it is a disappointment because in one of the opening shots of the movie we see an animal returning from the dead, which we never come back to) but is ultimately terrifying. We have an assorted cast who is trying their best to stay alive and uninfected. And not only is our collective of heroes attempting to outsmart and avoid the zombies but they also have to deal with their fellow passengers with less than admirable qualities. Not our first rotten-flesh rodeo.
However, it is the details that make Train to Busan shine in the zombie genre. First of all, the acting is fantastic; there is an emotional tether between the characters that will leave the viewer weeping when it is severed. This is because the focus of the movie is on the relationships and ties between the individuals on the train and less the circumstances of their demise. The dialogue is natural – at times light and humorous without derailing (#punstoppable) the gravitas of the situation – and we get to know the characters through their interactions without any flashbacks or extensive background dumps.
And speaking of demises, there are also two major cinematic aspects that set this movie apart from other modern zombie movies: for what it is, it does not focus on gore as much as, say, Dawn of the Dead or its ilk. The undead are unsettling, certainly, but not to the degree of leaving one feeling grossed out. There are also only one or two jumpscares in the entire film, and it does not rely on the constant anxiety of the audience. This works well because rather than get distracted by our natural fear that something is going to jump out at us, we can get to know the setting (which only feels smaller and smaller as the movie progresses) and colorful personalities in front of us.
So if you’re looking for a movie that defies all the “rules” of the zombie genre…you probably will not find it here. That said, if you’re looking for a great movie with fantastic characters that will leave you with more feelings than when you headed in…Train to Busan is a fantastic choice.