It seems like it was farther back than 2016 when Train to Busan, the South Korean genre-bending zombie movie, was at the top of both critic and fan year-end lists everywhere. So, by just getting around to seeing it now, I’m not showing up incredibly late to this party, more like fashionably late. But I am the last of my circle to see it.
My reasoning behind waiting for so long to finally check it out is simple. I have been completely bored with zombie movies for years now, so nothing about the movie excited me. Even when people would tell me that it was their favorite movie of the year, and that it’s not “really” a zombie movie, I still couldn’t get interested. The two-hour running time turned me off a bit as well, since I am the king of the eighty-minute slasher flick, and two hours is a ridiculously long time to watch zombies feast on humans. But alas, in the name of Late to the Party, I fired up my Netflix and hit play on Train to Busan.
Immediately, I could see why people would think that this was more than just a “normal” zombie movie. There’s a human element to the story from the start, with the struggle between the father and the mother for custody of their daughter, and the father being pulled between work and family. And that’s not the only interesting backstory, either; just about every character on the train, from the confrontational jerk who just wants to protect his pregnant wife to the youth baseball team travelling with their girlfriends, has a mythology that reaches beyond the frame of the zombie attack. The characters development, even when most of it occurs off-screen, raises the emotional stakes and helps the audience empathize with the principals.
But Train to Busan is, first and foremost, a zombie movie. The zombies are cool, closer to 28 Days Later… than they are to The Walking Dead, but they are still, in fact, zombies, so they’re a threat that modern viewers have seen ad nauseum. And the zombies in Train to Busan don’t bring much to the table as far as re-invention goes. They swarm and cooperate like the undead in World War Z, but other than that, they’re just the typical Return of the Living Dead, fast-moving zombies.
There’s an exercise in film school screenwriting classes where the student is asked to spice up a tired old trope by changing the setting. Stick your slasher in a submarine. Put your vampires in a high-rise. Set your creature feature in an airplane (I’m convinced that this is how we got Snakes on a Plane). That’s what Train to Busan feels like to me, like someone tried to breathe new life into the retreaded zombie genre by throwing most of the action on a moving train. And for the most part, it works. It’s got a Snowpiercer meets the Dawn of the Dead remake vibe to it, but that’s better than seeing zombies traipse around a dilapidated graveyard, isn’t it?
It seems that I may have been a victim of the hype train (no pun intended), as Train to Busan didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I was expecting it to be much more than a zombie movie, but that’s really all it is. It’s one in which the deaths hit harder because the film builds relationships between the audience and the characters, but when the dust settled, it was just a very well-crafted zombie flick. It’s a good movie, but I’ll probably never find the need to watch it again. I might even forget that I watched it this time.
Feature image by Chris Fischer.