You think your morning commute is hell? Imagine taking a train packed with ravenous zombies. What with this past summer’s barrage of showy wannabe blockbusters, you may have overlooked one of the best horror movies that 2016 has to offer. Lucky for you, Train to Busan has been granted a re-release, giving zombie fans a second chance to get scared stupid.
By setting his zombie outbreak story aboard the titular train, South Korean writer/director Yeon Sang-ho has created an intense and intimate thrill ride that plays like Snakes on a Plane meets 28 Days Later. On the rails, people from all walks of life mingle indifferently with no idea how drastically their worlds are about to change. Elderly sisters bicker over snacking. A high school baseball team hoots over a flirtatious cheerleader, while a brawny dad-to-be tends to his pregnant wife, and a sneering businessman criticizes a wild-eyed vagrant. Amid all this casual commotion stumbles the emotional core of this chilling thriller, a teary-eyed girl (Kim Soo-an) desperate to reconnect with her ever-distracted financier father (Gong Yoo). When a voracious infection turns passenger after passenger into a flesh-craving fiend, these strangers will fast become enemies or allies.
The train device is brilliant. Not only does it allow Yeon a sharp focus to his zombie apocalypse tale, but also it creates a dizzying sense of claustrophobia as characters are forced again and again to race car to car, sheltering in tiny bathrooms to avoid the deadly maws of the undead. When the train does make a stop, Yeon loses no momentum, transforming train stations and escalators into accidental traps, and thereby centerpieces for shriek-inducing action sequences. And while these setups create teeth-chattering suspense, the zombies themselves are what makes this horror truly traumatizing.
There are some so-so visual effects to be found the closer we get to the Train to Busan‘s final destination. However, the meat of its scares comes from perturbing practical effects that feel so authentic they’re actually sickening. The design of these zombies is simple: glassy eyes, bloody mouths, bite wounds, and spreading corruption in the veins. But an army of contortionists, dancers, and go-for-broke stunt people has created a uniquely scary physicality to these monsters. Their gray limbs jut out at unnatural angles as their bodies thrash like things possessed, and their faces smash into the ground with such force you’ll forget your watching fiction—you’ll feel the frenzy, and it’ll rattle around in your bloodstream long after the credits have rolled.
Like The Raid, Train to Busan feels exhilaratingly unsafe and illicit, as if you’re watching something the world was never meant to see. And because this is no glossy Hollywood horror flick, this low-budget but terrifying treat is delectably unpredictable, barreling toward its big finale with no promises of safety for even its most lovable characters.
The plot is thin, the characters archetypes. But Yeon’s script is shrewd enough to give us just enough of the father-daughter tale to be emotionally riveted to this survival struggle, and moves his film swiftly enough to keep us breathless. All in all, Train to Busan is a lean and mean zombie movie that is freshly frightening, bloody gruesome, and deliciously raw.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Image: Well Go USA Entertainment/StudioCanal