Train to Busan is a well-constructed Korean zombie movie set on a train. And it features fast as zombies. That’s basically all you need to know about whether or not you’re going to enjoy this film. If you enjoy zombie movies, especially ones in unique settings, and you think fast zombies are pretty nifty and scary, this will be a satisfying film!
But I do want to dive into that question: Are fast zombies good? In the past I have likened them to salt and vinegar-flavored potato chips. That is to say: intense and divisive and people probably aren’t going to be changing their mind too much. The argument in favor of fast zombies is that they are more viscerally intense and threatening. If they can run up to you and eat your face off within moments, even if they’re hundreds of feet away, the zombie threat grows exponentially. With slow zombies, the threat is more creeping and suspenseful. It might take a zombie that’s 50 feet away a full minute to approach you and eat your face, but those seconds will be filled with steadily rising dread.
I land on the anti-fast zombie side of the argument, though I have not seen the canonical fast zombie work, 28 Days Later, so I’m not comfortable marking a final grade. But fast zombies, at least, as rendered in Train to Busan, are a bit silly. Artificial slowness is built in, because it needs to be. Otherwise you’d have a three minute movie: “Hey what’s all that commotion, looks like some zomb—” and, whoops, the protagonist’s face has been eaten. Whether it’s using break-resistant windows and doors or tricking zombies by turning off the lights — suggesting zombiism removes one’s capacity for processing understanding of object permanence — you need something to slow down fast zombies to make a real story of it. (These are the two main techniques used by director/co-writer Yeon Sang-ho in Train to Busan, by the way.) Why not just make them slow in the first place?
Train to Busan follows an ensemble of heavily-typed characters as they try to survive this perilous train trip. The main character is a businessman and father named Seok-woo (Gong Yoo). He and his tween-aged daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) are undergoing some strife in their relationship. Seok-woo is distant and always busy at work, recently divorced, and all his daughter wants is for mommy and daddy to get back together and spend some time with her. As a birthday gift, Seok-woo agrees to take his daughter on a trip. Mommy lives in Busan, so the emotional stakes are a part of this fateful train ride: Arrival at the destinations means both survival of the self and the survival of the crumbling family unit.
Accompanying Seok-woo and Su-an are a couple pregnant with their first child. The expectant father, Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), is snarky and lovable, the closest thing the film has to comic relief. The rest of the cast fills out nicely: There’s a baseball team plus of the teen girlfriend (Sohee) of one of the players (Choi Woo-shik), an elderly pair of sisters (Ye Soo-jung and Park Myung-sin), a selfish corporate executive (Kim Eui-sung), a mysterious drifter (Choi Gwi-hwa), and some crew members of the train. Most of them get one or two moments to shine throughout the film, and you can probably guess, what some of those moments are just from the character types.
Although it’s a zombie movie, Train to Busan is more in the action genre than the horror genre. Much of that comes back to the fact, again, that the zombies are fast. And they don’t just move fast, they turn fast. If someone is bitten, they’re a full-on brain-lust zombie within 15 seconds, so we’re not getting much in the way of the beat where a character is hiding their bite from the rest of the group.
The action is episodic with scenarios sometimes set directly on the train and making creative use of the physical train spaces — though there’s a noticeable absence of zombies clawing across the roof of the train or flying out the train windows. In the second half of the film, we have some set pieces at train stations, which adds a little bit of variety just as the whole zombie rush-on-a-train gimmick is on the verge of growing stale.
The problem with the structure of the film is that it requires a lot of stops and starts in action. It doesn’t have the gradual build in apocalyptic threat of the best zombie movies. It’s a lot of resetting of space and stakes from scene to scene, but with a thinning out cast of heroes each time. This does lead to a gradual sense of repetitive sameness. The film, which almost cracks two hours, loses tension through the middle act and everything leading up to the finale as the various zombie episodes begin to bleed together.
That ending is something special, though, and buoys Train to Busan from a soft recommendation to a pretty strong recommendation. The final ten minutes are a real gut punch with some evocative imagery and wrenching emotional beats. I didn’t particularly expect anything this visually intriguing nor this sad given how much of the movie for its first 90% had been about brisk action scenes more than anything else. So, worth a watch, especially if fast zombies are your thing.