I will admit that I’m burnt out on zombies – I have been for a while, long before they transitioned into pop culture with (arguably) the success of Shaun of the Dead – but likely I’m not alone. It’s the go-to monster for low budget crap on Netflix, and hundreds of badly written “post apocalyptic” novels on Amazon. Gone are the days – long gone – when the zombie was used as a metaphor for the mindless hordes of us, where the shuffling, brain dead hordes said, or tried to say, something about our propensity for herd mentality and mass consumerism. Nope, all gone, swept away under a tidal wave of pop culture of, ironically, brain dead depictions of zombies. Now you’re more or less likely to see them used either as backdrops (The Walking Dead) or rampaging groups of chase/eat machines (28 Days Later, World War Z).
I find it hard to get too excited about zombie movies when the truth is these days people have become far worse. Atrocities abound in a world where people are murdered by scores, are beheaded, drowned, and burned alive on videos, are crushed under the wheels of semi trucks, or tortured on Facebook Live? How scary can movies about dead humans be when they are trumped by the very much alive monsters living so openly among us? A depressing reality, but also a question worth asking specifically about the zombie genre. When watching The Green Inferno last year, I was reminded of the sheer primal visceral terror of mutilation, of being ripped apart – I’ve felt that in zombie movies before, but probably not since the heydays of the Italian classics of the 80s. Even The Walking Dead, which ironically enough, contains a large amount of gore, doesn’t strike me with that same uncomfortable fear – in fact, The Walking Dead proves my point about the living us being far more monstrous. When you have a baseball bat-wielding psychopath literally beating someone’s head to a pulp, the shuffling, easy to kill horde seems much less terrifying in comparison.
So after that lengthy intro, why did I bother watch Train To Busan the other night? Simple answer is recommendation from a couple of friends. I wasn’t expecting it to be bad, but I wasn’t particularly enamoured of The Host, the fan-favourite South Korean monster movie from 2006. Essentially, Train To Busan feels like a mash up of other movies – Spielberg and Cruise’s War of the Worlds, Snowpiercer, even Howl, the werewolves-on-a-train movie from 2015. So yeah, there’s nothing particularly original about this movie. Even the zombies are just another in the 20 Days Later variant – fast moving and savage, with a mindless herd mentality. And again, this is not a zombie movie that is trying to tell us something about ourselves, or trying to say much about anything, really. There’s some hint that this particular strain was a man-made accident (boringly familiar – The Mist, and Contagion are two movies I can think of where the trope of The Man-Made Folly is an important plot point), but it’s not explored here, either by the plot, or by curiosity on the part of any character. When characters don’t have any kind of “WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?!” moment in this kind of movie, it always feels like the story is lacking a basic sense of humanity. The movie Cell is one great example of that. Even if the world is collapsing, wouldn’t we feel a need to wonder why in between the chaos?
Ostensibly, Train To Busan is zombies on a train and not a lot else. The movie is peopled with two dimensional characters that you assemble into a dead pool from the start, and I think part of the entertainment value of watching a movie like this is seeing how much of it you got right. The plot is pretty minimal, as you’d expect from the setup, and once it gets going, comparisons to Snowpiercer in particular are inevitable, but the story is much less complex. At two hours long, this is a movie that doesn’t justify its running time. What you get is lots of chomping of incidental, unimportant characters, lots of extras playing terrified being chased by extras playing zombies, with a main cast predictably reduced through attrition. It’s all very familiar indeed to anyone who’s watched a zombie movie from the last ten years – it’s more action than it is horror.
I referenced The Host earlier – one reason I didn’t take to that movie was the goofy characters and situations, something that seems to me more a part of Asian cinema than it is Western. It just wasn’t for me – but conversely, I love older Asian movies like Spooky Encounters, a vampire movie that’s as unlike a Western vampire movie as you can get. Here in the 21st Century, with the global success of the American blockbuster, it’s almost depressing to think that the unique aspects of Asian cinema may be becoming submerged under Western tropes. Train to Busan is maybe the most Western Asian movie I’ve ever seen. There’s almost nothing about the movie that has a uniquely identifiable Asian feeling about it. Even the central relationship between Father and Daughter characters (which I thought was terrific, by the way), is very reminiscent of the Cruise/Fanning characters from War of the Worlds.
I’ll say, though, that while Train to Busan is a slick piece of very Western influenced cinema, it’s mostly enjoyable throughout. I was annoyed by the lack of gore – there is plenty of fake looking blood, but the movie only comes to the brink of true horror by not showing the only thing that zombie movies really have going for them, which is the carnage these monsters wreak upon the human body. The action rarely flags, but some scenes feel too similar to others, which always gives me a feeling of plot-padding. Most of the characters aren’t given much depth, and those that aren’t flat out zombie fodder are only imbued with familiar traits that you’ve encountered many times before.
Is it worth watching? Sure. I’ve seen worse movies, and a lot worse zombie movies. But I wasn’t convinced by the word of mouth before I went in, and I came out the other side with my preconceived notions mostly intact.
© Andrew Hope, 2017