Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie apocalypse film Train to Busan (2016) explores the zombie trope in film quite satisfactorily, but adds another sharp element that we don’t often see in zombie-inspired flicks: the psychology of the end days or apocalypse.
The plot of the movie is simple enough: a zombie disease emerges in the South Korean populace and begins to spread via contagion.
The “first victim” the first lady biter in the train that eventually causes the infection of 99% of the passengers isn’t Patient X at all.
Patient X is someone else, but was never revealed in the film. Any and all possible origins of the disease were only hinted at (that it probably originated at some city center) but other than these sparse details, the chaos the inner-film TV coverage gave little direction in terms of tracing the first infected bite.
Insular, modern life doesn’t hold up well to zombies…
In contrast, another South Korean film, Flu (2013) [not a zombie film] was a bit more scientific in its approach to presenting the idea of contagion. In that film, a group of illegal immigrants die of the flu, save for one Filipino who survived (we can assume that from the get-go, this guy developed antibodies against the rabid killer flu).
This is a point of contention for me as a film critic: the seen/unseen categories in the film all seem to point at uncertainty, which from the point of view of filmography is a no-no, but at the same time, from a real-world perspective, the uncertainty adds much-needed realism to the film because it features zombies (in the first place).
As expected, the zombie contagion caught everyone unaware, which mirror (quite humorously) the real-world perspective of a possible zombie apocalypse – it’s not real, there is no threat, there must be no preparation for it. Train to Busan is as much a psychological horror drama as it is a simulation of what would happen if a Middle Ages-type plague suddenly hit mankind – with his pants down and mouth agape.
Seok-Woo, the young businessman who starred in the movie, was the perfect example of a static, one-sided modern individual who wasn’t really ready for anything but go to work.
The entire film is a petri dish of insular, modern society, in all its weaknesses combined with the raw power of zombies.
The zombie stampede
Let’s talk about the zombie stampede, which everyone knows about but doesn’t really pay attention to when they’re watching movies. In Train to Busan, the stampede was as aesthetic as it could get because of the massive contrast of bleeding, screaming zombies vis-à-vis the shiny interior of the free-traveling train. The narrow passages of each train that the characters board heightens the fear and anxiety generated by the zombie stampede. The zombies in Train to Busan are regular zombies (slow, walking types) but with a bonus feature – they’re biters, too!
In the grand pantheon of zombiekind, biters are often portrayed as faster, stronger and more ruthless than their generic, slow-walking counterparts. In Train to Busan, the zombies are indeed faster, angrier and stronger than usual. You know why? Because they’re part of the contagion. My theory is that in order for a disease to spread via biting, the hosts have to be stronger than their victims. Director Sang-ho’s take on the contagion zombie is indeed scientific because it is fairly difficult to overpower a Train to Busan zombie with your bare hand.
Notice that in the film, the characters all had to use barriers (locked sliding doors) to hold off the horde. Weapons like the baseball bats had to be used with extreme force to disable each zombie. And of course, once the horde touches you, you cannot be extricated from it.
Military perimeters in zombie movies are quite common; in Train to Busan, the survivors were nearly shot by the military. The characters were literally “saved by the song,” an old allusion to the literary device “saved by the bell,” which signals the end of a battle. And since the battle is over, the lost song had to be played, signaling the possible end of the contagion, too.
From the top of my head, I actually want to see more zombie flicks with uncertainty added to the mix. I don’t mind formulaic in a visual sense, but I want to see more complex plots that integrate not just one or two timelines especially if the issue is disease.
Diseases can be traced back to their starting points and while this is a tall order for zombie flicks, it adds that flavor of realism that we all need as we continue to think: can the world end with a zombie apocalypse?