It’s an oft-cited criticism among professional reviewers, the laity, and everyone in between (like me and probably you) that there are too few original ideas being produced in film, with various thinkpieces arguing the relative merits of remakes (like the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), reboots (like the upcoming The Mummy), reimaginings (like the upcoming IT), and sequels (of which there will be at least a dozen this year, but let’s just put a pin in Transformers: The Last Knight as the one that’s least likely to have any objective value). In the fight between the pedantic “You know that Wizard of Oz and The Maltese Falcon were remakes, don’t you?” camp versus the equally annoying “Everything’s a remake these days!” camp, there’s not a lot of room for middle ground. Although we’re no longer in the heyday of remakes that we were ten years ago (for instance, Hollywood’s top performers in 2005 had a high percentage of remakes, 17%, which fell to 5% by 2014), the rise of narratively homogeneous “cinematic universes,” the tendency on the part of studios to fund financially safe sequels, and the widespread proliferation of lay criticism on YouTube and beyond means that you’re no less likely to hear kvetching about unoriginality today than you were in the summer of 2006; in fact, you probably hear it more often.
With regards to horror, the tendency to “follow the leader” whenever the wheel happens to be reinvented, either intentionally or accidentally, is non-negligible. The relative profundity of originality that catapulted The Blair Witch Project to success means that we’re approaching nearly two decades of found-footage horror, with six Paranormal Activity films in eight years and the most recent season of American Horror Story using the format as its central gimmick. The nineties saw a huge uptick in teen-oriented slasher films following the release of Scream, although the extent to which they retained that film’s sly metacommentary varied from project to project. Before that, the international success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead spawned a slew of imitators, including an entire separate string of foreign sequels starting with Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.
Of course, Romero’s zombies became the default conception of the reanimated undead from that point forward, with the occasional outlier generating considerable interest in the horror fan community, despite the frequent obstinance of zombie “purists.” Danny Boyle’s astonishing 28 Days Later rocked the boat in 2001 with its so-called rage-zombies (although whether or not the infectees of the film are “true” zombies is still a matter of debate among the persnickety), and Edgar Wright’s delightful 2004 romp Shaun of the Dead adhered to the more traditional Romero zombie apocalypse scenario filtered through a distinctly comedic (and British) lens. It’s noteworthy that both of these zombie films of the aughts were made by Brits, following the distinct and entrenched American orientation of Romero’s satirism. At the same time that Shaun and 28 Days were making zombies interesting again, Americans were putting out regrettable and forgettable nonsense like the made-for- TV Return of the Living Dead sequels, Tobe Hooper’s Mortuary, and Romero’s own Land of the Dead, which is better than its contemporaries but suffers from both a lack of subtlety in its social criticism and its lack of freshness (there’s a reason that it’s not recalled or discussed with the reverence that is reserved for Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead).
It should come as no surprise, then, that following another decade of retreads of the zombie genre, with adaptations like World War Z (aka the zombie movie that your dad can watch), more Resident Evil movies than you can shake a stick at, and other flash-in- the-pan flicks, the next great thing in zombies also comes from outside America’s borders: Busanhaeng (aka Train to Busan), a South Korean production, is frenetic, gorgeous, and ironically full of life.
Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workaholic fund manager who is inattentive to his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an), to such an extent that his belated birthday gift to her is the same gaming system he bought the year before. Soo-an asks only that she be taken to her mother’s home in Busan as her birthday gift, and her father obliges. Unfortunately, before their train leaves the station, an infected young woman jumps aboard, and soon it’s zombies, zombies, zombies! Also along for the ride are: Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a working class ruffian with a heart of gold; his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi); young baseball player Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik) and his team, including cheerleader Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee); and Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a stereotypical (but no less true-to-life) rich CEO who is concerned with saving his own skin at the expense of all others.
There’s some social commentary in that Yon-suk’s pragmatic and unrelenting self-interest is reflective of Seok-woo’s potential to be just as monstrous in his banal inhumanity as the older businessman. This is especially evident when Yon-suk is able to make contact with a friend on the outside who tells him to take a different path away from the platform when the train stops briefly at Daejeon and he tells no others, not even Sang-hwa and Seong-kyeong. He becomes a better man throughout, however, and ultimately makes the right choices for both himself and what survivors remain as they begin the final leg of their journey.
Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces (although there’s no unsettling discussion about repopulating the earth by force here as there is in Days), and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable (serving as her father’s conscience) are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films). It’s worth checking out at the earliest opportunity.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond