In 2016, zombie horror in America was dragging its feet like a decayed husk in the summer heat. This was the same year the AMC cable juggernaut The Walking Dead introduced Negan. Played by a grinning Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Negan was a sadomasochist cult leader who, armed with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, led an army that terrorized the main protagonists for a long, long season of miserable television.
That was zombies genre in America: Formerly a socially-conscious genre that exposed the living as monsters (George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the big bang for all zombie stories, ends with white people shooting the Black protagonist), it was reduced to a survivalist wet fantasy in between commercials for Old Navy.
But an ocean away, zombies were seeing new life in South Korea. In the smash-hit movie Train to Busan, director Yeon Sang-ho framed Korea's own social and political anxieties through a newfound fascination with the undead. Reminiscent of the UK's 28 Days Later (faithful to the spirit of George Romero, but wholly its own thing), Train to Busan was, and still is, an arresting zombie movie in which even diehards of the genre can smell something fresh. It's also the only movie you need to watch on Netflix before it the streaming service on September 17.
Primarily centered on an absent father Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an), Train to Busan takes place on, you guessed it, a commuter train to Busan, the second-most populous city in South Korea. A nationwide viral outbreak, in which the living become primal, flesh-eating monsters, makes its way onto the train where it spreads from car to car. Suddenly, this mundane morning ride becomes a microcosm for societal breakdown, where survivors choose to protect themselves over protecting each other.
It's like Lost, it's like The Host, it's like Snowpiercer. Train to Busan is "like" many things, but it's still its own beast, one that grounds its tensions in the intimate conflict of a father on the verge of emotionally losing his daughter. (It also introduces its own innovative idea to the genre rulebook: Zombies are night blind.)
Its protagonist is nothing like Rick Grimes. Sn a genre populated by rugged men wearing revolver pistols, Seok-woo is a tailored suit wearing Patek Philippe. Though Seok-woo loves his family, he has difficulty expressing tenderness. He is tethered to his work, and he is a nightmare of a boss — in English subtitles, he refers to his underlings as "lemmings."
But like any good genre movie, the heightened situation enables the possibility for growth and change in Seok-woo. He is often pitted against his fellow passengers, chiefly the large-and-in-charge Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok, look for him next year in Marvel's Eternals), a dedicated husband to a pregnant wife (Jung Yu-mi). Seok-woo's efforts to protect his daughter clash with the other passengers trying to save their own hides. You can see where Train to Busan oozes tension.
What's most interesting is how "American" Seok-woo is, in a spiritual sense. That's not to say he literally loves Bruce Springsteen or the New York Yankees (though he does briefly team up with a high school baseball star). Unlike other socio-political Korean horror like The Host, the United States is not even a blip in Busan. Rather, Seok-woo embodies a western individualism the film ultimately condemns. Introduced to us with half-eaten Burger King on his desk, Seok-woo is a "bloodsucking" fund manager, a capitalist who warns his daughter to look out for herself only. When Su-an gives up a chair for an elderly woman, Seok-woo scolds her. When there's a window to escape with the military, Seok-woo stops her from sharing his plan with the others.
Train to Busan is about Seok-woo "unlearning" his individualism and understanding that togetherness is how you survive. This has long been the lesson in the majority of all zombie stories, even The Walking Dead. Yet characters in these stories frequently resist taking in outsiders and strangers on the basis of paranoia, fear, and suspicion.
Train to Busan indulges in that exact paranoia and condemns it as inhumane. Later, when our heroes fight their way back to the front of the train, they are harshly yelled at and locked out. Train to Busan won't make you forget the slow-motion image of a pregnant woman and a crying child being yelled at by selfish men. That Train to Busan is a zombie story told from a region and culture that generally values collectivism — individualism is a distinctly western principle — imbues the movie with a sincerity that often feels like a naive farce in American zombie media.
To western eyes, it's hard to grasp some of the subtle specifics in Train to Busan. The frequent mention of quarantine in the movie is an odd thing to wrestle with (at least until recently), but to Korean audiences, it never felt more urgent. In 2015, just one year before the movie's release, a MERS outbreak ripped through South Korea. The country was left scarred when a total of 36 died. These ghosts haunt Train to Busan as the government and military in the movie turn just as diseased as its citizens.
Post-pandemic, perhaps one day Hollywood too will produce something as meaningful as Train to Busan. But as the coronavirus statistics pile up — as of this writing: 350 dead in South Korea, 192,000 in the United States — the nightmare seems far from over.
Train to Busan is streaming now on Netflix until September 17.