Generally, I’m resistant to the zombie genre, but I’m glad I broke tradition to check out South Korean horror film Train to Busan (2016), which deepens its gory, action-filled suspense with nicely wrought sociopolitical themes. The adventure begins when selfish, work-obsessed fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) agrees to take his shy daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an) from Seoul to Busan for her birthday, in order to visit her estranged mother. The train leaves the station, however, just as Seoul is descending into riots resulting from a mysterious zombie outbreak. Alas, one infected passenger starts a chain reaction of violence, death, and urgent struggles to survive. As the train hurtles south, the uninfected passengers take extreme measures to get away from the rampaging zombie hordes, forming alliances and factions in an effort to protect themselves and their loved ones. As the journey to Busan continues, Seok-woo finds his message of me-first self-reliance falling on the deaf ears of his empathetic daughter, which gradually inspires him to extend himself to his fellow survivors as they flee desperately toward safety.
Structurally, Train to Busan goes in the expected directions, and its surface action is wholly unsurprising: it introduces a train full of personalities, throws them into the ultimate survival scenario, then picks them off one by one as the situation grows ever more dire. At a glance, it’s basically 28 Days Later meets Snowpiercer, featuring a cast of characters that might well have been plucked out of an Irwin Allen disaster movie. But there’s a crucial extra level to Train to Busan: Seok-woo’s transformation from a selfish man to one willing to risk it all for others. Largely inspired by his daughter’s kindness and the derision of another passenger, the tough and heroic Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok, who is terrific and easily the film’s best character), Seok-woo finally responds, changes, and becomes more sympathetic. Really this is just Character Transformation 101, but it helps to illuminate the grander metaphor: a pointed, scathing repudiation of Randian selfishness. Again and again, self-interested choices lead to more and more conflicts, more victims, and more tragedies, and exponentially increases the spread of fear. The mindless zombie attacks may be repulsive, but they’re nearly rivaled by the infectious mob mentality of the less empathetic survivors, and the heartless striving of Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a wealthy executive whose lack of concern for his fellow passengers is fittingly heartless.
For those uninterested in such themes, rest assured the film is chock full of terrifying zombies, shocking violence, riveting suspense, and non-stop action. Viewers seeking a surface-y horror thrill-ride can happily check their brains at the door. But for the rest of us, that added level of subtextual commentary makes it all the easier to get invested.