Train To Busan – The Problem With Zombies

Thoughts On: Train To Busan (2016)

A zombie outbreak tears through South Korea as a father and his slightly estranged daughter board a train to Busan.

Train To Busan

Train To Busan is a pretty good film. It has a few problems, but has very many strong elements. The main problems with this movie are the editing, sound design, parts of the script and the direction. Starting with the editing, to me, this film was simply trying so hard to be tense that it stopped making sense at certain points. The whole way through the film I was almost shouting “Just fucking move!”. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. If you’re invested in characters and can’t bear to see them hurt and you want to scream this, the screenwriter and editor needs a pat on the back. If you don’t care about the characters and can clearly see that these sequences are being drawn out too much, it’s a little infuriating. This is what you see in the first half of Train To Busan and before the characters grow on you. By the end, the building of tension is a little bit more forgivable, but, there are certainly too many high-concept Hollywood action beats to this film in contrast to its moments of character-centricity. In such, the film devolves into a bad melodrama when the action isn’t balanced well with the drama and quieter moments. And this isn’t helped at all by the soundtrack – which is pretty cheap. The worst part of Train To Busan is probably the direction and script work around action sequences though. Without delving into spoilers, the zombies’ weakness is pretty dumb and horribly implemented into the film through cinematography. Moreover, I never felt much of a strain or dire struggle in these sequences. Whilst some moments are complete nonsense and others are humbly realistic, there simply isn’t a sustained sense of realism nor verisimilitude throughout the action sequences – especially when things are getting punched, kicked and hit.

However, moving into the positives, the script is quite creative in its application of the constant conflict, and manages its characters surprisingly well. The best part of the script is certainly its subtext though. In short, Train To Busan does very well in exploring what makes groups of people dysfunctional and functional. And in doing this it demonstrates, quite poignantly, the virtues of self-sacrifice, honour and dedication. These are elements that you don’t often see put into films very well as they can come off as incredibly cheesy, but Train To Busan genuinely explores its themes of self-sacrifice and honour without vapid quips, huge speeches and other cliches. This made the moments of high drama very palatable and pretty effective. Beyond this, there is more going on below the surface of this film; a critique of society in general that uses zombies, as they have been used previously, to critique consumerism and mindless, selfish people. And it reinforces this very well with the dynamics of the group, adding complexity to the nice guys and even sympathetic shades to the bad guys. All of this results in a condemnation of those throughout society that cannot see the sense in not always being completely selfish.

With the overview complete, what had me thinking when watching this movie was the use of zombies. It has to be said that Train to Busan does a good job of confronting the zombie genre – which I’ve never seen much worth in; 28 Days Later, Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead… all ok. Whilst the zombies aren’t anything special in this film, they fit into the narrative very well. Nonetheless, the main problem with all zombie films is that they’re pretty dumb. And this rings true of many elements of Train To Busan. Slow zombies, fast zombies, can’t smell you if you’re covered in blood zombies, can’t see you in the dark zombies, can’t come out in the day zombies – the variations are out there, but it’s just a dumb idea for a monster. This all comes down to how banal they become after 10 minutes; it’s an ugly human with blood all over it that makes a lot of noise. It’s not threatening, it’s not menacing and they only hold power on the screen when there’s dozens (sometimes hundreds or thousands) of them. One of the most sensible ways of approaching this creature was seen in Maggie, the mediocre Schwarzenegger film.

This is because Maggie takes a personal approach to the zombie and attempts to show what it means to see a human devolve into something else. One of the best scenes in another zombie movie that captures this is the dog scene in I Am Legend – you know which.

These approaches to the idea of a zombie are often so powerful because it’s painful – scary even – to see the sense and life be taken from a human. And this is what zombies largely represent; this is why they’re scary. Look for instance to the scene from I Am Legend where Robert has to kill his dog. He loved this dog, we grew to know Sam as personified friend to Robert with human traits and sensibilities. Seeing him turn is painful because that something special, that personification and character, is taken away from Sam. The same, in theory, should go for a horde of humans. We think society functions one way; we trust, to a certain extent, all of those around us. To see that entirely reversed is a scary idea. Films are not very good at capturing this, however. Why? They’re too sensationalist and the zombies are too dumb. This is why I kind of liked the zombies from I Am Legend. Not only were they powerful, fast, such and so on, but they were smart. Most people just hated the CGI and were done with it, but I think I Am Legend was almost really good for the simple element of character they gave the main zombie thing.

Again, the CGI is pretty horrific, but the hatred in the main zombie’s eyes made him formidable at certain points, which captured the scary idea of devolution that a zombie can represent. To expand, take a moment to look at this image:

If you’re going “Awwww…” you’re a bit of a dumbass. What I see in this image is awe-inspiring and a pure spectacle of nature. But, it’s also horrifying. What scares me about this bear is that I can instantaneously recognise that he does not give a single fuck about me – and that’s what’s petrifying about all of nature, it simply doesn’t care. The bear is further frightening because, if it wished, it could more than easily destroy me. But, the reason I bring this up is that this is what zombies should do. In concept, they devolve into mindless animals to show us the disconnect that can develop between ourselves and something seemingly so close. I’ve never felt this way when watching a zombie movie though.

Whilst Train To Busan doesn’t overuse CGI for the zombies (it doesn’t handle it well with landscape shots), the zombies are played over-enthusiastically and with too much fuckery with shutter speed and/or frame rate. Moreover, the growls, screeches, hisses and roars are painfully cliched. This left the most poignant moments of social critique, a critique that explores mindlessness, centred on the humans – never the zombies. So, when we look back to this face…

… what we are seeing is, in my opinion, a better use of the zombie. He’s not drooling and moaning “BRAAIIIIIINZZZ”. He’s smart, he has emotions, but, no empathy and certainly no love for humans. We see this too in the Planet Of The Apes movies.

This guy is so formidable because we’ve grow to see some apes as very similar to us and even almost our friends – both in the movie and in real life. When this sense of familiarity is betrayed, we’re left with our emotional pants around our ankles, realising “Oh, shit, this guy is of an entirely different species that doesn’t give a fuck and has its own agenda”. Again, this is what zombies should do. They should stop being human and scare the shit out of us as they stare blankly from their uncanny valley of cannibalistic want.

So, how do we fix zombies? How do we capture this uncanniness without drool, moans and stupid rules? How do we tinker with the bettering approach to zombie movies that Train To Busan represents? I think I have the answer, so all you high concept screenwriters better get ready to take notes.

Neanderthals. The Eurasian genome is estimated to have 1-4% of Neanderthal-derived DNA. By exposing and emphasising this, scientists in a lab are synthesising ova (eggs) and spermatozoa which are coming closer and closer to pure Neanderthals. In fact, they are so close that the government is granting them the funding to begin testing with insemination – all with interests in pushing bounds in the field of human genetics. But, hold on, North Korea are making quite a bit of noise in their part of the world and southern European countries, some of which are floating near dictatorship, are starting to support them. Geopolitical tensions are straining, the news cycle lets this Neanderthal programme fall into obscurity, and before we know it… world war.

Hard cut to 7 years later in the timeline. The world is a stable, but truly shitty place – the population is 4 billion (India and China have 1.75 billion of these folks). The war is only recently been laid to rest, governments are starting to rebuild economies and assess their infrastructure. Some anonymous department are popping up on a lot of radars and they’re taking disproportionately huge chunks of the military budget. Investigations into the department is shielded and suppressed by a cock-eyed and crazy military governor; the war is over, but he thinks its due to be reignited, and he has the perfect soldiers, pumped with chemicals and hormones, made to sprout into mature adults like chickens, that are more than capable of fighting in a war. But, peace treaties are suddenly solidified, radical plans for a global government are on the horizons, nuclear bombs have been cast into the solar system, military budgets have universally dropped drastically, ammunition stocks have been decimated, all drugs are legalised.

Meanwhile, the head scientist of the Neanderthal lab can barely keep the electric fences on; the Neanderthals are eating insects and horse meat once every 2 days and so have to be shot full of synthetic (untested) nutrients and hormones to stay alive. Nonetheless, these Neanderthal guys and gals… j-j-j-j-j-j-J-J-J-JACKED!! Each just under 7 feet tall, their quads alone as thick as The Rock himself.

The uptight new management has come to inspect the facilities, enquiring about the pleas to reinstate budget privileges, palming away our crazy military-supporter-in-office and barging their way in. They never knew these experiments where still ongoing, that they be at such a stage; they think the way these ‘people’ are treated is inhumane, they want to put these scientists on trial and give these ‘people’ their own village.

Smash cut. The gavel hits the wood. Prison bars clunk shut. The Neanderthals are in a psychological assessment centre. They like the look of these soft humans. They like their warm smiles. They like the feel of particleboard doors without heavy, electric locks. They like the 7 feet tall chain linked fences encircling their open facilities. However, where has training gone? Why do they feel so weak? What’s in the food they’re being given? Why do these new pills make them feel like such shit? Why are we just laying about; we have freedom but not the strength to take it?

Now, that sounds a bit too much like Planet Of The Apes. Let’s say we push a few human families into this picture to contrast; all of them hardened and brittle because of the war, but worlds apart from one another. Let’s say the Neanderthals escape and start fucking shit up – with a taste for Homosapien flesh. Let’s say they breed like crazy and force humans to reopen their lab and refresh their supply of hormones and nutrients – eternal drug dealing slaves in concentration camps. Let’s say everyone lives in hiding, filled with pure fear of these unsympathetic gorilla people who break us like twigs. Let’s say the human numbers dwindle and the Indo-Chinese front are fighting these monsters off with arrows, clubs and horses – Mongolian style. Let’s say our small town, our few families, start coming under the pressure of these Neanderthals, thousands of miles away from the Indo-Chinese border.

How’s the movie shaping up for you? If you don’t like it, go ahead and write a better zombie-Neathderthal movie – you can have the idea.

That aside, if we just consider this as an example of a differing approach, does it not seem like a line between ourselves and the monsters could be better explored in zombie films. And in such, if we saw a play with the zombie as a monster, understanding that it’s familiarity and a sudden…

… “Oh, shit that thing isn’t thinking, nor feeling – and certainly not about me…

… and I think it wants to kill me”, if we saw this type of play with a zombie as a monster and combined it with strong character work (and a bit of subtextual storytelling) does it not sound like we’d have more powerful movies that engaged an audience’s fears on a more visceral level? This is what I thought when watching Train To Busan as it does touch on ideas of humans being something above a zombie-like and senseless horde, but it never incorporates the actual zombies into this very well.

But, I turn this over to you. What did you think of Train To Busan if you’ve seen it? Do you think that zombie movies could be improved? If so, how?



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Every Year In Film #2 – The Persistence Of Vision

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