You could call Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) “Zombies on a Train”—it certainly makes a catchy logline and it frames the premise accurately and succinctly—but it reduces this fleet, fierce, unexpectedly human thriller to a mere gimmick.
Apart from the slyly eerie prologue, the film opens without any hint of the viral rampage to come. Workaholic divorced dad Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager in a Seoul financial firm juggling a financial crisis while his neglecting his young daughter Soo-an, one of those adorable tykes whose moon eyes and disappointed face gives us a history of neglect—not the physical abuse kind, mind, he’s just been absent in every meaningful way—and finally shames him into taking her back to her mother on the train to Busan. It’s just another ride as far as the passengers are concerned, but that because the train pulls out just before the yard is overrun in a swarm of rabid bodies, but not before one infected soul climbs aboard.
You could call Pittsburgh the birthplace (deathplace?) of the modern zombie movie. That was home base for filmmaker George Romero and his cast and crew when they put together an indie horror film and unleashed Night of the Living Dead on an suspecting country.
Forty year later, the genre gets a recharge from Seattle creators working in different media. Is Seattle the new Pittsburg, or is the Silicon Forest merely fertile ground for the next evolution of the zombie revolution?
Romero’s zombie apocalypse rewrote the rules of horror
By today’s standards, director George Romero’s disturbed 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, looks downright antediluvian, a rough, raw, black-and-white horror hewn from primitive equipment, unremarkable locations, a game but amateurish cast and gore effects that are, measured by the grotesqueries paraded across movie screens in the decades since, quaint.
Yet there is subversive genius amid the sometimes sketchy performances and long-winded newsbreaks. You can argue that Dawn of the Dead is sharper, slyer, more nuanced. Sure. You can point out the ferocious sociopolitical satire of Land of the Dead. Absolutely.
But none of those films cut to the gristle and bone that Romero and his crew of hungry young Pittsburgh filmmakers accomplished with their original, budget-starved masterpiece. This little seat-of-the-pants regional production chewed up and spit out taboos like raw meat in a feral feeding frenzy.
Like the shambling, dull-eyed predators that instinctively swarm about their warm-blooded prey, the original Night of the Living Dead is a slow starter (at least after the shock of the graveyard scene, where our “zombie patient zero” stumbles through the background until it turns out he really is coming to get you, Barbra). The next hour is all about the desperation of survival and the terror of a world suddenly gone hostile and predatory. The unstoppable army of flesh-eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation: They literally come from nowhere.
The strains of panic and helplessness twist the tensions of human survivors to the breaking point. It’s like low-rent Samuel Beckett snuck into an exploitation thriller. There are echoes of Vietnam in the imagery and reflections of America’s volatile race relations in the increasingly savage state of conflict within the house, where the survivors turn on themselves as they fend for their lives.
But it’s still the primal kick of the flesh feast that gives this grisly spectacle, of society feeding on itself and the nuclear family devouring its own, a place in our collective nightmares.
It’s the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the gothic horrors that defined the ’60s, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture. Night of the Living Dead changed the face of American horror movies: for better (it blazed the trail for the transgressive horror renaissance of the ’70s, seeded Romero’s own sequels and inspired Shaun of the Dead), for worse (all those crappy copycat zombie knockoffs) and forever.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.