train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.

Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies  are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre. 8/10.


by request: world war z (mark forster, 2013)

This was recommended by a new member of the request club, our new housemate Jen. As is often the case, it was less a request than a recommendation ... I think we were talking about zombie movies, and she mentioned that the zombies in World War Z didn’t move slow. I said I was thinking of watching it, and the next thing you know, I put it on my request list.

Should World War Z be compared to other big special effects extravaganzas (it was an enormous box office success)? Should it be compared to other zombie movies, or even to The Walking Dead, the current work that most impacts popular thinking about zombies? I’d say the latter. It brings a big budget to a small-budget genre, a bit like Terminator 2 after the cheapie Terminator. That budget brings potential added scope to the movie, but as with T2, the added budget doesn’t necessarily guarantee an improvement over the cheap originals like George A. Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. Director Mark Forster had shown the ability to work with small budgets (Monster’s Ball, $4 million) and large budgets (Quantum of Solace, $200 million). World War Z is definitely in the large budget range (another $200 million).

There are some things that the money makes possible. Brad Pitt, for one ... he’s fine in the heroic lead role. On the other hand, he isn’t notably better than the stars of the cheaper films, like, say, Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead ($6 million). (The movie also wastes Mireille Enos, burying her with the Wife Who Waits Back Home role.) The thing that Jen mentioned (the speed that the zombies move) is, but not innovative (see 28 Days Later, one of the first movies to have fast zombies). I want to say that a bigger budget allows for scenes like this film’s finest, when the zombie hordes build a mountain of bodies as they try (and eventually succeed) to scale an enormous wall. It’s quite impressive, perhaps the one jaw-dropping moment in the entire movie. But it’s also clearly CGI-driven, which is a technology available to film makers with lesser budgets.

World War Z has the feel and structure of an epic. But, as some critics have pointed out, the most suspenseful moments in the film come at the end, when the setting is confined, the number of zombies is limited, and we’re left with a simple scene that is far from epic, and all the better for it.

Speaking of the actual end of the film, it's a huge letdown.

You could point to the box office returns for World War Z ($540 million) and argue it is a very successful zombie movie. The truth is, though, that there are many zombie movies I’d show before World War Z, if I was having a zombie film festival. Depending on your definition of a zombie movie, that festival would include Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the Evil Dead series, Re-Animator, 28 Days/Weeks Later, and more. 6/10.

halloween horror friday

It’s going to take a couple of days to get back to speed, after a month of watching the Giants play October baseball. So there’s no Music Friday this week. I’m behind on TV … I haven’t watched a movie in a couple of weeks … I’ve got nothing. But it is Halloween, and so, taking my cue from MovieLens, I’ll offer a list o’ links. These are movies that MovieLens says fall into the “Horror” category, that I have rated at least 9 out of 10, and have written about on this blog. It’s a cheap way of cannibalizing myself. I’ll list them in chronological order.

Ones that I didn’t write about but which fit the other requirements:

  • Frankenstein (1931) 10/10
  • The Thing (From Another World) (1951) 9/10
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) 9/10
  • The Innocents (1961) 9/10
  • Jaws (1975) 10/10
  • Aliens (1986) 9/10
  • A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) 9/10
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 9/10