The South Korean horror extravaganza “Train to Busan” boils down to four words —– zombies on a train — and the movie wisely never tries to be anything more than that. You may think that’s not enough to sustain a two-hour feature. But writer-director Yeon Sang-ho, making his live-action debut after a number of animated features (“The King of Pigs,” “The Fake”), has seen the same films and TV shows you’ve seen — “28 Days Later,” “World War Z,” “The Walking Dead” — and he’s out to do something different with the genre. Zombies may not be fresh, but this movie has a ferocious, relentless energy that feels brand new.
Serious, too: This is brutal, bloody horror served straight-up, with no tongue-in-cheek gags to lighten the mood. A divorced businessman (Gong Yoo) takes the bullet train from Seoul to Busan with his young daughter (Kim Su-an) so she can spend her birthday with her mother. He’s so busy with work — he’s a fund manager — he hasn’t paid attention to alarming news reports about mass riots and other public disturbances that have been taking place around the city.
The audience, of course, knows something the characters don’t: A virus that brings the dead back to life is spreading quickly. Contamination is almost instant. The disease affects animals, too (here, in what is probably a cinematic first, you get a zombie deer). And these hungry zombies are not of the shuffle-and-stumble variety: These monsters run, fast.
“Train to Busan” hasn’t even hit the 30-minute mark when the train’s passengers (including a high school baseball team, two elderly sisters and a married couple with a baby on the way) find out about the epidemic firsthand. Mayhem breaks out so quickly, the contagion spreading through the train like a fire, that you wonder how the movie will manage to fill out two hours. But Yeon has a few surprises in store, and he keeps ramping up the tension at regular intervals. In the manner of the most enjoyable horror pictures, every time you think things can’t get worse, they do.
Starting with George A. Romero, the filmmaker who invented the flesh-eating monster genre with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” zombie movies often double as social allegories for the era in which they are made. “Train to Busan” can be read as a commentary of the social and economic disparities in South Korea, a metaphor for the respiratory syndrome that afflicted the country in 2015 and a reflection of the culture’s ingrained customs and mores (unlike the living, these zombies are rude and insolent; they howl with rage and anger at their condition).
Yeon’s background as an animator can be felt in the shots of dead bodies coming back to life — the corpses jump and twitch in unnatural ways, as if they were being zapped with unholy electricity — and the makeup designs, which are frightening and gruesome without being repulsive. The violence is explicit but the movie isn’t a gross-out; the gore is restrained. The director comes up with a few new twists on the genre (these zombies can’t hear or smell you, so you’re safe if you stay out of their sight) and some clever reversals. What’s worse than an ordinary pack of zombies? An entire military unit of zombies.
Best of all, the story moves as fast as that bullet train, careening from one impossible predicament to the next while the characters jostle to survive. Not all of them will, of course: Zombie movies are known for their high body counts, and “Train to Busan” is no exception. This brisk, exciting and scary picture tells us that when the apocalypse comes, we’ll all be fighting on the same side. Too bad it takes a catastrophe to make us realize that.
Cast: Gong Yoo, Kim Su-an, Jung Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Woo-sik.
Writer-director: Yeon Sang-ho.
A Well Go USA release. Running time: 118 minutes. Bloody zombie mayhem, gore. In Korean with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.