Train to Busan (Busanhaeng, South Korea, 2016)

They are going to get you

It’s 50 years since George A. Romero revitalised the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead and Yeon Sang-ho show’s there’s satirical life in it still with this entertaining bloodfest. The spin is ‘zombies on a train’ and the social satire is at the expense of corporate Korea, though I guess hedge fund executives are the same everywhere.

Horror, particularly of the gory kind, tends to become less appealing as you age not because you become squeamish but you’ve been taken out of your visceral comfort zone often enough thank you. Yeon’s direction, though, as is often the case in Korean cinema, is kinetic enough to grab the attention and the characters are well-drawn enough to be both sympathetic and hated. It’s difficult to hate zombies as they know not what they do so a good human villain is necessary.

The protagonist is taking his neglected daughter to Busan when the shit hits the train and he convincingly regains his humanity whilst battering back the undead hordes. Ma Dong-seok’s working class hero is a great character channeling the humour of The Good, the Bad and the Weird into the pathos of a man trying to do the right thing.

Train to Busan was Yeon Sang-ho’s first live action feature; it followed Seoul Station which is described as a sequel in places but its links to the later film is simply ‘zombies in Korea’. A genuine sequel is following.

World War Z (US-Malta, 2013)

The patriarch at work

The patriarch at work

Zombie movies have been resolutely B movies, emphasising the gore and, usually, unusually, failing to offer the ‘happy ever after’ ending. Zombies are getting bigger, The Walking Dead (2010-) TV series is the highest rated cable programme in USA, and this Brad Pitt vehicle grossed around $400m worldwide last year. It was critically mauled but audiences loved and I can see why. Of course, if you’re spending nearly $200m on a film then the small scale pleasures of the B movie are going to be marginalised.

One of the many producers of the film is Pitt’s Plan B and while he’s a fairly conventional action hero there are a couple of interesting variants in his character. First he’s a house-husband, we see him at the start looking at the breakfast dishes left for him; second, he’s brought out of retirement by the United Nations, an institution not regularly feted in America. Small things but progressive at least.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film as Marc Forster, and particularly editors Roger Barton and Matt Chesse (I’m not surprised there were two so frenetic is the film’s pace), produce a thrilling narrative. The first half hour, the descent into chaos, is exceptional and the set piece in Jerusalem is equally exciting. Part of the mauling the film received was to do with the plot holes; maybe I’m more sanguine than most regarding a ropey plot where zombies are concerned. It was apparently a troubled production but that didn’t show up on the screen as far as I could tell. How do you escape when zombies start rampaging on an aircraft that’s in flight? Watch the movie to find out.

Pitt’s a superb leading man. His charisma is ‘old school’ but he’s also one of the stars who are happy to work in more ‘arty’ fare, lending his name to projects to get finance. If I were to criticise the film it’s the ‘old school’ representation of gender, notwithstanding Pitt’s character’s domestic status. The only woman who gets much screen time, apart from his children’s mum, is an Israeli soldier and that’s strictly of the ‘helper’ variety.

Zombies belong in B movies but that’s not to say there’s not plenty of pleasure to be found in the A picture that takes the parochial, conventional zombie narrative, and blows it up (literally) to the world. Great Friday night watching.

In the Flesh (UK, 2013)

Grief and Prejudice

Grief and Prejudice

Broadcast last March (on BBC3) this superbly put together, short (three episodes) television series tweaks the zombie genre by considering what happens after… the zombies are cured. Shot in the north west (Lancashire Pennines by the look of it) In the Flesh considers what happens when the re-humanised zombies return to their communities and, as you might expect, there is a lot of grimness up north. However, equally predictable, there is a lot of compassion.

What’s impressive about In the Flesh isn’t just the highly successful spin on the genre, but the superb execution. It’s slightly invidious highlighting anybody from the cast, who play what could have seemed ridiculous to the hilt, but Emily Bevan (above) shone as the young woman who wasn’t going to wear make up to make her appear human; she was going ‘au naturelle‘. As the series was about grief and prejudice, the emotions were ones that the cast, and audience, could readily engage with. It was the human aspects that, unsurprisingly, were the most gripping. Using the zombie genre successfully allows the human condition to be ‘made strange’, allowing us to think anew about what might, otherwise, become cliche.

There’s a second series in the offing, hopefully it will be as well crafted as the first.

The Returned (Les Revenants (France, 2012-)

Uncannily good

Uncannily good

I was afraid that The Returned would suffer from Lost-like credibility problems in trying to explain the unexplainable, however I think the last episode sealed the brilliance of this series. Internet traffic suggests that many were disappointed by the lack of a meta-narrative that would explain everything; however I think that’s slightly naive in the commercially-driven context of television as the producers were always going to spin it out for a second series if audiences were high enough. But, by nailing the programme to the zombie genre, as the last episode did, I think the makers cleverly side-stepped the need for an explanation; zombie texts don’t need to explain why the zombies exist. This irrationality of the genre is exactly why it can be so terrifying.

On the other hand, it is understandable that audiences would expect an explanation for the ‘returned’ as most of the episodes are couched in a realist-melodrama mode that focuses upon raw relationships. The soap-like structure of several threads and the sexual-marital-relationships narrative problems situate The Returned firmly within melodrama. At first the returned are ‘uncanny’ visitors that highlight past grief and call into question, particularly for Adele and Simon, current relationships. As the series progressed, the horror elements became stronger, particularly when Julie and Laure tried to escape only to find themselves in some kind of self-contained universe. The climax, with the zombies slowly and inexorably approaching, situated the programme firmly within the zombie sub genre.

Other strengths, apart from narrative, of The Returned include the direction which, in common with much contemporary ‘quality TV’, is often cinematic in its ambition. This is complemented by the marvellous settings and cinematography. In addition, I thought most of the performances, from a largely ‘unknown’ cast, to be superb. Clotilde Hesme (Adele) was a standout, her pale features emphasising her fragility and her expression always seeming to be on the verge of cracking.

It will be interesting to see whether season two can continue to tread the line between the emotional realism of the relationships, or whether the ‘unexplainable’ narratives get out of control. In a year of a lot of terrific television (The FallBorgen 2, Homeland 2, Spiral 4) The Returned adds to the argument that television is superseding film in being the most interesting medium of our times.