Zack’s Zombie Survival Guide:
Ch. 3 – Practical Guide
11 May 2021
This is Part Three of a five part series anticipating the premiere of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead on Netflix.
III.A. Demonstration of Need
Tools and target in hand, the intrepid reader is perhaps already prepared to examine any film in the field. If, however, an extended application of our tools is valuable, I offer this chapter, a practical examination of Train to Busan and its sequel, Peninsula.
III.B. Initial Examination with General Purpose Tools
Both films, with large budgets, make the most of the filmic devices at their disposal. In terms of cinematic achievement, audiences are entertained by the visual smorgasbords of camera work, stunts, and visual effects. Likewise, each film makes enormous use of its scenic components: the claustrophobia of the train cars in Train and the aftermath of urban ruin in Peninsula. The editing for each film is often close-camera work to accent the struggles of individual characters and broad pans to offer scale at mesmerizing moments. Finally, the sound work is both seamless and realistic, combining a cacophony of noise and limited music to enable the storylines to take center stage. In these senses, both movies are spectacles for entertainment.
In narrative, however, we see a key difference between the films. It is worth noting briefly that evaluations of narrative are not about whether or not story exists, but the nature of narrative, one which will connect to viewers. Here, we will note only that the narrative goals for each film differ: in the original Train, the physical goal is to reach Busan; but the character development for our protagonist Seok-Woo lies in setting aside his amoral worklife to reprioritize his family and the well-being of those around him, especially as he faces the possibility that he helped fund the catastrophe. In each goal, the Infected are critical to that achievement or failure. In the later Peninsula, the goal is the acquisition of money by adventurers/thieves, an external goal which is thwarted by both humans and the Infected, leading to a goal of mere survival. The trouble with external goals as the driving force for narrative is that characters rarely struggle with choices or that struggle is shallow or unbelievable. For now, we will note this as a potential trouble point in the sequel.
Finally, we will note that Train is fully in the zombie genre, calling upon many of the same notes as its predecessors. Peninsula, on the other hand, is part of the growing collection of hybrid movies, crossing genres. In this case, Peninsula is a heist/horror film, ironically the same hybrid idea that Zack Snyder will visit in Army of the Dead.
One creation team; two films: two different results
Image from ScreenRant
III.C. No Violation of Fundamental Zombie Archetypes
The Infected in each film operate on most of the same principles as many zombies: an infection spreads rapidly out of control, causing its victims to re-animate in a hyper-animated violence of rapid consumption, further spreading the contagion. The mental capacity of the zombies has deteriorated, their capacity to reason extremely limited. Fortunately, it seems only a bite (saliva) spreads the disease, not blood or breath. No one is exempt from this threat: a wide variety of people, both side characters and main characters, die. The world’s bureaucracies seem wholly unsuited to meet the speed of the threat, and Korea (along with, we presume, much of the world) collapses. While it lasts, people pick up more news of the event from social media than any formal channels. Formal relationships and responsibilities dominate much of the discourse early in Train, centered largely around business transactions. There is a particular isolation which exists both prior to and following the apocalypse. It becomes clear that the masses consumed by the Infected are not important to the decision-makers above them. Humans are as expendable as the zombies themselves.
The mindlessness of the zombies dominates their behavior, emphasized in such scenes as when the darkening of the train cabins in tunnels makes them immediately blind and nearly docile (Train) and how simple it is to distract them with a light or car horn (Peninsula). While there is nothing particularly compelling about their motivation (they merely exist to bite and eat), nothing about their behavior betrays the tenet of amorality inherent to the canon. They are not evil, merely wild. They have no designed intention but consumption; and consequently, the lines of desire between life and death are easily crossed, especially since many of the living are themselves consumed by pettiness and ignobility. The Infected, in Train at least, are not The Other exactly: that distinction is given over to the corporate and civil bureaucracies of Korea who are trusted by none: soon-to-be-father Sang-Hwa frequently accuses Saek-Woo of this very thing. So does his own daughter Soo-An. Given the choice between ruling without humanity or slipping into the mindless craze of the Infected, the wise reject governance.
Both films, dependent upon each other as lore, uphold the archetypes of the zombie canon, Train cleverly displacing the concept of Other onto a segment of humanity (as Romero more awkwardly does in Land of the Dead). The effort to do this in Peninsula, however, is far less successful: the rogue military unit is now crazed and dangerous, no longer part of our identifiable humanity. There are questions about how the reanimated corpses continue unabated after four years without food, but this is a weakness shared by most films.
“Given the choice between ruling without humanity or slipping into the mindless craze of the Infected, the wise reject governance.“
III.D. The Meaningful Enhancement of Lore and/or the Foregrounding of Story Related to It
Train to Busan does not make many alterations to the traditional zombie lore. Like many recent entries before it, the zombies are fast, but no faster than an average human. They are determined and seemingly immune to pain, nor is there any apparent self-preservation motive, but this again is reasonable for a nervous system which is short-circuited and a brain driven only by aggression. The confusion by darkness is a minor variation which creates an added suspense to a train sequence in tunnels. If there is any point of interest to the Infected, it may be in their seeming obliviousness without outside stimuli; that is, they are quiet and relatively idle until they are awakened to action by a potential victim. So too might we all be, participants in a docile routine of existence; it is not safe to wake us.
The modernist era of literature has long argued about the domestication of mankind, the fashioning of our ingenuity into productivity, of our morality into machination. Early on, we saw this with the rise of a manufacturing economy, but today these economies have grown from service-based to now information/digitally-based economies and jobs. The trains must run on time. We must make our connections; the deals must be sealed. We are judged not merely by our clever sales techniques but by the capital growth we bring to our companies. Investment manager Saek-Woo is just such a character: incredibly adept at building blue chip accounts for his company (even while ignoring environmental and human costs to these profits), he has succeeded to provide for a family who he has otherwise largely failed: divorced and also estranged from his young daughter, we meet him first as a man proud of the deals he completes, resentful that he must escort Soo-An on a train for a few hours on her birthday. His last-minute gift (an expensive Wii) is one he has already given her before; he has missed her song performance at school, a mistake which sank her confidence. His is an ironic perception of the world, one we can both understand and resent. It seems little could shake him from this selfish, compassionless, exceptionalist ignorance. We take care of ourselves, seize what we need for ourselves, and fall into an unquestioning routine of disquiet.
The parallels are, of course, striking. Are we cursed into an endless survival of the fittest or does there remain an opportunity for love and support of one another? If that humanity is lost, how different are we from the Infected? And what has infected us? The film shows us ranges of responses to these questions: from the innocent (even naive) Soo-An who wants nothing more than to help everyone around her to the CEO Yong-suk who betrays everyone he meets with his selfish arrogance. In between we meet Ma Dong-Seok who, physically tough as he is, treats Soo-An better than her own father and who is hugely attentive to his pregnant wife; even Min Yong-Guk, as a young baseball player, is learning how to be distant from the cheerleader who likes him.
The film Cargo knows to create complex character.
Train to Busan is about human distance, about how dehumanizing the business world is and how it transforms us. The cramped world of the train, filled with every brand of citizen, is run by the Yong-Suks of the world–it is a microcosm of Korea. How could a remnant of humanity remain alive here? Saek-Woo will find a way to answer it. Oh, and by the way, the zombie apocalypse is caused in part by a lack of public sector oversight and investors like Saek-Woo . . . that’s happening too, a force which threatens to devour everyone almost as swiftly as Yong-suk’s reasoning. And this is how Train to Busan succeeds, by offering a story enhanced by the zombie lore which informs it.
Unfortunately, the storyline of Peninsula fails at several levels: the characters are largely static and bounce off of each other, as one might expect in a big-budget adventure film. Their decisions are all based on long-resolved internal struggles (“I will betray everyone to survive;” “I will protect my daughters at all costs;” “I owe the woman I abandoned a debt.”). The zombies are relegated to tools or weapons for the characters to lever against each other: there is no real connection between the presence of zombies and any story at all. In the words of Drew Pierce, “Most zombie movies have run out of things to say.” Chul-min’s repeated condemnation of hero Jeong-Seok for living by logic instead of compassion rings false: if living by compassion means needlessly dying with everyone you know because you know them, we have no one left to build a future. But this is an “ethical” struggle that the film attempts to force on us repeatedly, forgetting the difference between a foolish death and a meaningful sacrifice.
Field expert analysis.
III.F. Plausible Physics, Plausible Psychology
Train’s choices and responses are each wholly believable. Even Yong-Guk’s final paralysis of despair, one we wish he could emerge from, is a tragic resignation to the remorseless universe. Yong-Suk’s final plea “My mommy is waiting for me” is both ridiculously pathetic but always strangely true. The petty and tradition-minded gossip of Jong-Il and In-gil makes way for a poignant separation (and tragic reunion perhaps motivated by a rejection of this “new society”). Even Train’s smallest characters are conflicted and tested.
Where the film has slightly more trouble is in its zombie climax. One zombie grasps a handle and is dragged through the gravel behind the accelerating train, then a dozen hanging on that single grasp, then several dozen, piling over each other, all from a single set of human fingers being kicked and beaten away. It’s a stunning visual image, but the human body cannot withstand that abuse! (A similar effect as from World War Z of collective mounds as the zombies “pour” through the train–nope.)
While these zombie physics issues are less visible in Peninsula, how automobiles function is far more problematic. But we are accustomed to 47 Fast and Furious films by now, so viewers are apparently ready to accept this. I will not list the dozens of plot holes and bizarre resolutions that allow the characters to sustain the action, the enormity of slow-motion moments and erupting synthesized string soundtracks demanding over and over again that we somehow–somehow–find empathy for anything happening. But these are people struggling to steal money and escape, not anyone really struggling with anything but the most cliched questions.
Peninsula succumbs to Hollywood’s contemporary Chekhov advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” No, I’m not talking here about Yu-jin’s remote cars. In this case, if in front of a movie director you have a huge budget, then in the film there must be more explosions. How do we make zombie films better? “More zombies!” Chris Alexander, in thinking about Dawn of the Dead, writes: “This is a small movie that feels as epic as Gone With the Wind, and yet so many of today’s movies are SO big yet feel dwarved by comparison. Why is that?” I think we know. Unintentionally, Peninsula is eaten by the very zombies that Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead foretold: greedy producers (Garrido).
I despair (only a bit) that, as much as I enjoy a good zombie film, Zack Snyder’s heist-zombie film with a big budget will eat itself as well. The only factor that may prolong sustain the feast is the same one that marks Peninsula a “successful” film today: franchising.
Alexander, Chris. “Dawn of the Dead Still Matters – ComingSoon.Net.” ComingSoon.Net, 30 Jan. 2017, comingsoon.net/horror/features/808005-why-dawn-of-the-dead-still-matters.
Garrido, Duarte, and Entertainment Reporter. “How Zombie Director George A Romero Predicted Hollywood’s Real Monsters.” Sky News, 27 Oct. 2017, news.sky.com/story/george-a-romero-and-hollywoods-real-monsters-11099275.
Peninsula. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, Next Entertainment World, 2020.
Pierce, Drew and Brett. Personal Interview. 5 May 2021.
Train to Busan. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, Next Entertainment World, 2016.