Title Fright - Train to Busan versus World War Z


Today's Title Fright pits World War Z (2013) against Train to Busan (2016).

World War Z is a big budget zombie film directed by Marc Forster. It stars Brad Pitt as a former UN inspector and family man Gerry. When a zombie plague sweeps the world Gerry must comes out of retirement and go on one last mission.

Train to Busan is a low budget South Korean zombie movie directed by Yeon Sang-ho. It stars Gong Yoo as distracted father Seok-Woo, and Kim Soo-Ahn as his daughter Soo-An. She persuades him to take her on a fast train to Busan to see her mother, but on the way the train is attacked by zombies.


Let’s compare the films to establish if they’re a good match.

I initially intended to pair Train to Busan with La Horde – a French zombie film where the battle takes place in a tower block - because both are action-horrors where the action is shaped by particular physical structures. But after watching Train to Busan I changed my mind.

Despite it’s kinetic energy, La Horde’s characters are shallow and unlikeable. They also fail to learn – notoriously, they keep shooting zombies in the chest.

Whereas Train to Busan is crammed with simple but compelling characters whose interactions keep us emotionally invested and drive the plot forwards. It just wouldn’t be a fair fight.

Next, I decided to make Train to Busan fight 28 Weeks Later. This was excitingly close and I’d like to return to this particular match later.

But then I asked twitter and the verdict was that Train to Busan should actually be fighting World War Z. I was skeptical at first, but after watching World War Z again I realised there were lots of interesting parallels between the two films. So here goes.

Parallel 1 - fast, organised zombies

Both films feature fast zombies which form mobs, human bridges and the like. In World War Z we see zombies breach a 20 metre wall by climbing over each other. In Train to Busan the train is almost stopped by a massive chain of zombies clinging to it.

Parallel 2 – family

In both films, the lead character is a father, and both films gain their tension from the centrality of the family.

World War Z begins with Gerry making pancakes for his kids’ breakfast, but this idyll is ripped apart by the zombie plague. Gerry is forced to accept a mission to find a cure because otherwise his family will lose military protection.

In Train to Busan, a good fifteen minutes is devoted to establishing Seok-Yoo’s terrible relationship with his daughter. This relationship remains key throughout the film.

Parallel 3 - politics

Both films reference a wider political canvas. World War Z puts zombies in a geopolitical context, with nations making and breaking their fate according to their histories and their relationships with other nations.

Train to Busan is one big economic critique, with wealthy Seok-Yoo bent on saving his own skin while blue-collar Sang-Hwa risks his life to save others.


Let’s get them in the ring!

Round 1 - the father

To begin with, high flying finance executive Seok-Woo is a textbook terrible father. He has his secretary buy a gift for his daughter and it turns out to be the same gift he got her last time. He doesn’t turn up to her school show. It’s her birthday the next day and unsurprisingly she wants to spend it with her mother.  With great irritation he agrees to take her, and that’s how they end up going to Busan on... well... you know how they get there!

Shut out -  Train to Busan 's Sung-Gyeong and Sung-Hwa, played by Jung Yu-Mi and Ma Dong-Seok.

Shut out - Train to Busan's Sung-Gyeong and Sung-Hwa, played by Jung Yu-Mi and Ma Dong-Seok.

When the zombies arrive on the train Seok-Woo’s first reaction is to shut out the living along with the dead. In this case it’s uninfected couple Sung-Gyeung and Sang Hwa, played by Jung Yu-Mi and Ma Dong-Seok. Seok-Woo’s actions are even more shocking because Sung Gyeung is pregnant. Soo-An is horrified and comments on her father’s ruthlessness.

But when Sang-Hwa saves Soo-An’s life, Seok-Woo begins to reassess.

By the end of the film Seok-Woo’s completely changed his moral code. When he’s infected he throws himself off the train to save not just his daughter’s life but that of Sung-Gyeong, the pregnant woman.

In World War Z, on the other hand, Gerry doesn’t need to address his moral code. Instead of changing he thinks, gradually piecing together a way to keep healthy people safe from the undead.

Gerry’s family is happy and he’s a natural hero. “What is that Gerry?” screams his wife when the zombies attack, and she clings to his neck as he saves her.

A natural hero -  World War Z 's Gerry, played by Brad Pitt.

A natural hero - World War Z's Gerry, played by Brad Pitt.

The actual devastation is far more epic than in Train to Busan, but it never gets inside Gerry. Unlike Seok-Woo, he never has to fight himself. The patriarchy is solid, the father is reliable. He doesn’t undergo an emotional journey – instead he endures a series of escalating scares whilst solving the puzzle of how to save humanity.

I call this round for Train to Busan. I love World War Z but Seok-Yoo’s journey is moving and memorable in a way that Gerry’s heroics aren’t.

Round 2 – leadership and politics

There’s a wider question in both films about how we lead society and civilisation in a time of threat.

In World War Z we encounter typically pragmatic military leadership. A navy captain played by David Andrews leaves Gerry in no doubt that his family can only stay in the safe zone if he accepts a mission.

Whereas Thierry, the UN deputy general secretary played by Fana Mokoena, protects Gerry and his family. He reluctantly ships Gerry’s wife and children out of the safe haven – to another slightly less safe haven – when he thinks Gerry is dead.

Thierry, who represents global leadership, embodies another kind of pragmatism – the coming together of nations to fight a common enemy.

This is a highly diluted version of the message of the novel World War Z by Max Brooks, which is a gripping but impersonal education in geopolitics. Still, the film gets across the way the rules would change in the event of global apocalypse. Even bitter enemies would be forced to work together to survive.

However, this isn’t exactly political. I’m indebted here to a blog by The Political Omnivore. You should absolutely check out this brilliant blogger if you haven’t already.

The Political Omnivore says that there are no politics in World War Z. The zombies are neither left-wing nor right-wing. They’re not a commentary on how we run our societies - they’re a metaphor for apocalypse. The closest World War Z gets to a political message is that in such circumstances we must drop politics.

Whereas Train to Busan dives headlong into hot political waters. For example, Seok-Woo’s ruthless moral code is explicitly linked to his position in society. When he tells another character he’s a fund manager, he’s told he’s a leech. His selfish behaviour is contrasted with the heroics of working-class Sung-Hwa, who sacrifices himself for the greater good.

Another passenger, wealthy chief executive Yong-Suk – played by Kim Eui-Sung - is even worse. Seok-Woo changes, but Yong-Suk remains committed to his ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality until his death. The staff on the train cravenly follow his lead.

Parallels are drawn between zombies and the living, and at times the two are virtually indistinguishable. For example when Yong-Suk and his coterie bay at Seok-Woo and his survivors to leave the one carriage that remains safe because they may be infected.

It’s been suggested that this is a comment on South Korea’s worst ever maritime disaster, when a ferry sank killing 300 people, mostly children. The ferry had been overloaded for commercial reasons, and crew fled after telling passengers to stay put.

I’d call this round a draw. World War Z looks to the future and is a genuinely original take on the zombie flick. Train to Busan covers familiar ground for a zombie narrative – left-leaning class conflict – but the relevance of this cannot be denied.

Round 3 – pace and structure

World War Z is confused.

We all know the story of how the final third got re-shot. Initially the final act was set in a remote yet high-profile nation state. After South Korea and Israel, Gerry was to go to Russia and die in battle. It didn’t work and another ending was put together where Gerry ends up at a World Health Organisation facility in Wales.

In a virtually action-free sequence of high suspense, he discovers a way to make humans invisible to zombies. He injects himself with a lethal bacteria that makes the undead ignore him because they only want to pass the virus to healthy hosts.

This is a great piece of cinema but it leaves a slightly odd taste in the mouth. The switch from geopolitics to microbiology is somewhat vertiginous and every time I watch it I get motion sickness.

Train to Busan, in contrast, is perfectly structured. The relationship between Seok-Woo and Soo-Ann drives the action throughout the film, there’s no sudden lurch into to what is almost a totally different genre.

At the end, Seok-Woo is bitten trying to protect Soo-An from the infected Yong-Suk. He succeeds in throwing Yong-Suk from the train and then has about a minute to spend with his daughter before he turns. He shows her how to stop the train and tells her that he loves her, but then he has to go. If you aren’t moved by this scene you must have a heart of stone.

It is the perfect culmination of what has come before. Through it, the film links the health of our intimate relationships with the health of wider society.

I call this round for Train to Busan. World War Z has a brilliant energy that compensates for its flaws. Whereas Train to Busan is simply flawless.


It's almost a knockout, but in the end Train to Busan wins on points.

World War Z is more original and ambitious, but it’s badly delivered.

Train to Busan does something more conventional, but does it to perfection.

Thanks for reading and please tell me what you think – comments are open below. I’d love to know.


Zombies & fine writing - Colson Whitehead's Zone One

When I first set out to write a zombie novel I decided not to read any to avoid accidentally copying them.

The exception was Colson Whitehead's Zone One - I just couldn't resist reading the first few pages.

I nearly closed my computer and gave up there and then. I thought if that's a typical zombie novel I might as well not bother! The genre is well and truly catered for.

After I'd done with my book I finally read Zone One all the way through, and one thing became clear - it is not a typical zombie novel.

It does not skimp on the familiar elements - there's the first day of the outbreak, the lone survivor on the run, the satisfying violence against the (denatured) human form, the post-apocalytic society. But it uses these to craft what is almost a prose-poem. Whitehead's sentences are up there with the greatest writers the US has ever produced.

The main character is nicknamed Mark Spitz. He is a mediocrity by his own admission who has paradoxically flourished in the era of the 'skels', as the zombies are called. He provides a mournful, meandering account of how the world has changed.

This slow narrative is punctuated by powerful shocks however, as he recalls the old world - our world - through the lense of the post-apocalypse.

In places it's sharply funny - Mark Spitz gets into a spot of bother with the zombies in the Human Resources department of an office he is clearing as part of his job with the recovery effort. In others it is tragic. Mark Spitz can't forget a woman called Mim, and I couldn't either.

Whitehead's plague creates a social class cohered by trauma, which again speaks to our present. At the same time he shows the old power structures still gasping and wheezing and try to resurrect themselves.

Once I finished Zone One I sighed with relief. It isn't the final word on zombies. It's actually a symptom of the genre's ongoing health.