Train to Busan










Hey, if you’re looking for a great horror movie to watch this Halloween, you really can’t do better than Yeon Sang-ho’s fantastic, slam-bang Korean zombie movie Train to Busan. Breathlessly paced, fiendishly inventive, wonderfully human and deeply affecting, Train to Busan puts a clutch of ordinary folk on a passenger train at the moment the world ends. Just when you think there’s nothing left to be done with the concept of “zombies on a train,” the director comes up with five or ten more ideas, each one more devilish than the last. Terrific filmmaking and automatically one of the greatest horror movies ever made. On Netflix.

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Perhaps Robert Altman’s least-popular movie, it turns out it is neither as inscrutable nor as unwatchable as many have claimed.  It falls amid several different genres, including Science Fiction, Futuristic Dystopia and Apocolyptic Fantasy.  And it observes,in its own way, many of the conventions of those genres.

In a world overtaken by an ice age, Essex (Paul Newman) comes to The City with his pregnant woman-child mate.  He’s looking for his brother.  His brother is a professional gambler, making his living at a game called Quintet, which looks like a cross between chess, backgammon and Sorry!  Since the world has ended and all, the only economy the City has is this game.

Brother welcomes Essex and Pregnant Woman-Child and the family sits down to a friendly game of Quintet as Essex goes out shopping for firewood.  The game barely gets underway before an assassin rolls a pipe-bomb into the apartment, killing everyone, and the movie, like many Futuristic Dystopia movies, becomes a murder mystery.   Essex must find out why his family has been killed, and his investigation of this peculiar game and the high stakes its champions play for form the rest of the narrative.

It’s sluggish, partly because the characters wear bulky costumes and must either trudge through snow or walk carefully, gingerly over frozen surfaces.  It is occasionally heavy-handed, if not pretentious.  But it is by no means baffling, inscrutable or even especially confusing.  I know that doesn’t sound like an especially ringing endorsement; the movie does have its flaws.  The stars, including several excellent actors, wear silly-looking sorts of retro-futurist medieval-renaissance outfits and talk in a stilted, elevated style of speech that doesn’t provide much of the celebrated Altmanesque multi-layered dialogue or sense of life and spontaneity.  The game of Quintet is never explained except in the loosest, most metaphorical sense and there isn’t much pulse to the mystery-solving aspect of the narrative.

Altman is trying to say something about the importance of ritual to a culture and the ultimate price for clinging to that ritual.  The game is supposed to be a metaphor for any number of cultural rituals, from religion to warfare to politics.  I think.

The real star of the movie is the setting, which, like all of Altman’s work, has been given a great deal of attention and layers of detail.  In thiscase (a short documentary included with the DVD explains), the crew was granted permission to shoot on the site of Expo ’67 in Montreal in the wintertime.  They adapted the fairgrounds to their own purposes and then sprayed the whole thing down with water every day, creating incredible cascades of ice and snow that permeate every room of every set in the movie.  The effect is stunning; it presents a claustrophobic, run-down, derelict, haunted, futuristic city you can truly believe is the last outpost of a dying race.  Indoors and outdoors, in atriums or hotel rooms, ice and snow choke stairways and cascade from light fixtures and railings.  This is no set with fake snow and plastic icicles — in every scene you see the actors’ breath.  Altman fogs the camera with Vaseline to make it look like the whole movie is perhaps shot through a lens of ice.
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The Omega Man

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: Germ warfare gets out of control, kills everyone.

SYMPTOMS: Charlton Heston is the Last Man on Earth.  Except, of course, for everybody else.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?  Heston is content to live out his remaining days driving fast cars, shooting creeps with a high-powered weapons, playing chess by himself and watching the movie Woodstock every day.  Others would prefer he die.  Still others see in him some measure of hope for the future.  It’s tough gig, being Last Man on Earth, everybody wants something from you.

WHO ARE THE BAD GUYS?  The pale-faced, black-robed, light-sensitive, technology-hating, medieval-thinking goons who want to kill Heston and end all human life on Earth are led by, of course, a broadcast journalist.  Then as now, they only wish to destroy.

NOTES: The movie is directed by Boris Sagal, veteran TV director and father to Katey.  The only other film of his that I’ve seen is the similarly apocalyptic Elvis Presley vehicle Girl Happy.

Big problem: the bad guys here aren’t very scary.  Or very interesting.  Metaphorically they make “sense” (creatures who can’t tolerate light dress like the Spanish Inquisition, talk in fake medieval-speak and want to destroy all of humanity’s accomplishments), but they’re weak, disorganized and laughably inadequate to the task of being frightening or threatening.

The irony of Heston defending civilization’s greatest accomplishments against backward-thinking zealots (at the barrel of a high-powered assault weapon) while watching Woodstock every day and making whoopee with a hip, sassy black chick is not lost on me.
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Les Revenants (They Came Back)

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: Well, it doesn’t, not this time.  But that’s not to say that everything is hunky dory, either.

SYMPTOMS: The dead come back to life.  How, we don’t know.  Why, we don’t know.  They just come walking slowly, calmly, into town one day, everyone who’s died in the last ten years or so.  Not everyone is happy about this.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?  Well, we’re not going to panic, that’s for sure.  These aren’t monsters, they’re our friends, neighbors and loved ones.  They’ve come back to life for some reason and it’s a little weird, but that’s no reason to get excited.  We’re going to accept them back into our homes and into their old jobs and do our best to help them acclimate to their special circumstances.

WHERE DO WE LEAVE THINGS?  The dead, it turns out, have a mysterious plan of their own.  I’m not saying that to be coy, I mean I really don’t know what their plan is.  But they have one.

NOTES: As a zombie movie, this is the exact opposite of George Romero in every way.  In a Romero movie, the zombies claw and bite and gnaw at living flesh, here they calmly, blithely walk around town, meet up with their shocked and sometimes dismayed families, and try to go back to work.  In a Romero movie, the citizenry react with panic, dread and horror; here, they react with calm, level-headedness and careful planning.  Meetings are called, refugee centers are erected, the army is helpful and benign (well, it is the French army after all), and people keep their heads even though the whole scenario is creepy as all get-out.  In a Romero film the effects are flamboyant, the photography garish and the performances brash; here the effects are subtle to the point of invisibility, the photography lush and beautiful, the performances subtle and naturalistic.  Where Romero’s films are frantic, loud and nerve-shredding, this is elegant, stately and chilling.

The dead here are a little sluggish and not that bright, but they are not the mindless, staggering zombies of old.  They are every bit normal, regular people, just kind of “not there” to the same extent as the living.  This allows a woman to reconcile with her dead husband, parents to come to terms with their child’s death (or not), an elderly man to catch up to his deceased wife.  All the scenes of personal contact are unnervingand super-creepy.

A lot of time is spent discussing the logistical nightmares of housing the dead, providing them with jobs, giving them something to “do” in society instead of just wandering slowly around the city all day.  The fact that this is all done calmly and rationally only makes it that much more disturbing.

Mysterious, dreamlike and utterly original, the movie offers no explanation for causes or effects.  It’s not even a horror movie per se, more like a supernatural drama about the mysterious line separating the living and the dead.  
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The Crazies

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: An army-developed virus escapes, somehow, into a small town in Pennsylvania.

SYMPTOMS: The virus makes people go insane. Pursuant to this, a town full of crazy people makes people go insane.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? The army is brought in to control the town and contain the virus. This is good for the rest of the world and bad for the townspeople. The good news is, the army is taking care of things. The bad news is, it’s the same utterly incompetant army that let the virus go in the first place.

WHERE DO WE LEAVE THINGS? As with many George Romero movies, nothing is settled, only abandoned. The plague begins mysteriously, there is a good deal of sound and fury, and the movie ends before we know what’s going to happen to the town. Or the rest of the world.

AND THE BEST DEATH GOES TO: Harold Wayne Jones, as “Clank,” gets the virus, or thinks he does anyway, and manages to take out a score of armed men in the woods before getting the movie’s most elaborate gore gag with a to-camera shot to the head.

NOTES: Romero’s typical problem is that the sophistication of his ideas and the ambitions of his goals is often all-but-undone by his cheerfully amateurish production values and community-theater level quality of his actors’ performances, never more acutely on display than here (Romero regular Richard French soars as a scientist who has apparently stayed up all night watching Orson Welles movies).

The concept is utterly brilliant; a virus makes people crazy, but as the movie goes on we absolutely cannot tell for sure who has the virus, who is responding sanely to a violent military takeover and who is using the situation as a license to act crazy (If I was writing a remake today, which I’m not, I would make it that it turns out there never was a virus, that the whole thing is a military operation to practice for a total martial takeover of the United States).   The scenes of put-upon Army regulars bickering about supplies and bueraucracy and dyspeptic, bilious think-tank guys planning to drop an atomic bomb have a pungency today that they may or may not have had in 1973.  I remember plenty of government-conspiracy movies from back then, but they always portrayed the government as a cold, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful machine, capable of anything.  Here, the government is under-funded, under-staffed and completely incompetent, in over their heads and just as desperate as the people they’re trying to control.  A movie ahead of its time.
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28 Days Later

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: Science project gone wrong.  Ultra-contagious CrazySerum set loose by well-meaning animal lovers.

People go crazy and turn into crazypeople.  Everyone dies.  Cities of England empty.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?  For now, just try to survive.  That’s bleedin’ hard enough, innit?

THE MILITARY, SUCH AS IT IS, HAS A PLAN, SUCH AS IT IS: Lure people to their military base and forcibly impregnate any females who wander by.  Who knows?  In a few weeks maybe all the crazypeople will keel over from starvation.  Good plan, huh?  Huh?  Hey, where are you going?

WHERE DO WE LEAVE THINGS?  We learn, in time, that the crisis is passing, that the crazypeople, if not starving to death, are at least getting weaker and less scary, and that England is, seemingly, the only affected country.  Ah well.

NOTES: I love, love, love the first 75 minutes or so of this movie.  It’s deeply upsetting, haunting, nerve-shredding entertainment.  The creatures are wicked scary and unpredictable and the movie bristles with unexpected moments of beauty and poetry.  I love everything up to the point in Act III where the Army Guy In Charge mentions in passing that he intends to toss the women to the army guys.  What had, up until that point, been a really, really smart movie about resourceful people doing their best to survive in a really, really fucked-up world then becomes a movie about how the Military Is Bad.  Which it is, don’t get me wrong.  But for instance, we’ve got the female lead, who has proven herself to be an astonishingly effective badass with a machete, and in Act III she’s reduced to Protecting The Innocent Girl, Wearing a Party Dress (!), and Being Rescued By The Male Protagonist Who Learns To Kill And Thus Proves His Manhood (sigh).

I’m also not sure about the decision to shoot this on video.  I think it’s supposed to add “realism” to the event, and it certainly helps with the discomfort level, but for me it just keeps taking me out of the story because it doesn’t look like a movie, even though it is, obviously, a movie.  It feels self-conscious.
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Day of the Dead

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS: Well, no one knows.  It just kind of happens one day.

The dead come back to feast on the living.  This creates problems.

A group of scientists have been teamed up with a group of army guys and put into an underground storage-facility-cum-laboratory for the purposes of studying the zombie problem and coming up with some solutions.  Solutions have not, as yet, been forthcoming and this is stressing everyone out a little.

THE ARMY GUY IN CHARGE says “Forget about our mission, let’s just get out of here.”  (By “us” he means himself and his fellow army guys.)
THE OTHER ARMY GUYS say “Yee haw!  Let’s kill some zombies!”
THE MAD SCIENTIST says “Let’s socialize the zombies as we would children or domestic animals.”
THE RATIONAL SCIENTIST says “We have to figure out a way to reverse the process.  That will take time and patience.”
THE JAMAICAN HELICOPTER PILOT says “Why you want to waste your time wit’ dat, mon?  Scientific knowledge an’ record keepin’ ees pointless mon, let’s jes’ find a nice island somewheres, make some babies an’ enjoy the rest of the time we’s got ‘ere on dis Eart.”
THE IRISH GUY drinks whiskey and says “Jaysus, Mary an’ Joseph” at every opportunity.

WHERE DO WE LEAVE THINGS?  George Romero is a populist and secular humanist.  His head is with the rational scientist, but his heart is with the Jamaican helicopter pilot and the Irish guy.  (Strangely, the Jamaican and the Army Guy both have the same plan, but the Army Guy is a selfish, autocratic bully whose plan includes shooting everyone else before escaping, so we don’t like him.)

AND THE BEST DEATH GOES TO: It’s hard to top the Army Guy whose eyelid gets torn away and the Other Army Guy who keeps screaming after his head is torn away from his body (not to mention the zombie who’s decapitated with a shovel-blade — man, I’ve always wanted to try that — but the winner has to be the Army Guy In Charge who lives to see his own intestines dragged away by zombies and still has the gumption (and the lucidity) to scream “Choke on ’em!” before he succumbs.

NOTES: This movie is a lot more compelling than I remember it being.  Especially since it doesn’t have much of a plot, or very good acting.  It’s pretty much: Act I: introduce everyone and delineate the situation they’re in, Act II: gather and sort theirconflicting viewpoints and theories, Act III: set the zombies loose and see who survives.

The scenes of zombie carnage still carry an undeniable punch of profane revulsion.
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This is the way the world ends

Favorite post-apocalyptic scenarios.  Let’s not worry too much about the quality of the movie, what I’m looking for is ideas — is it a virus, a nuclear war, invaders from Mars?  What are the symptoms of that apocalypse?  Is it flesh-eating bacteria, zombies, intelligent insects, people living underground?

Bonus points for uniqueness.
Extra-special bonus points for a surprise twist ending.

*bonus points not redeemable for cash or merchandise
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