It’s always a surprise and delight when a sequel holds up to its original, and Train to Busan’s follow up, Peninsula (directed by Yeon Sang-ho and written by Sang-ho and Ryu Yong-jae), does just that...
...I remember at the end of Train to Busan, muttering aloud, “How does this zombie movie have me crying?” To me, a film effectively featuring equal parts gore and emotion is a major accomplishment. Peninsula may not be quite as heart-wrenching as Busan, but it’s still pretty impressively heartfelt for a zombie horror film. It gets off to a somewhat clunky start compared to its predecessor but is worth waiting out. Viewers would also do well to remember this is a different movie, even as it uses a lot of the same devices as Busan. The two films do have three notable strengths in common, however: the plot and character development are super tight; the involvement of the set is just about impeccable; and the zombies are so interesting to watch.
Caution: Contains light spoilers for Train to Busan
While Peninsula didn’t pluck at my heartstrings quite as aggressively as its predecessor, it did do some fascinating work with the characters. Its more plot-driven story, which follows survivors who escaped the island and are forced to return to retrieve stolen goods, is expected for a film of its type, but that did mean it took longer for me to form attachment to the people, in part because the first twenty minutes essentially compresses a family story very similar to Busan into its cold open. It felt rushed, and I didn’t care that some of the family members had died by the time Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) is slow-motion wailing as they get infected. That said, it was kind of satisfying to see the zombie/apocalypse trope play out. Jung Seok (Dong-Won Gang) makes the decisions that every audience screams at the TV when they’re watching (DO NOT PICK UP THE STRANGERS HITCH-HIKING. DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR FOR THE ZOMBIE, etc.) … and that takes away a lot of his humanity. But it does so on purpose.
When we flash-forward to the survivors four years later in North Korean quarantine drinking away their survivor’s guilt, though, I did get invested. Because that’s what happens after you make tough, foxhole-moment decisions: you regret them, no matter what you choose. We don’t see that survivor’s guilt in many apocalypse movies. And we almost never get to see that the people who keep their humanity, like the woman on the side of the road who Jung Seok did not help, also survive.
I love films that turn tropes inside out, and Peninsula does a lot of that. One thing that was so cool about Busan is that the whole thing happens on a train. The set is utilized to the fullest: remember when they slide overhead in the luggage compartments? Or when they use the teenager’s baseball bat? Weapons of opportunity are my favorite. Peninsula both utilizes its set and inverts the post-apocalyptic barbaric society that we see so often in zombie films. It features an evil leader of this society who plans to turn good after getting rescued—as if wanting to get rescued from the dystopia he rules wasn’t unique enough. As is standard fare, survivors in this new society exchange “living” for survival only, to the point that they fight humans against zombies for entertainment.
And speaking of zombies… wow. These zombies put in some work. Although, to be fair, they’re not zombies in the traditional, folkloric sense, but rather they seem like ghouls made from some fast-acting kind of super-rabies. Nonetheless, this movie definitely pays homage to American zombie films and their tropes… and it also recognizes shitty Americans in general, and their equally terrible news stations. By the way, y’all get ready for the worst interview ever, giving a ton of obvious exposition that anyone paying attention would already know.
Back to the zombies, or as the characters call them in Korean, according to the subtitles, the “infected.” I remember after watching Busan, my friend told me that the infected were portrayed by dancers, and I was like, “Oh, of course they were.” If you remember the fast zombies from Train to Busan, you’ll certainly remember the way they moved: it was like the tendons and ligaments of their bodies went into rigor mortis, but their muscles didn’t. Or something.
From the first moment we see the infected in the refugee center, their movements are unreal. A man lying flat on his back convulses into a bridge, and then a headstand, and then pushes himself upright with one seizing hand and twists violently in the air to land squared to his first victim. Just that four-second clip is truly amazing to watch.
I’ve always preferred slower moving zombies, but these infected are just fascinating. There’s even a rat-king of infected people at one point. If nothing else, Peninsula is worth the watch just to see how the fuck they put that together.
I really admire the ability to stay within a strict convention, too, and this film, just like Busan, totally does that. Remember in Busan when they figured out the infected were attracted to noise? Or that if the infected could not see their victims, then they wouldn’t attack? In this one, they’re “basically blind” at nighttime, which lends a whole new spectrum of color and noise to play with—think flare guns, fireworks, and even arcade-game worthy neon remote-controlled cars!
And speaking of the post-apocalyptic society, the stunt driving is bananas. And it’s done by women of color, which you know I’m about.
Bottom line: the spectacle of this movie alone makes it worth the watch. From trope inversion to captivating zombie motion, Peninsula takes the template of what the first film did right and builds on it to create a uniquely powerful follow-up.
Peninsula comes to limited theaters August 21st from Well Go USA Entertainment.
By Mary Kay McBrayer
Enjoy Mary Kay's writing? Check out her true crime book, America's First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster, available now through Amazon.