World War Z (Marc Forster, US, 2013)

A worldwide zombie outbreak sends UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) on the trail of the mysterious infection. As Gerry makes his way to a military outpost in South Korea, then to a country (Israel) which appears to have forseen the disaster and made preparations to protect itself, each destination is ultimately overrun by the dead. Escaping from Israel by plane a zombie infects the passengers and the plane crashes in Wales. At a nearby biological laboratory Gerry discovers the cure and finds himself forced to make a life or death choice.

An extremely impressive entry in the zombie genre and for me easily the best such since 1977’s Dawn of the Dead. WWZ may break one of the supposed rules of the genre in its almost complete absence of gore but Brad Pitt’s film more than compensates with an efficiently plotted linear storyline that remarkably shows no obvious signs of its troubled production, a spectacular sense of scale, a satisfactory balance between action and emotion rare in summer blockbusters and an often intense breakneck pace. There’s a lot that I liked about WWZ, from the way the film utilizes its fast moving zombies as a symbol of the unrelenting pressure and pace of everyday life, to supporting characters who are introduced only to be killed off without any of the bombast you’d have had to endure had the movie been directed by a Zack Snyder or Michael Bay. The emotional heart of the story – UN hotshot Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt) relationship with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and kids – feels refreshingly damped down rather than overblown, believable without being schmaltzy. Rich and famous he may be but there’s an interesting grounded quality to Pitt. Casting him as an Everyman sort of character doesn’t seem like the kind of stretch it would if you had the likes of DiCaprio or Tom Cruise starring.

The story is a ground-breaking amalgamation of zombie horror and one of those plague stories in which the hero is charged with finding a cure. The plot, which sends Gerry from Philly to South Korea, to Israel and then Wales in pursuit of the infection’s source, never feels like it’s just marking time. Each location holds a clue and by the time Gerry figures out the ingenious solution en route to the film’s climax the story tops even that by forcing our hero to make a virtual life or death decision. The payoff includes what might be the most well earned and enjoyable onscreen drink since Ice Cold In Alex. The action sequences are taut, varied and increasingly spectacular with the (rightly) much talked about Israeli siege a standout. The chaos which leads to a hectic chase through narrow streets covered by a wire fence over which swarm countless zombies culminates in an even more claustrophobic and nail-biting showdown inside a jumbo jet. The film is genuinely unnerving, tense – especially the final third in which the film pleasingly goes for low key, character-driven thrills instead of empty spectacle – and sometimes jump out of your seat scary. All without any bad language or explicit gore. There’s a lesson there.

Littered with unexpected touches – such as the viewer’s shock at a would be suicide jump by a certain character who fears he’s been infected and can’t bear to see his family in danger – and tasty supporting performances from the likes of James Badge Dale, David Morse and Daniella Kertesz (the latter playing an Israeli Defence Force soldier named Segen who becomes an unexpected ally of Gerry’s and isn’t saddled with a lame romantic sub-plot between her and the star), a nuclear blast viewed from the cockpit of a plane in which no words, no explanation are offered and don’t need to be since at this point in the movie it truly looks like game over for mankind and a last act that eschews the empty spectacle of so many summer blockbusters and goes instead for a tense, low-key and genuinely intimate climax I’m happy to acknowledge had me on the edge of my seat. But perhaps best of all is the film’s underlying message, epitomised by an Israeli who tells Pitt’s character that ‘For every life we save, it’s one less enemy we have to fight.’ This is a movie about the end of the world that unlike so many other zombie films shows people refusing to retreat into small survivalist groups but instead doing their best to save as many lives as they can. It does not surprise me in the least that World War Z defied months of hostile online sniping to become a big box office hit and I’m happy it did.

Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, South Korea, 2016)

A hard-hearted Seoul businessman (Gong Yoo) accompanies his 9 year old daughter (Kim Soo-an) to meet his estranged wife in Busan. Unfortunately for them the victim of a zombie attack boards the train seconds before departure and before you can shout ‘All aboard!’ the zombie virus rages through the carriages like wildfire and isolated pockets of survivors – bewildered, outnumbered and unarmed – find themselves fighting desperately for survival.

By far the best zombie movie since at least World War Z (to which it owes a clear debt both thematically and stylistically), this is a tense, nail-biting survival thriller with characters you can really root for and don’t half feel bad about when they go down under the zombie hordes. Director Yeon Sang-ho extracts maximum tension from the cramped settings, quickly divides the survivors up into easily recognisable groups with their own obstacles to overcome and gets two terrific performances, the first from Ma Dong-seok as a beefy blue collar worker saddled with a heavily pregnant wife, whose unstinting selflessness gradually rubs off on Yoo’s callous businessman. The second from little Kim Soo-an, who is astonishingly good as the little girl who can barely comprehend what is happening around her and who sees so much horror your heart just aches for her.

Like World War Z this is about individuals learning to pull together to survive, a theme which culminates in a crackerjack climax as one group of survivors barricade themselves in a carriage and refuse to let any other survivors in even as the zombies close in. It’s edge of the seat stuff with a richly deserved payoff for those humans who in their determination to survive end up behaving even more monstrously than the zombies. Humanist and harrowing in equal measure, it’s a film that doesn’t let up and its penultimate scene – reminiscent of the end of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead – actually had me looking away from the screen so worried was I that the worst was about to happen. Anyway, an absolute blast and yet another reminder (as if one were needed after the likes of Cold Eyes, The Terror Live, Confession of Murder, Sea Fog, Snowpiercer, Veteran, etc, etc) of just how stunning South Korean genre cinema can be.