Movies · Reviews

Toronto After Dark 2016 Day Three Takes Aim on Flesh-Munching Zombies

By  · Published on October 16th, 2016

We take a look at The Rezort and Train to Busan.

Genre film festivals are often among my favorites because they focus on the kind of movies typically absent from theaters ‐ the odd, the disturbing, the foreign. Film lovers in Toronto know what I’m talking about as they’re now on day three of the 11th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Nine nights of features and shorts celebrating the dark and the weird, and while I’m not there physically I’m there in spirit. The two films playing tonight are The Rezort and Train to Busan, and my reviews are below.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.

The Rezort

Man’s hubris leading to tragedy has been a familiar setup in horror films for nearly a century with the likes of Frankenstein and Jurassic Park painting a clear warning regarding unchecked ambition lacking in common sense. The latest movie to follow that route takes an additional nod from Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster by pairing that hubris with the high-profit world of themed island resorts. Death finds a way indeed.

It’s been years since a viral infection led to a zombie uprising ‐ rage style like in 28 Days Later and The Girl With All the Gifts ‐ that left a third of the planet’s human population dead. The world has moved on to more traditional problems like war and a growing refugee crisis, but one entrepreneur has found a way make money from survivor guilt. The Rezort is a luxury island getaway where guests take safari-like drives to watch and shoot zombies. It lacks the wonder of seeing dinosaurs brought to life, but they find a cathartic release in killing the already dead.

It should come as no surprise that something goes wrong, the security measures fail, and zombies overrun paradise.

Steve Barker’s (Outpost) The Rezort, written by Paul Gerstenberger, starts rough with an exposition dump in the form of news footage and found footage-ish snippets before settling into a more traditional and fairly entertaining narrative.

The action/horror elements making up the majority of the film fare well as the flesh-munching and head-shots come with effective gore effects, and while the suspense doesn’t reach the same level ‐ it’s pretty clear who’ll be biting it when ‐ there’s some interesting character work here. The survivors are here with a mix of motivations from the ones who just want to shoot “people” to those with a deeper agenda. The actors are all solid with Dougray Scott and Jessica De Gouw standing out as characters teasing a bit more mystery than the norm.

It’s all pretty straightforward, but the script adds a bit of a subtext in the way some people view the zombies. There’s a brief consideration of them as “living” creatures, but the slightly heavier commentary is saved for the plight of refugees. Combined the two offer thoughts on the treatment of those viewed too frequently as “lesser” than us, and a point is made however simply.

The film earns points for setting most of its action outdoors, much of it in the bright sunlight, but a third-act detour sends us into corridors and dark rooms for far too long. Happily, the film returns outside for its best sequence and most compelling shot ending things on a high note.

The Rezort doesn’t break the mold or chart new territory, but it’s a step up from most of the direct-to-dvd zombie films flooding shelves these days.

Train to Busan

Zombies! Love ’em or hate ’em, movies about zombies are here to stay. The majority of them will continue to head straight to DVD as their budgets and degree of film-making talent involved demand, but once or twice a year one comes along that truly benefits from being seen on a bigger screen. Yeon Sang-ho’s live-action debut, Train to Busan, is one of those exceptions despite hitting more than a few bumps in its journey.

Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) is a busy man doing important things at his job destined to make him both powerful and wealthy, but focusing on work leaves little time for his daughter, Su-an (Kim Soo-ahn, with a performance that once again suggests all child actors should train in South Korea). The girl is understandably lonely, and after he messes up her birthday Seok-woo is convinced to take his daughter to visit her mother, his ex-wife, in Busan. The pair board the train the next morning, but as they pull away from the station, just out of their view, the platform is overrun by what amount to zombies intent on chewing their way through the living.

One of the infected hopped on board, and the carnage is immediate. She attacks, the disease spreads within seconds, and soon passengers are fighting for their lives as their numbers dwindle in the face of the onslaught. Trapped on a moving train, Seok-woo, his daughter, and a handful of other survivors are about to have the worst day of their lives. For most of them it might also be their last.

The setup is simple, the action begins almost immediately, and while the focus is centered on the train and its occupants Yeon (who also wrote the film) ensures we see the scope of what’s happening around them. Landscape shots of Seoul and other, smaller cities and towns show civilization in collapse. News broadcasts on-board the train reveal to viewers and passengers alike the breadth and hopelessness of the infection’s reach. And yes, the word “zombie” is trending across their social media.

The zombie action here most closely resembles the likes of World War Z with the infected moving quickly, with deadly purpose, and occasionally brought to life in horde-form via CG. Sound design and sharp visuals lend an immediacy to their snapping teeth and contorting limbs, and as individuals or masses they never look less than threatening and frightful.

While the visuals are familiar what sets Yeon’s film apart are its competing themes of putting others first and the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. “At a time like this,” says Seok-woo to his daughter, “only watch out for yourself.” It’s a lesson she refuses to learn choosing instead to see others in need as people deserving of help, and instead it’s her father who’s forced to accept the error in his thinking. He’s a slow learner though as evidenced by his decision to leave his daughter behind three times too often. His re-education is supported by his daughter’s pleading, but it’s enforced through the actions of a fellow traveler, Sang Hwa (Ma Dong-seok). Oddly, Sang is the far more charismatic and engaging of the characters here, and as he fights to protect his pregnant wife it’s difficult not to wish he had been the focus.

Still, that contrast between doing good and paying the price for such efforts is a thought-provoking endeavor. It’s an impossible choice but one these characters are forced to make again and again through set-pieces that thrill with fast-paced action and nerve-wracking suspense. Their moral flip-side is present in the character of a businessman who literally throws people aside to save his own skin. He’s essentially a cartoon villain and a genre cliche, but he works as the counterpoint to little Su-an’s innocence.

The clash between self-sacrifice and self-preservation is complemented by observations on class and the corporate versus the social worlds. The passengers are fairly well divided ‐ businessmen, regular folks, high school kids ‐ but the ingrained respect for authority sees fearful passengers lining up behind the selfish, middle-aged man in a tie who rallies the crowd to do his bidding. It’s reminiscent of The Mist’s supermarket divide, sans religion of course, and it’s a reminder of the dangers in mob mentality. The media doesn’t escape Yeon’s critique either as the news reports are layered with misinformation presumably to maintain control and prevent panic but ultimately leading to more death.

Train to Busan is a follow-up, of sorts, to Yeon’s previous film, the animated Seoul Station, that explores the beginning of the infection and ends at its title locale. It’s Yeon’s third animated feature after the emotionally devastating King of Pigs and equally dramatic The Fake, but while his two zombie endeavors are far more entertainment-oriented his lean towards commentary on the human condition remains.

As much, if not more, of a disaster film than a zombie flick, Train to Busan is a flawed but fun ride both on and off the rails.

[Note: My review of Train to Busan originally ran during this year’s Fantasia Film Festival.]

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.

Related Topics:

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.