Even the most bloodthirsty horror fan could be forgiven for wondering if there’s really room in the world for yet another zombie movie. Then something like the new Train to Busan sequel, Peninsula, comes along and offers a reminder that in the right hands, the genre still has plenty of chomp left.
Peninsula is written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho, who also directed Train to Busan and wrote and directed its animated prequel-slash-companion film, Seoul Station. After a brief, chaotic prologue that’s presumably concurrent with the events of Busan—right as zombies are starting to overwhelm the people of South Korea—most of Peninsula is set four years later, and focuses on survivors who’ve come to question whether or not making it through the apocalypse is really worth what awaited them on the other side.
We meet soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) in that tense prologue, as he’s speeding to make one of the last boats out of the country with his sister and her young family in tow. In the mad rush, an infected person goes undetected among the seafaring passengers, and Jung-seok is forced to watch everyone he loves succumb to the virus—except for his brother-in-law, Cheol-min (Kim Do-yoon), who also makes it out and spends the next four years resenting Jung-seok for not saving everyone else.
At any rate, neither man has much to live for anymore; in Hong Kong, they’re forced to scrape by in extreme poverty as unrecognized refugees, enduring taunts from locals who call them out as “bastards from the Peninsula,” a region that was totally locked down from the outside world to stifle the outbreak. (North Korea gets a very brief mention early on, but the film doesn’t explore exactly how containment was achieved.)
Neither Jung-seok nor Cheol-min has much reason to resist when they’re approached by neighborhood gangsters who’re hoping to make bank plundering valuables left behind in South Korea…they just need some sad sacks with nothing to lose who’re willing to risk infiltrating zombie ground zero for the promise of fast cash. “Don’t worry about the zombies!”, the bosses assure them.
As anyone who’s ever seen a zombie movie before will know, “don’t worry about the zombies” is absolutely not the right attitude. But as Peninsula soon shows us, the advice should have been “don’t only worry about the zombies”—because as it turns out, South Korea still has its share of humans roaming around, and most of them are just as dangerous as any undead ghouls.
With a set-up that feels inspired by John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, crossed with a gritty heist flick, Peninsula already has the makings of something special. But then the movie also lets you see how very Mad Max-meets-Death Race 2000 its world is too, with some incredible vehicle stunts that are so breathtaking, you never once stop to wonder how everyone still has gas four years after the end of the world.
Once the action really gets going, Peninsula has a lot of fun riffing on what’s otherwise a pretty familiar post-apocalyptic set-up; while the zombies are just kind of annoying pests that everyone’s mostly figured out how to coexist with, there are also some creative uses for them—including as foes against human prisoners in a truly terrifying pit-fighting situation, and as bumbling fools who can always be counted on to chase after noisemaking children’s toys.
Speaking of children, much like Train to Busan, a lot of Peninsula’s drama weighs heavily on the two little girls in its cast, particularly Lee Re as a pint-sized Furiosa in the making. (Lee Ye-won plays her younger, sassier sister.) The performances are fine, but if there’s a flaw in Peninsula, it’s that it interrupts its exhilaratingly propulsive third act for a few extended, slow-motion, tear-jerking sequences that make sure we know just how much grief and terror these kids are enduring thanks to their situation. But that’s not unlike the ending of Busan—and the detour into melodrama feels pretty well-earned, considering the circumstances.
We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies with stories like Peninsula before, but most of them don’t invest so much in their characters. As the girls’ mother, Lee Jung-hyun is particularly noteworthy as an otherwise pretty ordinary person who’s forced to transform into a brutal warrior in order to protect her family, but does so without losing any of her humanity. And if Peninsula lacks the exciting discovery element of Train to Busan—the rare foreign horror film to break into the American mainstream—it makes up for it with its imaginative continuation of that film’s story, building out its ravaged world while upping the horror exponentially. The zombies are as gruesome as ever, but remember how in Train to Busan, the worst humans were the rich people who didn’t want to share their train car? It gets a lot messier in this one.
Most of all, Peninsula’s intensity is what’ll stick with you long after the credits roll.
Train to Busan: Peninsula hits North American theaters on August 21.
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