Released in 2016 to universal acclaim, Yeon Sang Ho’s Train To Busan was the best thing to happen to the zombie genre in bloody ages. A modern masterpiece in sustained tension that featured not only set pieces that would guarantee you an all fingernail diet, but also a genuinely moving heart; the film told the story of the group of survivors of a zombie epidemic forced to fight for their lives on a train heading for the titular station in South Korea. Nicking the juicy bits from other movies it nevertheless stood firm, creating it’s own identity and relentlessly traumatizing it’s audience with countless tragic self sacrifices and plot twists and stood on it’s own two feet as an orginal voice in a crowded genre. News that Sang Ho had another film on the way set in the same universe was met with the same rabid excitement a zombie horde gets when some poor sod screws up being stealthy, but could this new adventure, titled Peninsula, possibly hope to equal the raw awesomeness of what came before?
Well, to be honest, no. But that doesn’t stop it from being an affecting ride.
Four years after South Korea got an undead facelift, any survivors who made it out live a shunned life on the streets in Hong Kong and two such people are tormented brother-in-law duo, ex soldier Jung-seok and Chul-min, who has never fully recovered from the death of their family while being evacuated. However, the chance of a new life is dangled before them by Chinese mobsters who are assembling a small team of natives to locate a truck loaded with $20 million in US currency that was abandoned somewhere in the infected peninsula. However, drooling, infection ridden corpses aside, there’s still more going on in South Korea than anyone seems to have taken account of and the group encounters different cells of survivors that have had to lean on the best and worse of human nature in order to keep on breathing. While Jung-seok stumbles upon a incredibly resourceful family (with additional, sick driving skills), Chul-min falls foul of a thuggish militia known as Unit 631 who have set up violent, gladiatorial games to keep themselves interested (some brothers in law have all the luck). As more and more people start to find out about the truck-shaped golden ticket that can ensure an all expenses paid trip to not being eaten by a rotting mob, the race is on to claim it and get it to it’s pick up point before the deadline (and I do mean deadline), but can Jung-seok exorcise the guilt of his dead sister and nephew in order to to the right thing?
Essentially what would happen if returning Fast & Furious director Justin Lin remade John Carpenter’s Escape From New York by way of George Romero’s Land Of The Dead, Peninsula unfortunately fails to live up to this insanely tantalising mash up and it’s immensely well made predecessor – but on the plus side, I don’t think anyone actually could. Dropping the laser focus of Busan to expand it’s concept onto a global stage requires some solid world building and you can tell that Sang-ho is itching to expand his universe to include world politics and what life is like in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak that’s broken an entire country. For the most part, it’s actually genuinely intriguing, with life as a survivor with no country marks people out to be treated with fear and paranoia, or simply outright forgotten, forced to eek out a meager existence on whatever scraps life offers them. Similarly, life back home is predictanly no barrel of laughs either, but again the director is obviously having fun coming up with various uses for fireworks and floodlights to evade the floods of zombies that lurk, en mass, around every corner.
However, as fun as this and the heist plot initially is, it also means the film takes so long to build up the world around it’s admittedly basic premise, that it loses a fair chunk of the momentum that kept the original barreling along with such irresistible force.
Also, with such a lot of time shown to the development of the status quo, the zombies, despite being as numerous and vicious as they’ve always been, are somewhat relegated to being more of an obstacle than a major threat for much of the movie and a bizarre new ability where a bunch of the undead have become tangled together in order to make a legitimately freakish, multi-limbed, single unit ends up only being a throwaway.
However, at the start of the final act, the film finally rolls up it’s sleeves and, in a thrillingly ballsy move, essentially tries to become Mad Max: Fury Road with zombies as all the major players hop into vehicles and battle through city streets rapidly crowding with the dead in order to reach the docks before the sun comes up. It’s the shot in the arm the film desperately needs and despite some questionable Fast & Furious style vehicular physics that would even raise Vin Diesel’s eyebrows, it rockets to an typically emotional (or as many will point out, over emotional) climax. I understand that the filmmakers are trying to bottle lightning by trying to shamelessly draw tears from it’s audience much like the incredibly sad/hopeful ending of Busan but you’ll probably be screaming that everyone needs to get a fucking move on more out of panicked annoyance than a sense of kinship to the bawling, surviving characters. That being said, this snarling franchise still brings a ton of heart than most films of it’s ilk and despite it’s flaws, Peninsula still manages to be one of the most flat out exciting zombie film made in the last four years and if with the world and it’s undead now fully established in this franchise, a third installment (animated prequel Seoul Station aside) could have a real shot at matching the original and get this cuticle consuming series into the same leagues as Romero’s classics.
Until then, Peninsula proves to be frustratingly both heart poundingly exciting and a dead letdown, often at the same time.