One Of The Scariest Scenes In Train To Busan Leans Into Potent Dread

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: Ariel talks about perhaps the saddest scene in Train to Busan, and Matt presents the term "dread scare" for inclusion in the horror canon.)

The discourse this week on Horror Twitter is one we've all seen before, and one that will never stop circling back again — what does or does not make someone a legit horror fan? Bottom line? Gatekeeping isn't cool, stop it! Do you like a scary movie? Cool, you're good.

That said, it made me think about some of the most powerful aspects of horror. Specifically, how a genre often dismissed as little more than blood, guts, and gore can pack an immense emotional wallop that only amplifies the scare factor. Sometimes, the most horrifying thing you can experience is the loss of a loved one or the threat of such a loss. This is at the heart of "Train to Busan," and what makes it genuinely horrifying.

Like Romero before him, director Yeon Sang-ho took the notion of a zombie film and made it into a commentary on human nature. But he also went a step further, making it a deeply emotional story that reduces me to a sobbing mess every single time I watch it, without fail.

One of the most horrifying scenes in "Train to Busan" is one that comes on the heels of both great loss and immense hope. It's when Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) gets bitten while trying to save his daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an), and Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung), near the very end of the film.

The Setup

Seok-woo, a workaholic and divorcé, is a loving if misguided father. It's his daughter Su-an's birthday, and she'd rather spend it in Busan with her mom. Reluctant to let her take the train on her own, Seok-woo promises to go with her, ensuring her safety. The world has other plans, however, as a chemical leak at a nearby plant causes a zombie outbreak that spreads like wildfire, putting everyone in harm's way — including Seok-woo and Su-an.

The Story So Far

After an infected woman manages to climb aboard the train just before it leaves the station, all hell breaks loose. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement. Within minutes if not seconds of being bitten — presumably depending on how bad the bite is — people start to turn into mindless, fast-moving zombies that, on their own, are utterly terrifying. They move unnaturally fast, devoid of any thought save for an animalistic instinct to consume anything that has a pulse and is (preferably) human.

Seok-woo and Su-an, along with fellow passengers Yoon Sang-hwa (played by the outstanding Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife, Seong-kyeong, get to safety as the train quickly becomes overrun by the infected. Because of how rapidly the epidemic is spreading, the conductor is advised not to stop until they get to Daejeon Station, which has supposedly been secured by the Korean military.

When they arrive, however, it seems things aren't as safe as they'd assumed.

The military was there, alright, but they were all infected. A mad dash of infected soldiers rush the surviving passengers, consuming anyone in their path like a brush fire. Seok-woo, Su-an, Sang-hwa, and Seong-kyeong narrowly escape with their lives, but get split up in the process. Seok-woo and Yoon Sang-hwa find themselves at one end of the train with the only surviving member of his high school baseball team, Min Yong-guk (Choi Woo-sik). Meanwhile, Su-an and Seong-kyeong are trapped in a bathroom stall several cars away with two other passengers. And infected zombies are everywhere.

Seok-woo, Sang-hwa, and Yong-guk make their way to their loved ones at the other end of the train. To get there, they have to stealthily and safely bypass (or fight) whatever zombies are in their way. After they're reunited, it becomes yet another fight for their lives as the rest of the train's survivors have locked them out of the front, leaving them to die. Together they try to fight their way through, only for Sang-hwa to get bitten in the melee, staying behind to slow down the unstoppable wave of infected so the others can survive.

Threatened by their righteously furious arrival, the survivors at the front of the train essentially banish Seok-woo and the others to a smaller car one section closer to the conductor. In an act of instant karma, the infected swiftly make short work of the survivors, presumably leaving only Seok-woo, Su-an, Seong-kyeong, and a couple of others left alive.

On the final stretch of the trip to Busan, they hit a roadblock — literally. The tracks are covered in debris, and the conductor has to abandon the train in order to find another option on tracks farther down that aren't obstructed. Following the conductor's announcement with clear instructions on where to go, everyone makes their way, including Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), the heinous man who locked them out of the car in the first place.

The Scene

Seok-woo, Su-an, and Seong-kyeong make their way to the new train and manage to climb aboard while in motion. After fending off a literal mountain of zombies dragging behind them, they take a breath, relieved they may finally be on the way to safety.

They open the door to the engine room, only to see an infected Yon-suk pleading for help. He hasn't realized he's turning. In the instant that Seok-woo makes him aware, you can see the cataclysmic fear of the inevitable wash over Yon-suk's face. Petrified, he stares at his hands, incredulous, until he freezes, motionless.

He looks up, and the transformation is complete.

Yon-suk lunges at Seok-woo, the two men wrestling to the ground. In a desperate attempt to help, Seong-kyeong uses her purse to wrangle the infected Yon-suk off of Seok-woo, only to have him turn and change his focus to her and the little girl. Without thinking of the consequences, Seok-woo leaps up and covers Yon-suk's mouth with his hand, immediately getting bitten.

In that instant, your heart stops. Suddenly, the true horror of the scene sinks in. It's not a jump scare, it isn't about the zombies, and it isn't about being eaten. It's the dread. An all-consuming sense of doom and fear that washes over every character left alive.

Su-an immediately recognizes that her father is going to die. He's going to leave her alone, and she's petrified. She doesn't want to lose him, and there's nothing she can do to change things. She can't try harder to get his attention, she can't tell him how important her school recital is. Nothing will fix this.

Seong-kyeong has just had to watch her husband die in a similarly horrific incident. It felt safe to not be completely alone. But now she will be while struggling to keep her unborn child alive.

And Seok-woo. All this time, with so many near-death experiences, he's had the terrified look of dread in his eyes at the prospect of not being able to protect Su-an. To make sure she's okay and taken care of. He has seconds left before he has to throw himself from the train, listening to his daughter scream "please don't leave me!" How do you explain this to a child? How do you make her understand that, no matter how much you love her, you can't change this?

She pleads and screams for him to come with them — "don't go!" — as he runs sobbing from the engine room to the back of the car. Seong-kyeong has to hold Su-an to keep her from running after him, her screams echoing over the music. And his last thoughts are of her. Only her. Su-an as a newborn infant, safe in his arms. Her tiny feet. Her eyes closed softly, sleeping soundly.

And then, with a smile on his face, he lets go.

The Impact (Matt's Take)

You know what? We should popularize the term "dread scare" as much as we use "jump scare." Neither are cursed genre restrictions. They're both pillars underneath the platform of horror cinema. Everyone understands the value of a jump scare when our hearts race, adrenaline spikes, and we leap in our cushioned seats (bless padding) because Mr. Scary Monster Man lunges towards the camera — but the art of a jump scare is immediate and over in a flash. A dread scare is something like Ariel just described. A far more affecting horror artform that lingers with audiences long after devastation occurs and sustains an existential sense of terror that gnaws at our vulnerability like a fly returning to a rotten feast over and over, undeterrable and incessant.

Ariel highlights in "Train To Busan" a tremendous dread scare, because the moment Seok-woo is bitten, everything flashes before our eyes. A father making the ultimate sacrifice. The daughter left parentless and with a caretaker. The rushing sensation of finality. The despicable cruelty that is Seok-woo's continual brushes with death only to fall victim at the finish line. These are the dreadful larva that hatch days, weeks, years after you've watched whatever movie — eternal terrors that plague humankind. The sight of Seok-woo's bitten hand is a specter that lingers through multiple sleepless nights.

That's the hangup, isn't it? What's scary to some ain't doodie to others. 

"Train To Busan" contains a few nasty traditional haunts, yet Ariel chose this somber sendoff. Does that negate Ariel's vulnerability in revealing her innermost fears? No. Are others wrong for choosing the zombie bumrush or another alternate scene? Also no. The horror genre is an inviting space where fans can be themselves and learn from others, based solely on what singular viewers choose as the scariest scene in any movie. We'd be moronic to fight over whose paranoias and anxieties are "right" when the conversation should be an open dialogue about the representation of all our tormentors, and how we can conquer them together.