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Monsters in Apocalypse: Morality, Sacrifice, and Other Conditions for Survival

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Monsters in Apocalypse: Morality, Sacrifice, and Other Conditions for Survival

From biblical stories to modern film epics, monsters have always been prominently featured in apocalyptic tales. It’s easy to understand why: beasts of hell are often extremely dangerous, powerful and/or numerous, and absolutely create chaos for humans on earth; they are the perfect multi-tool to display society’s shortcomings while also simultaneously catalyzing the end to society. Both Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Train to Busan (2016) are unapologetically death-filled zombie comedy and action movies, respectively, however through parallel social commentary plots, their film writers indicate that humankind may actually be the real monsters, and that the survival of humans may depend on retaining compassion and moral purity in times of crisis.

The zombie parallel between Dawn of the Dead and Train to Busan doesn’t require repeating, and from first glance it is obvious that these zombie creatures are the primary “monsters of the movie”. In Dawn of the Dead zombies are slow, comedic, and retain some remnants of humanity -- as evidenced by Stephen remembering the location of the group’s mall hideout after zombie-fying. In Train to Busan, the zombies are infinitely more terrifying: they are fast moving, aggressively voracious, unaffected by human memories, and infection overtakes a victim within minutes. Neither movie attempts to portray zombies as “good” characters -- they are human flesh-eaters, after all -- but while the zombie role allows both films to craft a story of outbreak and chaos, it quickly becomes apparent that the real “monsters of the movie” are the humans themselves.

Dawn of the Dead plays to some movie archetypes by presenting a stereotypical motorcycle gang raid the mall where the four main characters, Stephen "Flyboy" Andrews, Peter Washington, Roger "Trooper" DeMarco (who has been reanimated and killed at this point), and Francine "Fran" Parker have been camped out. The motorcyclists shoot at both zombies and humans alike, loot, and generally cause unnecessary destruction, allowing zombies to enter the mall complex. In fact, their role in the mall shootout directly contributed to Stephen becoming trapped in an elevator shaft and overtaken by zombies. Filmmaker George A. Romero does not attempt to conceal the comparison between monstrous zombies and the heinous motorcycle riders -- during the mall looting scene, Dawn of the Dead continuously cuts between seconds-long scenes of raiders on their path of destruction and zombies also on a path of carnivorous destruction. This juxtaposition directly suggests that humans can be equivalently evil and monstrous as zombies.

Moreover, Dawn of the Dead extends the “people can be monstrous” message to “society can be monstrous”. The entire film can be interpreted as a social commentary about the downfalls of material culture, and how blind need to consume essentially transforms people into mindless zombies. The film’s four major characters find refuge in, of all places, a shopping mall. The Monroeville Mall where Dawn of the Dead was shot is significant not only because its name contains the word “evil” (which was probably an inadvertent indicator that it is a soul-sucking location), but also because it was constructed in a rural American farming town during the 1960’s when novelty shopping malls were becoming increasing popular and is a symbol of the rising role of consumerism during the era. It is very telling that amid a global apocalypse, Stephen, Peter, Roger, and Fran construct a surreal “ideal” lifestyle of wild consumption. During a crisis, they -- just like the motorcycle gang-- turn to material possessions, virtually abandoning other fundamental aspects of humanity. The characters fight the motorcycle gang to maintain their product filled lifestyle, but the irony of the human conflict is that none of the merchandise actually has value anymore. Essentially, all the characters have lived their lives and risked their lives for meaningless illusory concepts. Just like the zombies motivated solely by their desire to consume human flesh, Dawn of the Dead argues that society has too transformed people into one-track-minded consumerist zombies. Wealth appears to neither protect an individual from harm nor subject them to more harm: Dawn of the Dead depicts zombies of all socioeconomic statuses because people of all levels of wealth “buy in” literally and figuratively to the corrupting system of consumerism.

Train to Busan is also ripe with a similar opprobrium about societal structure, however in Train to Busan the focus is more about class differences than it is about consumerism alone. Director and screenwriter Yeon Sang-ho equates exploitation of the underprivileged with monstrosity. Hedge fund manager Seok Woo’s firm is revealed as the culprit of the zombie pathogen; the train to Busan becomes infected because passengers are too preoccupied with a homeless man to notice an infected woman eating another passenger; and rich COO Yon Suk and other train passengers abandon Seok Woo’s group, leading to Sang Hwa and In Gil’s death. The first two of these instances arise from preoccupation with financial gain and status, while the last is due to a distorted sense of self-importance remnant of Yon Suk’s high career position. The commentary within Train to Busan is more potent when given the Korean historical context: during the production of Train to Busan in 2016, Korean society was very much emotionally invested in the Sewol Ferry incident of 2014 whereby over 200 high school students drowned partially because the captain and crew told students to stay within their rooms while they themselves evacuated, and partially because the ferry company involved had illegally renovated the boat to save costs. It was a national tragedy that profoundly influenced director Yeon Sang-ho and contributed the the harsh judgement of selfish and financially driven individuals within Train to Busan.

Two characters within Train to Busan are particularly noteworthy for their monstrous acts. The more obviously monstrous role is Yon Suk, a rich C-level executive who mercilessly sacrifices others for self-preservation. Watching Yon Suk essentially murder character after character, especially the high-schooler Jin Hee, engenders the audience to despise him. His death scene is punitive (in-line with traditional apocalyptic canon) and reveals him to be a pathetically morally corrupt and selfish individual. It is very easy to classify this type of inconsiderate and opportunistic character to be wicked. The more complex classification is Jong Gil, the older of the two elderly sisters, who watches her sister In Gil transform into a zombie after being shut out of the train car by Yon Suk. Seemingly



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