The world’s first inter-city railway line was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in England (guess which cities it connected), which opened on September 15, 1830. It was the first railway to be entirely double-track (allowing two trains running opposite directions), the first to use a full signaling system and the first to be fully timetabled. It was also the first railway to kill a human being, with the locomotive Northumbrian running over Liverpool Member of Parliament William Huskisson on September 15, 1830. The world’s first proper railway only lasted a handful of hours before taking a life.
Even if there’s not an unbreakable link between locomotives and violence, cinema has certainly acted like there was. Film producers must have seen the hysterical reaction to the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (something that definitely, probably happened) and assumed that the larger the threat of violence, the better a train-set film would be. With the Japan-set, assassin brawler Bullet Train speeding onto screens this week, it’s time to find out which boxcars can box, which tank engines are tanks and which Southern Pacific GE Dash 9-44CW diesel-electrics have a greater-than-average propensity for violence.
Here are the 10 most violent train films, ranked by brutality:
There’s been a terrible murder on the big expensive train of aristocrats! But wait, one or more of them may be hiding a terrible secret… It’s shocking seeing the quality difference between Sidney Lumet and Kenneth Branagh’s version of this story, even if neither of them are particularly great. This film stands out because the central and solitary act of violence—concerning a many-stabbed gangster—is so shocking in isolation that it causes everyone to submit to questioning and agree to see it solved. Such prissy decorum wouldn’t stand on some of our higher entries—imagining explaining to Snowpiercer’s revolutionaries that everybody stopped in shock of one violent transgression. Let the rich bleed, I say.
When Reverend Wilbert Awdry imagined Thomas the cheeky, blue tank engine and his helpful, equally expressive train friends in 1945, he probably couldn’t picture the titanic popularity, global reach and merchandising extravaganza his creations would enjoy (resulting in a painfully unfunny running joke in Bullet Train)—probably because he was too focused on instilling conservative messages of rural tranquility, preaching obedience to authority and infantilizing the laborer to keep them ignorant of said authority’s dependence on their labor. Somewhere along the 55 year journey, Thomas’ traditionalist British values were transplanted to a twee, folksy American setting, and Thomas and the Magic Railroad was born. If you’re not bored to tears by all the live-action Peter Fonda/Mara Wilson subplots, you’ll witness Thomas and amici being terrorized by Diesel 10, a snarling, venomous train with a claw with which he tears down buildings and threatens engines’ lives. It proved terrifying for a generation of kids used to the cheery escapades of colorful engines—one of the appeals of Thomas and Friends was the stakes rarely amounting to mortal peril.
The violence in the original New York subway hijacking film was mostly in threat. There were a few spurts of submachine gun fire from the trigger-happy hijacker Mr. Gray, but thanks to the collected, inflexible lead abductor Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), the body count remained pretty low. Riding a subway train in the mid-’70s was anxiety-inducing enough in the best of times. It’s unimaginable to think what it would be like with four automatic weapons trained on you. The ‘09 remake tries to update the original’s unflashiness with jarring shutter speeds, an unhinged John Travolta performance, a troubled backstory for its transit official character—not to mention more bloodshed. But while more bullets fly, more blood is spilt and more bodies are scattered in the remake, it misses out on the greatest thing about the original train-taking caper: It was the most aggressively ‘70s action film ever made.
If ‘80s slasher movies made one fatal flaw (apart from mostly being intolerably boring), it’s making most of their plots revolve around a mystery killer. The problem with making your audience guess which of your cast is the murderer is that it’s really hard to do when all your characters are all worthless, underwritten and completely uninteresting. Cue the third (and worst) of three 1980 Jamie Lee Curtis horror movies: It’s Halloween on a train, it’s And Then There Were None on a train, it’s one of those movies where teenage pranksters have a terrible, gruesome revenge wreaked upon them…on a train. It has a pretty healthy body count, but the only lasting effect Terror Train has on the brain is one of foggy confusion, as you try to work out why college grads were partying on rails, why David Copperfield was in it as a magician entertainer, why there was a magician at a college graduation party, why everyone was super into said magician’s performance…to be honest, a lot of that confusion is related to magic. Plenty of bodies tumble out of confined spaces, but is it too much to ask for the killer chasing a victim the entire length of the train, hopping from one carriage to another, with people intermittently opening doors to slam into the killer’s face? It practically writes itself!
If this was my action star vehicle, I would be embarrassed. Apparently the naval vessel-set escapades of Under Siege weren’t enough for legendary asshole and void of personality Steven Seagal, more means of transport had to be Die Hard-ed for his lackluster, irritating and charisma-less style of action. Sure, the train is hijacked by an array prestige television actors-Twin Peaks’ Everett McGill, Succession’s Eric Bogosian, Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks—but it’s difficult to get onboard with a film that pulls every editing trick out of the book to make its star not look like a lumbering dead weight. Footage is sped up and slowed down for non-existent impact, stuntmen are shot from every angle possible and the infinite spray of bullets seems to dissipate in midair the second they veer near our hero. That said, regardless of its quality, it’s impossible to ignore the sheer amount of violence that happens on the train, and there’s a titanic train-on-train collision to cap things off. Matt Reeves also co-wrote the screenplay, meaning it’s possible The Batman scribe was responsible for a mercenary calling a toddler a bitch.
David Leitch’s latest foray into annoying action fare is seemingly unaware how firmly the action-on-a-train rails have been laid before. How else could such slop be so smugly shoveled to us? Paper-thin characters with quirky traits say lines delivered straight from the “Uh, so that happened,” dialogue factory, as a bullet train hurtles from Tokyo to Kyoto, with no-one involved doing the decent thing and playing the Phoebe Bridgers song on the soundtrack. Leitch is a more-than-decent choreographer of action, and thankfully the characters largely shut up whenever they’re throwing punches—plus we get a fair amount of action beats and setpieces using the Japan-specific train: Its doors only open for a minute at platforms; a smart toilet, turns out, is great for disposing of a snake. It’s also great to see a film where not one character wants to stay on the train, but are forced to for hitman-adjacent reasons. Awful for people who hate rolling their eyes every minute, marginally better for Japanese commuter train enthusiasts.
Mon dieu! The horror, the sheer horror! Détourner les yeux, my fellow French citizens, for those fraternal masters of trickery, the Lumières, have concocted a godless horror to terrorize the soul! Picture this (please, a thousand apologies for this unfortunate wordplay!): The rails leading into the quiet station at La Ciotat. You think you are enjoying a quaint, simple photograph, but soon you will doubt your own eyes as a locomotive appears in the distance, growing larger. Closer! (Non, c’est impossible!) That’s right, you will watch a train hurtling towards you, an innocent onlooker, ready to burst from the screen in front of you and trample you where you stand! The Lumières have created the most barbaric of inventions—an optical illusion that threatens, in fact promises violence on its own audience. Only God can forgive such an iconographical transgression!
This is one of those films that I saw as a teenager, thought it was awesome, then rewatched it as an adult and thought it was awesome for a whole new set of reasons. Blockbuster genre fare with a rich thematic undercurrent, Bong Joon Ho’s English-language debut teams up Chris Evans (in his best performance) with Song Kang Ho (reunited with his daughter from The Host, Ko Asung) to take on an eco-fascist elite commanding the only source of life on a frozen earth: The eternal engine powering a perpetually moving train. Bong does a great job bringing to life the urgent brutality of his revolutionaries—these are people only concerned with moving forward, a priority as singular and relentless as the train’s trajectory. The most memorable skirmish comes in a melee fight lit first by blown-out windows, then only by night-vision goggles. Apparently, you do not want to get into a fight with anyone who guts a fish before battle.
Like Snowpiercer, this South Korean zombie film is not about a train being used to commit violence, but about passengers tearing the train apart from the inside. A zombie infection runs rampant through a standard cross-country journey from Seoul to Busan, putting the vast array of passengers in the one place you don’t want to be with zombies: A confined space. Yeon Sang-Ho mixes up classic zombie tropes with all the narrow hallway, cramped compartment, and irate passenger drama one gets from a train thriller. So many great zombie performances, so many clever ways of outsmarting them—but the body count and neck-gnawing are off the charts. Probably the single deadliest cinematic train journey to date!
What happens when you cross J-horror, Clive Barker and a pre-Hangover Bradley Cooper? You get a film equally indebted to the ultraviolence of East Asian cinema and the seediness of ‘80s backstreet American B-horror. Things get a little confused with psychological unraveling, a commentary on the photography arts world and subway systems built atop ancient evil—a strange concoction even before you throw in Ted Raimi’s eyes popping out the front of his skull. It all adds up to an interesting mess of a film, where the blunt, chrome instruments wielded by Vinnie Jones’ MMM (Midnight Meat Man) pave the way for a exuberantly violent subterranean ride. Skulls are caved, heads severed, a demonic undergrowth tearing flesh clean off corpses—were it not for the lurid indulgence in embarrassing CGI gore, Midnight Meat Train would probably be more fondly remembered. Still, this is probably the most disgusting the interiors of metropolitan subway cars have ever been (don’t cite me on this easily disproved claim). I honestly can’t be sure if I’m giving this the top spot because I saw the poster as a child and was terrified of the film I imagined it was in my head, or now feel victorious as I realize it’s laughable.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.