Over the last couple of decades, the zombie film has assumed a can’t-fail commerciality in the horror genre. Like most horror archetypes, there are only so many ways to tell such a tale so the filmmaker’s best course of action is to find an interesting angle on the familiar.
That brings us to What We Become, a recent Danish addition to the zombie subgenre. Its plotline is built around a family: alpha mom Pernille (Mille Dinesen), absent-minded but kind dad Dino (Troels Lyby), moody teenage son Gustav (Benjamin Engell) and naive, protected daughter Maj (Ella Solgaard). They seem to lead an idyllic life in the kind of suburb where everyone has cookouts together on the weekend.
But suddenly strange reports crop on the news about some sort of outbreak of a contagion. In short order, a military presence begins quarantining the locals in their home and taking away those who have suddenly become sick. As the soldiers get more brutal and repressive, the parents try to hold on to a semblance of normality… but nosy and rebellious Gustav discovers that the soldiers are actually killing the infected, who otherwise become zombies. Before the story ends, everyone’s sense of civility will be shattered as survival grows less likely with each day.
What We Become pulls most of its punches in the horror genre sense until the final twenty minutes – and this actually works in its favor. Writer/director Bo Mikkelson takes the film’s first act to get us steeped in the family’s everyday life then spends the rest of the film methodically dismantling that life and its attendant sense of safety/comfort. The focus on the strain of sanity and familial bonds gives the more familiar zombie/contagion elements a new strength by handling them obliquely.
This slow-burn approach also gives Mikkelson a chance to comment on how fragile civilization is: the family’s docility in the face of a shutdown and their slow, ultimately desperate awakening feels more realistic than most of us would like to admit. The third act’s onslaught of marauding zombies and tense showdowns is familiar stuff but it gets an extra bit of dramatic power because the audience has had time to invest in the characters as people outside the mechanics of horror storytelling. Thus, when they make terrible mistakes or risky choices, the feeling of those moments is more viscerally emotional than usual.
In short, What We Become offers an interesting, dramatically-focused variation on the usual zombie flick thrills. It might not reinvent the wheel in plotting or conceptual terms but its low-key, personalized approach is likely to linger in the memory.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory has released this IFC Midnight pickup in a blu-ray/DVD combo set. The transfer is nice and sharp and the 5.1 and 2.0 lossless Danish sound mixes (with English subs) offer crisp, professional sound design. The one extra is a trailer.