While What We Become might be Denmark’s first post-apocalyptic zombie thriller, horror fans are quite familiar with the overplayed subgenre. Think of Bo Mikkelsen’s feature debut as a shrunken-down, more contained version of The Walking Dead, as viewers helplessly watch humanity devolve into chaos and destruction (once again). The Crazies, 28 Days Later, Romero’s Dead series – Mikkelsen charts doomsday waters that have been previously explored by many films before, which audiences will immediately recognize. With every horror director and their mother trying to navigate the zombie apocalypse, you need a differentiating “WOW” factor to stand apart from the pack. Mikkelsen tries, and proves to run a tight narrative, but it’s everything we’ve seen before, except for a new, peachy locale.
Told from the perspective of a cheery suburban household, What We Become follows an infectious flu-like virus that overtakes a small, model town. Everything starts innocently enough, with a dead body turning up here or there, but then the government gets involved and paranoia sets in. Pernille (Mille Dinesen) and Dino (Troels Lyby) try to protect their children by obeying the government’s rules, which scare young Maj (Ella Solgaard) and frustrate the older Gustav (Benjamin Engell). Gunshots and alarming noises can be heard outside, as plastic tarps prevent civilians from seeing what’s truly going on. Everyone assumes announced procedures will keep them safe, but after Gustav sneaks out one night, his report doesn’t inspire hope, only certain destruction.
There are many worse zombie excursions than What We Become, and Mikkelsen ponders all the right apocalyptic dilemmas. There’s the crushing isolation of quarantine, the unknown torment of governmental lies and familial heartbreak when you’re asked to do the unthinkable. A breezy screenplay goes from daytime drama niceties to a blood-soaked societal nightmare, but at no time do we feel a pressing sense of intrigue while exploring traumas that have been exposed more than once before. Mikkelsen nails his film’s execution, but can’t seem to drum up ideas that are worth yet another torturous look into unexpected captivity.
From Gustav’s pervy spy tactics when peering into Sonja’s (Marie Hammer Boda) bedroom to easy contention points spotted in Mikkelsen’s storytelling, What We Become simply glides through the expected motions. Characters are dumb enough to ignore festering wounds on loved ones, Gustav lashes out against every rule, and – here’s my biggest pet peeve – everyone acts like zombies are a monster never once introduced to modern culture. I mean, do none of these houses get basic cable?! Can we stop acting like horror movie characters have never once watched a genre film in their lives?
When gore becomes a part of the show, there are a few solid bouts of squishy, throat-ripping grossness. Yet, a large part of What We Become focuses solely on family dynamics and how each character deals with their caged fate. Gustav – representing the teenage rebel demographic – fights the powers that be, while Dino’s submissive nature parallel’s with a “life too ordinary” before zombies start tearing people apart. Most personalities find some kind of evolution as Mikkelsen thrusts his characters deeper into Hell, but, again, nothing drastically provocative ever dares to break the mold. Genre complacency might be enough for some less learned thriller-watchers, but die-hards won’t find much substance to chew on in this dangerous tale.
There’s a big difference between making a zombie movie and shaking up the genre, and What We Become is an excellent example of the former. Mikkelsen strives for complicated character dissections and enhanced fears over brutal zombie attacks, but in doing so, the filmmaker follows a calculated path like so many other hopeful zombie dramas that have come before. But who knows? Maybe my judgement is a little harsh because I’m watching similar titles every other week it seems. If you’re a fresher fan who thinks The Walking Dead is a zombie goldmine, try What We Become on for size. Just don’t expected a defining horror watch and you should be fine.
What We Become will impress less learned zombie fans, but those expecting something groundbreaking should try their luck elsewhere.