Stars: Mille Dinesen, Marie Hammer Boda, Ole Dupont, Troels Lyby, Mikael Birkkjær, Benjamin Engell, Therese Damsgaard, Ella Solgaard, Rita Angela, Diana Axelsen | Written and Directed by Bo Mikkelsen
The best zombie movies – and TV shows, in the case of The Walking Dead – understand that the most interesting thing about the arrival of flesh-eaters isn’t the monsters themselves, but rather the very human drama that they bring to the surface of any given situation. They were once us, and one wrong move can turn us into them, and if that’s not the recipe for a horror story loaded with all kinds of drama, I’m not sure what is. Though not nearly on the level of either George Romero’s classics or AMC’s hit series, Denmark’s very first zombie film at least seems to have some understanding of what makes them so good.
Written and directed by Bo Mikkelsen, What We Become centers on a family trapped in their suburban home in the wake of some very strange goings-on – not the least of which is a dead dude disappearing. As it turns out, a particularly nasty virus is spreading through their town, and armed guards positioned outside their home ensure that they won’t be leaving anytime soon. The whole neighborhood is on lock-down, and as the family eventually realizes, not all their neighbors are who they used to be.
Non-spoiler: some of them are zombies.
There’s something immediately refreshing about how understated What We Become is, and it’s quickly clear that Mikkelsen isn’t interested in the sort of nonstop carnage that many zombie movies are in a rush to revel in. The film wastes very little time getting to the point where the apocalypse has begun, but it’s so restrained in the zombie department that even when we know they’re around, we don’t actually see them. And very much by design on Mikkelsen’s part, neither do the characters.
In an effective little touch that forces the characters to figure out what’s going on using only their ears, the armed guards outside completely cover their homes with black tarps so thick so that no light could possibly hope to get through, and for much of the film, the zombies remain hidden behind those tarps. In fact, it’s a full hour before we really get a good look at a single flesh-eater, and by that point, the 80-minute movie is almost over. Though that may be a bummer if you’re the kind of viewer who’s looking for gory action, the film is actually at its best when the zombies are nowhere to be seen.
Trapping us inside with father Dino, mother Pernille, teenage son Gustav and young daughter Maj – and eventually, a few of their friends – Mikkelsen gives us a chance to get to know his main characters, and it’s always nice to see a horror film that’s in no immediate rush to spill blood. Unfortunately, even though much of the film is spent hanging around with those characters and waiting for the inevitable to happen, their development is so lacking that those big dramatic payoffs end up having little to no bite. Nor does the movie as a whole, as there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen many times before.
What makes What We Become initially intriguing is that Mikkelsen keeps secrets from us, but while he seems to be promising that whatever’s going on outside isn’t the typical zombie apocalypse, the last 20-minutes of the film are exactly that. To his team’s credit, the zombie makeup is classically creepy rather than over-the-top, which I always appreciate here in the present day, and the film is nothing if not well made, but all that technical competence becomes almost frustrating when you realize Mikkelsen isn’t interested in defying any expectations or putting his own stamp on the world of zombie cinema.
While homegrown zombie films may be something new over in Denmark, that doesn’t change the fact that the sub-genre has over the years been run into the ground, dug up, and then run straight back into the ground, and What We Become does so little to set itself apart from the pack that it comes off like Bo Mikkelsen’s attempt to simply give his home country a halfway decent zombie movie to call its own. And it is totally decent, but it’s also instantly forgettable and completely lacking any sort of identity.
You’ve already seen this one before you even hit play.