Before I even get into the briefest of plot setups for WHAT WE BECOME, it is only fair that I acknowledge that the film is on well-trod ground. Not only is it a plague-turns-people-into-zombies movie, it also plunges into areas regarding martial law, the government using the media to create and spread misinformation, and stuffs it all into the framework of a claustrophobic family drama. In other words, like every zombie film since 1968, it has George A. Romero’s fingerprints all over it. But unlike a lot of those pale retreads, the film is actually a solid riff on the undisputed zombie master’s films.
A vaguely unhappy Danish family lives in a pleasant suburb that sits on a lake. Dino (Troels Lyby) is the inattentive father and husband, Pernille (Mille Dinesen) is the frustrated wife and mother, Gustav (Benjamin Engell) is the sullen teenage son, and Maj (Ella Solgaard) is the pleasant grade school age daughter who balances out her older brother’s moodiness. Despite living in a nice home in what looks like lovely town, there are clearly tensions among the family. Dino can barely be bothered to talk to Pernille or his children, preferring instead to hang out with his friend Casper (Mikael Birkkjær) and his younger girlfriend Anna (Therese Damsgaard). Gustav refuses to interact with his parents, preferring instead to moon over Sonja (Marie Boda), the pretty new girl next door. Maj spends most of her time taking care of her pet rabbit and worrying that Pernille will die before her.
Despite the film’s lean 81-minute running time, writer/director Bo Mikkelsen takes his time setting up the lazy Summer day feel of the town, the simmering resentments between Pernille and Dino, and Gustav’s crush on Sonja. When the plot starts edging into horror territory, it does so gradually enough to allow the character beats to still register. While not all of the character building pays off down the line, it is a welcome change of pace to have characters the audience relates to and cares about when bad things start happening to them.
Next to the character building, not rushing headlong into the apocalyptic zombie storyline is the smartest thing that Mikkelsen does. Things start small (a report of an isolated virus outbreak on the news, a confused old woman who believes her husband was laying dead in front of the TV — but was then missing) before building to a point where the military is marching down the streets of the quiet town, decked out in respirators and holding automatic weapons. Even then, WHAT WE BECOME takes its time. Dino and his family stay indoors as they are instructed by their government, watch news broadcasts where experts talk about treatment centers set up for the “infected,” and dutifully go through daily check ups to make sure they are not sick. Dino believes that not panicking and trying to flee their quarantine zone will save not only their lives but also the lives of others. Gustav is not so sure, but still listens to his father.
But as anyone who has seen THE CRAZIES or DAWN OF THE DEAD understands, martial law cannot contain a doomsday virus. Order eventually breaks down and Dino and Pernille find themselves having to make tough decisions that go against their decent natures. From there, things progress as darkly as you would expect from a film in a genre that is known for unhappy endings.
What is admirable about WHAT WE BECOME and sets it apart from literally hundreds of other zombie films over the last decade is that it holds off for so long before actually becoming a zombie film. Mikkelsen concentrates on the family, the growing sense of desperation as the martial law becomes more restrictive, and how those restrictions makes people more likely to revolt. This last idea is presented in the best sequence of the film as Gustav sneaks out of the house and discovers the soldiers are not taking infected people to treatment centers — they are killing them by the hundreds.
Even the discovery of people being systematically killed by the government is kept as low-key as possible with most of the dead bodies kept just out of view and the sounds of infected people banging about inside the backs of cargo trucks. When these people eventually get free, the aftermath is more heard than seen. Shots are fired, soldiers shout, tires burn rubber, and engines race as the soldiers abandon their posts. But this is all implied more than seen. While this less-is-more attitude is probably born just as much from a low budget, it also heightens the disorientation of the characters that still do not have all the information at their disposal. The panic and fear leads to bad decisions that are more believable because they do not have all the information right in front of their eyes.
It really is not until the final twenty minutes of the film that it takes a turn for the routine. Even then, Mikkelsen shows real skill in shooting and editing zombie mayhem for maximum suspense. Aided by the crisp cinematography of Adam Philp and a doom laden Carpenter-esque score by Martin Pedersen, Mikkelsen shows real chops for graphic horror. It is too bad that he could not come up with a unique spin on the traditional zombie film third act. But even with the film ending on something of a let down, Mikkelsen remains an international genre talent to watch out for.
Scream Factory has given WHAT WE BECOME a pretty barebones Blu-ray and DVD release with the trailer as the only extra. Despite the lack of supplements, the film looks amazing with Philp’s stellar work shining through in both the harsh sunlight of the daytime scenes and the moody, shadowy nighttime world through which Gustav travels to make his discoveries. This is a great looking film that does not suffer from any of the issues that occasionally plague low-budget films in this still relatively new digital age.
WHAT WE BECOME is available from Scream Factory and IFC Midnight on Tuesday, October 18th.