A carefree summer of fun rapidly descends into a claustrophobic nightmare for the Johansson family when a mysterious virus hits their town and they end up quarantined inside their home.
Denmark is frequently ranked one of the happiest places in the world to live, but the residents of the town of Sorgenfri might disagree in new zombie flick What We Become.
The Johanssons are your typical nuclear family, living in an idyllic Danish suburb. Teenage son Gustav (Benjamon Engell) is rebellious and distant with his parents, though the arrival of a pretty girl moving in across the street cheers him up considerably. Youngest Maj is a sweet little girl, adored by loving parents Dino (Troels Lyby) and Pernille (Mille Dinesen), though Pernille is growing frustrated that Dino always leaves her to play the bad guy with the kids.
Their summer relaxation is cut short when reports of a terrible virus get uncomfortably close to home. Neighbours start getting sick, and suddenly there are armed soldiers in biohazard gear patrolling their street, demanding the residents stay inside their homes, and opening fire on anyone who tries to leave. Then the houses are sealed off in plastic, and all the family can do is sit tight and try to wait it out. That, and try not to think about what’s making those noises outside…
If you can get past the seizure-inducing opening title screen of What We Become, then settle in for a short and largely unadventurous ride through the hall of zombie movie clichés. It’s no secret that the zombie craze has just about run itself into the ground over the course of the last decade, but that grave is apparently still shallow enough to get dug up every couple of months for another scant offering. Sure, there are still some original thoughts to be squeezed out of the genre, but What We Become isn’t trying too hard to be different. There’s a little bit of Romero and a little bit of 28 Days Later in there, amongst other things, but the film is such a slave to the genre’s already painfully overused tropes that it fails to find its own voice along the way. This is writer/director Bo Mikkelsen’s first feature film, and while it is a well-shot flick with a nice score and creepy sound design, there’s no flair to set this apart from the hundreds of likeminded flicks that came before it. What made films like Romero’s Dead series so poignant was a bite of social commentary beneath the blood and gore, and What We Become is sorely lacking in that department. Which is a real shame, because there is commentary that could be made about Danish living which feels woefully underexplored.
The family drama angle held some promise, and there are a few turns in the relationships which work well under the extreme circumstances the family are put under. Gustav is exasperated by his father’s willingness to blindly accept what he is told by the government or on TV, and eventually breaks quarantine to find out the truth for himself. This is unfortunately one of the film’s stupider moments, with Gustav evading detection for an implausibly long time and only succeeding in releasing a crate full of zombies, for reasons known only to himself. More interesting is the character of his father Dino. You get the impression that in his middle-age, the family man has become comfortable just conforming and has grown weak as a result, and he struggles to cope when he forced to confront the harsh reality of being lied to by the military and needing to fend for himself.
However, even this angle is played far too safe. When the family is sealed inside their home, with black plastic obscuring all the doors and windows and soldiers in gas masks delivering food and water, you’d think that cabin fever would settle in and tensions run high as the family is forced to confront their issues. But it isn’t long before everybody is running around outside again with reckless abandon, pursued by the shambling Romero-style undead.
While the film does what it does quite well, helped in no small part by a solid cast, there isn’t a single idea on screen which feels new. Even a scene involving fireworks to distract zombies is recycled from 2005’s Land of the Dead. Around the third act, as our heroes nervously creep past the fenced backyards of their neighbourhood wielding baseball bats and shovels, it occurred to me what film the straight-faced What We Become most reminded me of – Shaun of the Dead. And that’s a real problem, because Shaun of the Dead came out twelve years ago and was expertly parodying a style which was clichéd even then.
What We Become is the first zombie apocalypse flick to come out of Denmark, and it comes across as though the already played-out epidemic has just taken a decade to reach them. If you enjoy a bit of brainless zombie fare, you could certainly do worse, but don’t expect any surprises. This is about as fresh as the corpses banging on the door.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)