Maybe recognizing the over-saturation of zombie apocalypses in pop culture, Bo Mikkelsen’s What We Become transcends the horror subgenre’s frenetic stalk-and-chase tropes by shuffling the creatures off screen for most of its running time, lingering vividly on intimate details of social unrest. Mikkelsen seizes on an astute resonance, likening a proliferation of zombies to just another casually terrifying story that we read or watch on the news with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. As Western civilians, we often watch the news and wonder when the atrocities will finally reach us.
In the film, a cluster of upper-middle-class Danish families watch news reports of a spreading disease. The usual horror-movie luridness is mostly omitted for a long stretch, as Mikkelsen captures the calculated banality of programs that deliver updates on the world in a fashion designed not to rile up viewers. There are no references in this news footage to, say, the dead rising up to prey on the living. We see medical bureaucrats trying to soft-soap just how little they know about what’s happening. Guides for washing hands are offered. These professionals could easily be discussing Ebola.
Gradually, Mikkelsen escalates the narrative with a disarming sense of inevitability. SWAT teams outfitted from head to toe in black armor and automatic weapons storm the neighborhoods of the protagonists, ordering them to dispose of their trash in a certain manner, while forcing them to open their mouths for signs of infection. These scenes recall George Romero’s The Crazies, only with a greater emphasis placed on the suburbanites in peril. (Images of houses as they’re covered in black tarp also bring to mind a significant scene in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial) Watching the film, one likes and relates to the characters enough to feel compelled to reassure themselves in a manner that directly parallels how we often process the news, indulging sentiments along the lines of “These folks will be okay” or “This will work itself out.” Despite ample evidence to the contrary.
The sequences in which a government cordons off a problematic outskirt are scary for their casualness, for the simultaneous looseness and sharpness of the framing, which asserts how quickly we become inured to violence, provided that we’re undisturbed. Soldiers are often in the background of images, as characters go about their days. A little girl’s blooming fear of death is greeted by her mother with a heartbreaking sense of denial; the woman wants her little girl to remain un-cheated of innocence, right up to her own death in the child’s arms. Fleeting nuances attain significant gravity, such as the disappearance of a family pet as food supplies shorten.
When Mikkelsen springs his traditional yet cathartic climax, in which infected corpses run roughshod over the intimate communal setting, terrorizing what’s left of the ensemble, it’s earned because the violence matters truly as violation, as we grasp the subtleties of this ecosystem’s existence. We feel as if we’ve been privy to the entire devolutionary process of a society as it collapses, eating itself alive. And the final minutes achieve a primal grandeur that brings to mind the familial tragedy of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.