When What We Become debuted at Fantastic Fest in 2015, the threat of a major pandemic that forced even affluent people into quarantine was still theoretical. Now, over a year after COVID-19 surfaced, this Danish zombie movie feels more like a product of the current moment than many other movies filmed and released during the crisis. The most unsettling bit is the first half, as we try to watch the plague spread throughout the Copenhagen neighborhood Sorgenfri — seen through the eyes of a family who rely on deception as a coping strategy, turned into wards of a government that does the same.
Almost every zombie film has a character who gets bitten and then keeps it a secret, but few lean so heavily into duplicity and denial as an organizing theme. You can trace each escalation in the plot back to someone being dishonest. Just as the Danish government does their best to convince everyone things are under control (they’re not), parents Dino and Pernille try to protect their young daughter Maj from any awareness that anything particularly scary is going on. Even when the food deliveries stop and the family eats pet rabbit Ninos, they tell Maj that it has run away. This inspires Maj to sneak out and into the zombie-infested streets. Does she know there are zombies? Maybe not. It’s not like her parents tell her anything.
Similarly, the Danish government progresses from manipulating the media to literally covering each building in plastic-wrap — ostensibly to keep people quarantined, but also so no one can see the mass roundups and executions of the infected.
At some point, as I guess you must in any zombie movie, civilization collapses and the residents of Sorgenfri must fend for themselves. Here the movie feels more familiar as the neighborhood bands together for mutual survival. The effort goes rather less well than expected.
What We Become moves at a deliberate pace that manages not to descend into being plodding. This puts it a step above the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, even if it shares a lot of the same tone. It suffers perhaps from being a straight, thoughtful drama with characters that stay firmly rooted in types. While in more genre-focused films this can leave a movie feeling tired or dull, in this one the result is preachy. Giving the film a very on-the-nose English title feels a bit like drawing a bunch of circles and arrows around the theme. On the other hand, the original Danish title, Sorgenfri, gives far too little away. Zombies? Romantic comedy? Spy thriller? Who knows? I’d say it averages out, but movie titles don’t work that way.
A special thank you to my friend, Joshua Young, for suggesting this film. Josh and his family document their (so-far) zombie-free life in Denmark on their Youtube channel Travelin’ Young.