I’m on the London overground heading home from Rich Mix cinema where I’ve been brutalised by Danish zombie horror “What We Become”, part of the Cult strand at this year’s London Film Festival.
I think I feel worse than I did when walking out of the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, and I was pretty defeated then. If anything, Bo Mikkelsen’s more domestic, more claustrophobic take on the standard of isolated, quarantined survivors (are they sick? are they healthy?) is ultimately more upsetting, more effective.
It starts with the presence of Borgen (and The Killing)’s Mikael Birkkjær. He’s at a barbecue, having a beer with some mates; how bad can this get ? Pretty soon though, you’re wondering how our old mate Phillip Christensen got mixed up in this messed-up shit. He should be getting back together with Birgitte Nyborg, not fighting off zombies through black-tarpaulined meat lockers…
But the fact is that the secret is in getting us, the audience, to root for the protagonists, however doomed they are (and I’m not going to tell you what, if anything, is coming for whom). And Mikkelsen achieves that. His principal weapon in that regard is not the recognisable Birkkjær, but the unshaven, casually-dressed, easygoing everyman Troels Lyby, in residence at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix tonight (and seeing the finished film for the first time !).
We’re presented with a standard domestic family: idyllic in reality although the early exchanges gently play on the everyday challenges of hanging up of discarded clothes and playing too many computer games. And we can all relate – aspire? – to that level of prosperity and calm, where the greatest worry is a teenage son with the mildest of rebellious streaks.
Of course this is all rich comparison-making soil, fertile ground for planting those doom-bearing seeds. We all know it’s going to go to rats from the moment that beautiful Gustav comes home from the lake to see beautiful Sonja. Telling, casual, throwaway lines set the scene, but there’s no rush to deliver. First the random, small-time events, then the CBRN suits, then the strange noises, bright lights and gunshots.
But that’s not to suggest that the film is any less worthwhile or enjoyable because we know (at least some of) what’s coming. That’s the secret of Greek tragedy right? And that’s been working for centuries.
This film works well within the genre because it doesn’t betray its setting or set its sights on too high a concept, staying resolutely small-time and situating all of its action within the ken of its main characters, penned-in and information-starved as they are by faceless, distant authorities.
In addition to the drama wrought by placing believable people in the midst of awful situations and watching their behaviour, Mikkelsen also delivers through sounds and image: quiet/loud contrast is used sparingly and to jump-in-the-seat effect (the credits !); blood occasionally spatters but attacks mainly occur just off screen; and the beautiful Danish summer and countryside is played off against the suburban maze, family cars and attire against military hardware.
For those lucky enough to have a ticket for Friday night’s Film Festival repeat, hold tight, brace hearts, and get ready to hide behind hands.