Back in February, I watched death come to a quiet Danish suburb in the surprisingly effective small-scale zombie flick ‘What We Become’. The film follows two families locked inside their homes and the majority of the drama takes place on one street, a neighboring school, and a park.
The premise is straightforward. It doesn’t attempt to bend or remix a genre that over the past ten years has been forced into a blender and served as every conceivable horror/comedy/romance/coming-of-age cocktail imaginable. I was surprised, therefore, that while watching ‘Become’ I was immediately engrossed despite no real hook or action taking place for almost forty minutes.
It’s because we got to know the characters, their family dynamics and what they wanted out of their lives prior to the infectious outbreak. Normally we have only a few moments, an afternoon or day if we’re lucky, to see our protagonists in their normal state before the streets are overrun with the undead.
In the case of ’28 Days Later’, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘The Walking Dead’, we don’t really get to see it at all.
Now, I am a fan, more or less, of the post-apocalyptic zombie movie. It can be a treat discovering a war-torn world through the eyes of characters who’ve already seen their shit, or are about to discover the horror like a bomb dropped on them.
However, to me it was such a pleasant change of pace to see a frightened family struggle with the early stages of what was going on, and not in the immediate, frenzied manner that Brad Pitt and his cardboard wife and kids endured in ‘World War Z’. The tension got to build, not simply explode.
By focusing on the human drama first, ‘Become’ gave us reason to actually care about our characters while keeping the zombies a looming, unpredictable threat. This allows the bickering of neighbors to become heightened and relatable rather than just an unbelievable melodramatic mess.
Most recently, the internet has gone crazy surrounding ‘the Walking Dead’s’ controversial season six ending. I must admit, I don’t care. I stopped reading the comic years ago and gave up on the show after its first season (only seeing a few episodes here and there since). I was turned off because I shamelessly love my zombies to shuffle with some camp in their steps, and I’ve become increasingly tired of the way that the undead almost instantly became irrelevant once other survivors become the villains. Frankly I find this boring and overly cynical. To me it betrays the point of having brain-dead, flesh-eating monsters in the first place.
In ‘What We Become’, other humans are the first threat level, rather than the end game. Once media reports begin pouring in with bad news faceless government agents take to sealing homes in tarps and putting up road blocks, all without telling the simple folk of suburbia what’s happening to their idyllic paradise. It doesn’t take long before a little teenage angst ruins the government’s plans and we’re treated to a third act where the zombies finally break loose.
Rather than have the ghouls apparent throughout the film as something that initially startles our protagonists, but eventually does little more than keep them moving from location to location, our point of view is boxed in from the beginning and there is soon little to no hope of escaping.
In short, the zombie rule and not just in the opening scene. By keeping the true horror out of the picture for a moment, I was reminded that human drama when properly set up can be gripping enough without gore, and that gore is nothing without properly set-up human drama. If there isn’t something to lose, then it doesn’t matter how much blood is spilt.
So horror writers, keep it focused, keep it personal, wait to show the creatures and when it is time to go for the jugular, leave no survivors.
What are some of your favorite ‘slow-burn’ horror movies. Do you prefer to be dropped into the action? Let me know in the comments.
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