Handling The Undead


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Handling The Undead
"Hvistendahl and her cast have a very strong sense of the emotional weight of the piece." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Handling The Undead may be the most depressing zombie movie of all time. Sure, many a horror film has depicted gruesome deaths, desperate actions and humankind’s capacity for depravity, but Thea Hvistendahl’s work is about something more personal and unavoidable: the difficulty of parting with the memory of our dead nearest and dearest. In this case, the undead loved ones’ remains are physically present, rather than simply gone. As you might predict, that doesn’t make things easier. Composer Peter Raeburn put it succinctly after the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, saying the filmmakers didn’t want to fall into horror, but very much wanted to create a sense of “throbbing terror”.

The film intercuts three different stories, each with loved ones in a different stage of grieving. Anna (Renate Reinsve) and her father (Bjørn Sundquist) have had the most time to deal with the death of their young son, who was recently buried, but are still living in the aftermath of tragedy. Her father keeps trying to engage with her and make her dinner, but she merely goes about her boring food prep job and comes hope in misery without an appetite.

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Tora (Bente Børsum) has a slightly fresher corpse in her dead partner (Olga Damani), who arrives back at the house after Tora says goodby to her corpse at the funeral parlour. She apparently had enough memory — muscle or otherwise — to find her way home, but Tora’s joy for the reunion becomes tempered as the love of the past feels like a distant facsimile.

David, played by Anders Danielsen Lie (reuniting with The Worst Person in the World co-star Reinsve as a cast member without actually sharing any scenes with her), perhaps has it worst of all. His wife dies in a car accident practically in sync with the occurrence that raises the dead, so he and his children never had any sense that she died, just that she was dead on the operating table and was somehow alive when David went to see her corpse. Completely understandably, the medical professionals don’t really know what to tell him, and he doesn’t know what to tell his kids.

While there might be signs of potential threats and troubling moments, the zombies don’t immediately appear malicious or dangerous (nor is the film going for a slow build to extreme violence). Our heroes don’t know what they want or how to help them, and neither does the audience. We end up with plenty of time to contemplate what it means to love someone and lose them, and how the physical connection compares to a connection between souls — whatever those may be.

This is the first feature by Norwegian writer/director Hvistendahl, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel. Hvistendahl and her cast have a very strong sense of the emotional weight of the piece, be it Reinsve showing the grief of a mother or Børsum showing Tora’s tender affection for her significant other. The director also shows a knack for building a story, allowing us to get a sense of the characters’ lives before the undead rise, and letting us learn details through observation rather than exposition. Her most virtuosic moment is the one in which the dead are given life again, seen in a swirling montage capturing oddities in nature and in electrics gone haywire.

The undead don’t talk at all, and the living stay pretty quiet most of the time as well, so the film makes great use of Nils Viken’s dynamic sound design and Raeburn’s score, which won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award at Sundance. The often spare music features ominous bass tones that mingle with the quiet ambient sound, punctuated by loud noises and dramatic orchestral cues. The overall effect amplifies the terrifying, suspenseful visuals that appear on screen.

There’s an argument to be made that Handling The Undead won’t appeal to a particularly wide audience. People who want to watch a zombie movie probably want a bit more action, maybe some good brain-eating. Those looking for a movie about the death of loved ones might opt for a stately drama. But if you’re willing to open yourself up to this very odd yet very moving meditation on death, you might just find yourself sympathising with someone who has been dead for weeks.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2024
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On a hot summer day in Oslo, the newly dead awaken. Three families faced with loss try to figure out what this resurrection means and if their loved ones really are back.

Director: Thea Hvistendahl

Writer: Thea Hvistendahl, John Ajvide Lindqvist

Starring: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bjørn Sundquist, Bahar Pars, Bente Børsum, Olga Damani, Jan Hrynkiewicz, Inesa Dauksta, Kian Hansen

Year: 2024

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Sweden, Norway, Greece


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