'Handling the Undead' Is a Whole New Type of Zombie Film

Directed by Thea Hvistendahl

Starring Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bjørn Sundquist, Bahar Pars, Bente Børsum, lga Damai

Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures

BY Marie SaadehPublished May 31, 2024


In an early scene in Handling the Undead, we see a teenager ignoring their mother while playing a zombie video game. Of course, along with the title, this sets us up to predict the kind of tropey zombie horror we might be about to experience, but director Thea Hvistendahl takes us elsewhere. Instead, Handling the Undead provides an intimate and raw exploration of grief.

The film, adapted from the 2005 Swedish novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, moves the story out of Stockholm and introduces us to three Oslo families at different stages of loss. It's summer in Norway, lush and muggy, as we catch glimpses into their respective lives. One young woman zones out as she gets ready for work, denying the food her father prepares for her. A young man is in a state of shock after his wife is killed in a car accident, and an elderly woman says goodbye to her lover in a casket.

Things become more and more eerie as unexplained strange weather, flickering lights, glitchy car radios and paralyzing noises shakes Oslo and somehow resurrects its dead. Each family is left to make sense of their deceased loved ones coming back to life — or, rather, something that resembles life.

Though the film best fits the drama genre, it's been marketed as a horror, and it's not the "zombies" that make it creepy. There are few jump scares or fast-paced scenes, and hardly any gore compared to typical films of the genre. Rather, the film taps into our fears through the willingness of each character to accept their decomposing undead as alive. We see this in the tenderness of the elderly woman as she tries to feed her undead lover, or the soothing tone with which the undead boy's grandfather speaks to his undead grandson as he bathes him, as if the boy was just away for a while and only needs to rinse off whatever happened to him.

Hvistendahl makes us more fearful of the attachments these people have to the bodies of their practically lifeless loved ones than of the undead themselves. She forces the audience to consider the mortality of our own loved ones: how they have died or will die, and what their bodies might look like once the life is gone. Navigating grief is, for many of us, a terrifying unknown, and this is what makes Handling the Undead a successful horror.

The absence of music or dialogue throughout much of the film contributes to a sense of stagnation as we witness each character struggling to grapple with their loss amidst the flickers of hope they gain after the resurrection. The entire ensemble, led by Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie, deliver outstanding performances in varied manifestations of this process.

The short 99-minute run time doesn't afford each family a very developed story, and viewers hoping for a more classic genre film may be disappointed by the slow pace and minimal plot, but the film feels more like a glimpse into intimate moments of loss more than a grand explanation of it.

Handling the Undead has a fitting title; like the undead in the film, grief becomes something you reluctantly handle, maneuver, and take with you wherever you go. The feature makes us question how we may interact with our lost loved ones — not quite alive and present, yet not quite gone — and it certainly shows incredible promise for Hvistendahl's directing career.

(Elevation Pictures)

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