The deceased are making a comeback in the cold Norwegian film, Handling the Undead. It is a melancholic effort to elevate the zombie genre from a late-night spectacle to a more sophisticated art form. The film succeeds in certain aspects, exploring the pain and illogical nature of grief and questioning how far its characters are willing to go to reunite with their loved ones. However, the debut director Thea Hvistendahl’s insistence on a slow build may be trying for some, akin to watching a block of ice melt at a snail’s pace. The story is revealed bit by bit, with some parts making a bigger impact than others.
In Oslo on a hot summer day, three different situations are disrupted by a perplexing reappearance. A single mother (played by Renate Reinsve from The Worst Person in the World) is saved from a suicide attempt by her father (Bjørn Sundquist), who brings her son back to life after he was thought to be dead. An older woman (Bente Børsum) attends her partner’s (Olga Damani) funeral, only to have her return home that same night. The passing of a mother (Bahar Pars) deeply affects her family, but her husband (Anders Danielsen Lie, also from The Worst Person in the World) discovers she is still alive.
Based on the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose debut novel Let the Right One In and its multiple adaptations handle similarly subdued, if more plot-heavy, genre ground, Handling the Undead operates most effectively as a haunting “what if?”. The return of the dead is briefly referenced as a wider epidemic but Hvistendahl’s narrow focus is less interested in how the world is responding and more in individual people. Grief is a strange, selfish thing that can warp and destroy you, and your desperation for it to go away or at least be somewhat tempered can take you to dark, illogical places.
The film features zombies, although they are never explicitly referred to as such. Instead, they exist in a world where zombies are part of popular culture, as seen briefly in a video game. These zombies are not very lively; they mostly just breathe and keep their eyes open. This raises questions for their loved ones – how much is enough? What exactly are they mourning? And will the lifeless, unresponsive version of their loved one bring them comfort or only more pain? The script, written by Hvistendahl and Lindqvist, leaves these questions unspoken, allowing them to be explored through the characters’ expressions. Reinsve gives a nuanced performance, also appearing in another Sundance film, the intense drama A Different Man. While the story of the main character leaves an impact, the subplot of the older queer couple is also noteworthy. However, the plot involving the third family feels disjointed, with too many characters not receiving enough attention.
The slow pace can feel too slow at times, but Hvistendahl effectively portrays the descent into expected horror in the final act. The focus remains on the emotional impact, with an emphasis on character rather than chaos. The scene of animal cruelty is difficult to watch due to its visceral nature, but it is the reaction of the onlookers that truly stings. The ending of Handling the Undead is not surprising, but it is made more haunting by the unseen pain that may never truly heal, despite efforts to do so.
Handling the Undead is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be released later this year