Handling the Undead Review: Realist, Harrowing Zombie Tale – Paste Magazine

Handling the Undead Review: Realist, Harrowing Zombie Tale – Paste Magazine

In the pilot of Six Feet Under, the patriarch of a family funeral home business dies and his subsequently attended to by his son. All the undertaker’s embellishments that have become routine for the younger mortician—the embalming, the cossetting, the dressing of the corpses—are suddenly harrowing and inhumane. The disguises one puts on death to soothe the bereaved become perverse and transparent when you know all the tricks. Those confronted with their dead loved ones in Handling the Undead, a zombie tragedy of false hopes and brutal realities, face similar emotional peril. Thea Hvistendahl’s debut doesn’t shy away from the pain of passing, nor the salted wounds of horrific, mysterious resurrection.

The contemplative quiet and distanced handling of its often overblown subject matter befits its source material: Handling the Undead is John Ajvide Lindqvist’s undead follow-up book to his vampiric Let the Right One In. Here, Lindqvist adapts his own work with Hvistendahl into an in-your-face elegy. After a strange electrical event in Oslo, families are afflicted by the sudden resurrection of their newly dead loved ones. We zero in on three such instances as isolated units, staring in disbelief at the thing we’ve been trained since birth to avoid. 

A grandfather (Bjørn Sundquist) and mother (Renate Reinsve) care for a young boy whose distended belly and unseeing eyes punish their affections. An elderly woman (Bente Børsum) jabbers away about her garden to her wife (Olga Damani) who walked back from her funeral. A comedian (Anders Danielsen Lie) and his children ride an emotional roller coaster when his wife (Bahar Pars) doesn’t stay dead after a car accident.

Each group is shot in strict compositions defined by straight lines, voyeuristic angles and obscured frames. Architecture often takes priority over humanity. The apartments and homes take precedence over the pain they house. A massive church mural leaps from the screen while the actual undead nearly fade into the background. The lovely yet unnerving aesthetic from Hvistendahl and cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth is as cold and tangible as its corpses—as bright and crisp as headlights in a graveyard—and paced with plenty of time for us to think. There’s also very little dialogue, and no interactions between the families themselves. Each is alone in their own sorrow, isolated both realistically and symbolically.

The grounded narrative, intense emotions and Norwegian brutalism define a new kind of zombie story. These aren’t Night of the Living Dead’s slow zombies or 28 Days Later’s fast zombies. These are nearly immobile zombies, uncertainly animated and without motivation. They’re mottled, creaky and well-realized in their various states of arrested decomposition. In Lindqvist and Hvistendahl’s telling, the realities of death don’t go away with the unreality of revitalization, and the cannibalistic motivations that drive similar genre stories to crisis are avoided in favor of a creeping, omnipresent desperation. In fact, the closer Handling the Undead gets to the traditions of the subgenre, the further it gets from its own refreshing melancholy.

Even the inciting moment of magic is beautifully captured in mundane details: A buzzing coil whine drones on while all the car alarms in a parking lot jolt to life at once. A ceiling fan crashes onto a table. It’s still supernatural, but you can feel it in the familiar lights and sounds. In this same way, we can understand the zombies of Handling the Undead. They’re less like the rampaging killers we watch a kid mow down in a video game (the least elegant moment of the movie) and more like staring too long at an open casket. Loss is rubbed in our faces, and we can almost smell it.

Where Let the Right One In‘s austere and icy vampire tale played more to our sympathies for its characters, Handling the Undead allows us to project our own fear and despair onto its unaware zombies—just like those still living in the film’s world. While there are moments where the internal logic of its undead may send those used to mulling over the hows and whys of zombie movies down rabbit holes of speculation, Handling the Undead is never about ending the crisis. It’s never even about surviving it, in the sense that these movies usually mean “survive.” It’s about moving beyond this hellish situation, where death ambles around you freely and you can’t dress it up or hide it away. In making its characters physically confront their heartbreak, Handling the Undead becomes one of the saddest, most contemplative zombie movies ever made.

Director: Thea Hvistendahl
Writer: Thea Hvistendahl, John Ajvide Lindqvist
Starring: Renate Reinsve, Bjørn Sundquist, Bente Børsum, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bahar Pars, Inesa Dauksta
Release Date: January 20, 2024 (Sundance)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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