‘Handling the Undead’ Review: When the Dead Don’t Die – The New York Times

‘Handling the Undead’ Review: When the Dead Don’t Die – The New York Times

A zombie movie is wrapped in a gentle tale of mourning and love.

The yearning to reverse death is baked into human nature, a longing to defeat evil, to set things right, to conquer mortality. In “Handling the Undead,” that desire is the fruit of great love. Who hasn’t, upon losing someone, wished desperately for just one more chance to see them, hold them, tell them how much they mean?

“Handling the Undead” has an earnest and simple premise that sounds like enough for a whole thriller: One day, out of nowhere, with little explanation, the dead are reanimated en masse. The film is unconcerned with the global ramifications of this phenomenon; instead, its focus is on three groups of Oslo residents whose lives are upended by the event.

There is Mahler (Bjorn Sundquist) and his daughter, Anna (Renate Reinsve), a single mother whose young son died some time ago. The two of them, from the looks of it, have never recovered from the loss — Mahler weeps on his grandson’s grave, while Anna tries to bury her anguish in work. Meanwhile, Tora (Bente Borsum) grieves her partner, Elisabet (Olga Damani), who has died after their long life together. And David (an outstanding Anders Danielsen Lie), an aspiring comic, is shocked when his beloved wife, Eva (Bahar Pars), is killed in a car accident, barely knowing how to keep living with their two teenagers.

This is merely the beginning of the story. But what follows is simple, and the director Thea Hvistendahl wisely takes her time getting to any real action. Instead, with a slow-moving camera and plenty of filtered sunlight, she conjures a dreamlike state, the sense of hanging between planes of existence that tends to accompany those who grieve. There are times when the film veers too near the maudlin for comfort, but it always finds its way back to something spare and meaningful. What would you do, the story gently asks, if your fondest and most impossible wish was granted, and you realized it wasn’t at all what you’d hoped it would be? How far does real love go to maintain a connection with those whose time has come?

Hvistendahl wrote the screenplay with John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of the novel on which the movie is based (as well as the quiet vampire story “Let The Right One In”). The drama borrows from zombie movies, but for something distinctly unzombielike. What’s under examination is the strange permeable barrier between life and death, and the way it appears to those who are left behind to deal with the fallout. In exploring it with a hint of mysticism, “Handling the Undead” joins a rich variety of entertainment, like “Fringe,” “The Leftovers,” “The Good Place” and “Six Feet Under.”

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