Credit: Pal Ulvik Rokseth/NEON
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Genre Views

Handling the Undead — Thea Hvistendahl

June 3, 2024

In his seminal 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, George Romero takes a few minutes to detail the final gasps of a television station trying to report the news while its staff evacuates and the world outside crumbles into chaos. The dead have returned to life, explains a scientist being interviewed by a broadcaster, and they must be shot through the head and the bodies burned. He continues, making note that it does not matter that they look like our friends and family: they are simply reanimated corpses and must be disposed of accordingly. Director Thea Hvistendahl’s debut film Handling the Undead — adapted from the novel written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also authored Let the Right One In & Border — takes this idea and stretches it to feature length, chronicling the lives of several different people dealing with grief and the sudden return of their recently deceased loved ones. Unfortunately, there has been four decades worth of zombie films between Romero’s masterpiece and this latest effort, which manages to trod such familiar ground that it’s amazing anyone thought it was worthwhile to make it in the first place.

The film’s three narrative strands involve: Anna (Renate Reinsve) and her father Mahler (Bjorn Sundquist), both quietly sinking into depression after the loss of Anna’s young son; elderly Tora (Bente Borsum), who is introduced at the funeral of her just-passed partner Elisabet (Olga Damani); and David (Anders Danielsen Lie) and his wife Eva (Bahar Pars), who are dealing with their son’s upcoming birthday celebration and the bad attitude of their rebellious teenage daughter. Hvistendahl introduces these characters and their lives in the most solemn, dirge-like way possible. The film is shot with a relentless gray pallor, the camera glacially panning across mostly empty, unadorned living spaces. The widescreen frame is made up largely of negative space, the characters crammed into the edges of the image or obscured by the architecture of doorways and window frames. It’s all extremely dour, oppressive even, and that’s before the undead arrive. Mahler is visiting his grandson’s grave site when he hears a faint knocking from under the dirt; he promptly digs the casket up. Eva is in an accident and dies in the ER at the hospital, before suddenly returning to life (with a faint heartbeat and dangerously low oxygen levels, a nurse notes). Elisabet returns to Tora’s home in the dead of night, large purple bruises on her back where blood or embalming fluid had pooled. And so begins the long, laborious process of what to do with the returned.

Like the filmed adaptations of Lindqvist‘s previous novels, Handling the Undead frequently confuses slowness with seriousness. Almost half of the film has passed before the strange event occurs that reanimates the dead, and while there are a few stabs at exploring the larger implications of these events — this appears to be a worldwide event — it’s largely a small-scale, cloistered film, taking place almost entirely indoors. There’s very little dialogue, and while Reinsve and Danielsen Lie are typically very charismatic performers — they starred together in the surprise hit The Worst Person in the World, although they don’t actually share any scenes in this film — but here Hvistendahl kneecaps the pair by asking them to perform almost exclusively via body language and sad, confused expressions. And while it’s clear that Handling the Undead has something about grief on its mind, but it’s unclear what exactly it wants to say, other than that loss is indeed sad. The film’s primary aesthetic mode of mixing zombie lore with the slow cinema style of an art film isn’t even particularly novel: The Night Eats the World and Les Revenants got there first. That’s not to suggest Handling the Undead is by any measure a terrible movie — it’s well made and well performed. But when all is said and done, it simply doesn’t do enough as a study of human suffering or expansion of zombie canon to justify its own existence. It’s simply an empty, lumbering husk.

DIRECTOR: Thea Hvistendahl;  CAST: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bjørn Sundquist, Bahar Pars;  DISTRIBUTOR: NEON;  IN THEATERS: May 31;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.