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The Devastating New Zombie Movie Unlike Any Other

PARK CITY, Utah—One of the millennium’s finest horror films, 2008’s Let the Right One In—an adaptation of Swedish novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel about the friendship between an adolescent boy and an eternal vampire with a young girl’s body—was encased in the sort of damp, stale, unforgiving chilliness normally reserved for crypts. Though not set in a tomb (or amidst the wintery snow), Handling the Undead, based on Lindqvist’s third book, boasts a similarly icy reserve, as well as revisits the relationship between those who do, and at one point did not, boast a pulse. Eerily still, morose and minimalist, Thea Hvistendahl’s directorial debut, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a zombie film unlike any other, focused less on mayhem than on grief, loss, and the quiet, tragic terror begat by the dead’s return.

Working from a script co-written with Lindqvist, Hvistendahl stages Handling the Undead as a dialogue-light funereal march performed by disparate individuals who don’t realize, initially, that they’re heading toward their potential doom. In an apartment complex that looks no different from the many surrounding it, elderly Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist) moves about his residence without making a sound, his despondent body language suggesting a crushing weight upon his heart. Mahler packs food into a plastic bag and departs, and after gazing at him through narrow passageways, the film watches him from the building’s rooftop as he shuffles into an adjacent high-rise. There, he lets himself into the flat owned by his daughter Anna (The Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve), who doesn’t stop painting her toenails to answer the door and, upon seeing her dad, coldly ignores him, her animosity as silent as it is brutal. A child’s forsaken bedroom indicates the source of their pain.

While Anna works in a kitchen preparing trays of food for unknown customers and Mahler wraps up yet another dinner that he knows Anna won’t eat, Handling the Undead shifts its attention to two additional subjects. At a church, senior citizen Tora (Bente Børsum) says farewell to her partner Elisabet (Olga Damani) and returns to an apartment full of flowers and memories that bring her no solace. In a different home, teenager Flora (Inesa Dauksta) plays a zombie-slaughtering video game and responds rudely to her mother Eva’s (Bahar Pars) request that she babysit her younger brother Kian (Kian Hansen), since Eva is going out and her husband David (Anders Danielsen Lie, also of The Worst Person in the World fame) has a stand-up comedy gig. Later, following his routine at the club, David receives a shattering phone call informing him that Eva has died in a car accident.

Except that, when David arrives at the hospital, he’s surprised to hear that his fatally injured wife expired on the operating table and then resumed breathing. For both the doctor and David, this is a baffling turn of events, and Handling the Undead doesn’t overtly explain it; rather, it simply punctuates its early going with instances of radios turning on and blaring static, and people suffering headaches, as an apparent result of a high-pitched buzzing that, at its peak, causes a temporary citywide power outage. The nature of this signal is mysterious, but its effect is clear: it’s reanimated the deceased. No one is more shocked about this phenomenon than Mahler, who passes out due to a signal-induced migraine while visiting his grandson Elias’ grave, and awakens with his head against the burial plot, which allows him to hear knocking from deep beneath the soil’s surface.

Kian Hansen in Handling the Undead

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Mahler reacts by doing what any doting grandfather would—he digs up Elias and brings him home, where Anna is stunned, horrified, and euphoric about the boy’s resurrection. Tora has a similar reaction when Elisabet materializes one evening in her kitchen, staring blankly at an open refrigerator with cloudy eyes. In all three cases, the zombies are creepily unresponsive and vacant, but that doesn’t stop their loved ones from attempting to coax them back to their former selves, be it Mahler bathing, dressing, and singing lullabies to Elias, or Tora washing Elisabet’s face, doing her make-up, and romantically dancing with her. These and other measures, however, do little to stir the zombies from their states of suspended animation. The same is true, figuratively speaking, of the film’s living protagonists, who—simultaneously happy about, and unsatisfied by, their otherworldly reunions—find that they’ve just traded their past immobilizing sorrow for a newer brand of paralyzing misery.

With urgent expressiveness, a terrific Reinsve and Danielsen Lie (as well as the rest of Handling the Undead’s excellent cast) convey the agony of soldiering onward after misfortune. In tune with their circumstances, the film moves at a glacial pace, with cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth’s camera habitually creeping around corners and framing its characters in doorways, hallways, mirrors, and windows. Complemented by Peter Raeburn’s score of ominous bass rumbles and plaintive orchestral arrangements, Hvistendahl’s aesthetic proves constricting, menacing and mournful. It’s also deliberately challenging, as the director refuses to provide typical genre payoffs until the finale—and even then, she prioritizes oppressive desolation over traditional scares or gore. What the material lacks in jolts and momentum, though, it makes up for with an atmosphere of despair that’s so severe, it feels downright apocalyptic.

Photo still of Bente Børsum and Olga Damani in Handling the Undead

Bente Børsum and Olga Damani in Handling the Undead

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In a sense, of course, it is, at least for each of these men and women, who have been rendered the walking dead by their anguish. Their instinctive decision to embrace their zombified loves, however, turns out to be a grave mistake, as becomes evident in a hospital sequence involving Eva and bunny rabbit that’s all the more unforgettable for the intense surprise, alarm, and dreadful awareness in David’s eyes. In its climactic passages, Handling the Undead veers unconventionally into more conventional terrain, in the process contending that the scariest (and most dangerous) aspect of zombies is that they’d invariably give people hope and convince them to stop grieving, thereby making them vulnerable to the very things they most dearly cherish. With the precision of a mortician, Hvistendahl crafts a cautionary tale about the cataclysmic peril of holding onto that which is gone—and, more specifically, about the fact that the dead must stay that way if anyone else hopes to live.

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