HANDLING THE UNDEAD is a Messy and Mesmerizing Portrait of Grief

Thea Hvistendahl beautifully captures the complicated catharsis of resurrection in her adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Stills courtesy of NEON.

Based on the novel by Let the Right One In’s John Ajvide Lindqvist, Handling the Undead follows three families as they reckon with the sudden resurrection of recently departed, still decomposing loved ones. Anna (Renate Reinsve) returns home after a shift to find that her estranged father (Bjorn Sundquist) has returned home with the blinking corpse of her young son Elias. Tora (Bente Børsum) discovers her partner Elisabet (Olga Damani) has returned home from her funeral service. David (Anders Danielsen Lie) and his stepchildren are overjoyed when their partner and mother Eva (Bahar Pars) wakes up from her hospital bed after a seemingly fatal car accident. Their resurrected family members aren’t raging demons, nor are they identical to their former selves; rather, they embody the phrase “living dead,” reanimated flesh devoid of emotion or personality. 

Early on, a teenager blares a gnarly, Resident Evil-style video game–an approach to Zombies pointedly not taken by Thea Hvistendahl’s film. They’re neither antagonistic nor angelic–instead, the devastation caused by Undead’s corpses is far more psychological, keeping its cast at a tantalizing, silent remove from their revived family and friends. With nothing of their former internal life expressed beyond their stoic, pale eyes, these undead are more totems to the grief these people struggle to move beyond. By emphasizing how little these dead do throughout her film’s somber, shambling runtime, Thea Hvistendahl taps into the benign psychological violence that grief inflicts–notably, how our inability to move on from our losses risks rendering us as undead as these returning creatures.

It’s an understated yet visceral approach befitting the source material, whose author lent such pathos to vampires in Let the Right One In. Transposing Undead’s original Swedish novel to the unbearably hot summers of Oslo, Norway, Hvistendahl provides enigmatic snapshots of the stunning scope of this mass resurrection. Mass electrical and radio blackouts and bird murmurations hint at an environmental cause of the dead’s return, while tableaux of cemeteries riddled with excavators and hearses making deliveries to hospitals reveal the sprawl of the epidemic. However, Hvistendahl and co-writer Lindqvist never tip their hand beyond the immediate emotional crises of their three families, fostering an uncomfortable intimacy with languid, economic pacing. In these enigmatic moments, the audience is left scrounging for meaning or understanding out of fundamentally unknowable, elemental forces, and where the film’s emotional core hits the deepest.

Spare with dialogue, the ensemble of Undead spins gold out of these fleeting snapshots of everyday life–whether it’s preparing meals for crowds of people we never see, a motorcycle ride that provides a brief distraction from unbearable family tension, or a living room dance with an undead partner. That latter moment, set to Nina Simone’s unforgettable cover of “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” is nestled amidst other riveting sequences of our three families also going through the motions with their revived relatives. The ensemble, despite their muted stage direction, clearly tries to reach out to restore the connections they once had; doing so, however, painfully underlines just how final these corpses’ initial deaths were, despite coming back. From a magnetic Reinsve to her Worst Person in the World co-star Lie, baring a rainbow of grief, the cast of Handling the Undead more than meets the challenges of delivering a wide spectrum of responses to grief in a universally effective way. The prosthetics and makeup work here is also superb–preserving just as much ambiguous humanity in those playing living corpses as much as they’re visibly “checked out” from humanity. Coupled with the patchwork pacing of the film, however, some moments don’t quite get as much time to narratively breathe. Keeping the characters at such an emotional remove from one another does occasionally cause such distance to fester between the film and its audience. 

Late in the film, further similarities also develop between these Zombies and their Romero progenitors. It’s a drawback to what was already a compelling, unique angle to grief, as the sudden outbursts of violence feel like a literalization of the psychological warfare going on in the film, yet also at odds with the methodical pacing Hvistendahl and Lindqvist have so carefully constructed. At the same time, though, one can’t help but feel a kind of karmic consequence illustrated here in response to these characters’ inability to move on from their loss–finding themselves literally eaten alive by their grief rather than accepting and overcoming it. 

What’s so thrilling and engaging about Handling the Undead is just how much it doesn’t seem to be on its surface. As its title implies, it’s a film whose mute, unwavering specters mine our uncomfortable responses from their presence alone. It’s up to us to understand what those messy emotions say about us, and to divine if we can live with them as well.

Handling the Undead is now in theaters courtesy of NEON.

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