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Movie Review: “HANDLING THE UNDEAD” is a different, downbeat, sometimes devastating zombie drama

Friday, June 7, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Bjørn Sundquist, Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie
Directed by Thea Hvistendahl
Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist with Thea Hvistendahl

If you didn’t know it in advance, you might still be able to guess that HANDLING THE UNDEAD is based on a book by LET THE RIGHT ONE IN writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also scripted. Made in Norway rather than the author’s native Sweden, it similarly takes a subdued, naturalistic look at what might happen if a classic horror trope actually became part of our real lives, though its aim is not to elicit traditional genre scares or tension. This is a sad, contemplative, sometimes quite moving examination of the ramifications of the deceased returning to their loved ones, with consequences harking back to a much older literary work, W.W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw.”

Currently playing in Manhattan and opening in other cities today, HANDLING THE UNDEAD opens in what at first appears to be a lusher setting than LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: an Oslo apartment block rife with leafy green trees. The verdant environment is deceptive, however, as the film thereafter is suffused in a desaturated ambience courtesy of cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth, reflecting the incursion of the dead. We first follow an older man, Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist), as he makes his way around the complex, ultimately winding up in a flat also occupied by 30something Anna (Renata Reinsve), who barely acknowledges his presence. The exact relationship between them is initially unclear–until, in a perfect bit of showing-not-telling on Hvistendahl’s part, a photo stuck to a refrigerator makes everything clear: They are mourning Elias, Anna’s son and Mahler’s grandson.

The other key characters are senior citizen Tora (Bente Børsum), who has just lost her longtime partner Elisabet (Olga Damani), and family man David (Anders Danielsen Lie, who co-starred with Reinsve in the acclaimed THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD and previously faced zombies in THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD). David’s existence is about to be touched by death, as his girlfriend Eva (Bahar Pars) gets into a fatal car accident–but before he can even see her body, a strange phenomenon marked by radio static and lights flickering out overtakes the city.

Once it’s over, Elisabet turns up at Tora’s door, a doctor informs David that Eva didn’t lose her life after all and Mahler becomes compelled to dig up Elias’ grave. The three households–and, presumably, many others in the city–have had their loved ones restored to them, but these are not the magical reunions they might have fantasized about. The returnees’ flesh is discolored, they’re non-verbal, they seem barely alive–so are they, in fact, truly alive? That’s a question that the lead characters don’t want to address, and one of the concerns that fuels Hvistendahl and Lindqvist’s solemn dissection of grief and what happens when it is seemingly assuaged, or perhaps just interrupted for a time.

The director and writer take a measured approach to the storytelling; in large part, this is not a film that offers the occasional bursts of the outright horrific that marked LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. This is horror of a more internal sort, its mood expressed by the deep tones, ethereal choruses and mournful strings of Peter Raeburn’s score, Rokseth’s overcast and muted images and the spare production design by Linda Janson; even Tora’s large, well-appointed home is touched by a sense of emptiness. An early glimpse of a ghoul-killing video game played by David’s teenage daughter Flora (Inesa Daukstad) is meant as a pointed contrast to the kind of living-dead story being told here, one that tackles the ramifications of that term actually coming true.

Toward the end, HANDLING THE UNDEAD does take a few turns into more visceral, disturbing territory; one in particular puts this movie way off limits for animal lovers. Even in these moments, however, the tone is not shock or terror but tragedy, and the story offers no easy answers, solutions or ways out for its characters. In its own way, it’s as unflinching as a George A. Romero or Lucio Fulci film, except that its aim is not to frighten but rather to have us feel for the people facing these distressing developments, and perhaps contemplate our own views about the finality of death.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).