Handling the Undead is a Slow, Sad Shamble to Nowhere
The zombie movie from the writer of Let the Right One In needs more bite.
Nearly two decades ago, the vampire movie received an injection of fresh blood. Let the Right One In, based on the novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, was a harsh coming-of-age story writ as a supernatural romance (or tragedy, depending on how you read the ending). It was eerie, chilling, and thought-provoking, a bold twist on a genre that had grown tired.
Today, the zombie genre is suffering the same threat of obsolescence, with a bajillion Walking Dead spinoffs coming up, and Alex Garland and Danny Boyle reuniting to try saving the genre with a belated 28 Days Later sequel. Who better to revitalize the zombie genre than Lindqvist, given that he already helped create a new vampire classic? But sadly, Handling the Undead, based on Lindqvist’s 2005 novel, is a ponderous, glacially-paced depiction of the all-consuming power of grief that’s so morose it fossilizes into tedious monotony.
Directed by Thea Hvistendahl, who co-wrote the script with Lindqvist, Handling the Undead is a zombie movie in all but name. The Norwegian horror film takes place on a summer’s day in Oslo, where three separate families are dealing with a terrible loss. Anna (Renate Reinsve) is a grieving mother who refuses her father’s (Bjørn Sundquist) attempts to keep her fed and functioning. Tora (Bente Børsum) has just returned from her lover’s funeral, and wanders their empty mansion without purpose. David (Anders Danielsen Lie) has just learned his wife Eva (Bahar Pars) was in a fatal car accident. But on the night of Eva’s accident, something strange happens. The radio keeps turning to static, the lights keep flickering, and high-pitched whistles grow so loud that people crumble in pain. Finally, the power goes out… and when it comes back, so do the dead.
This isn’t your typical zombie invasion. The dead come back silent and stoic, and with maybe — just maybe — a spark of the humanity that they had when alive. Their loved ones recognize it, or at least they think they do. Tora’s lover wanders back to their house, opens the fridge, and sits in her chair, a sign that something in her remembers. Anna’s son accepts her tearful embrace with blank eyes that peer from his decomposed face. And when Eva silently listens to David’s stories about their kids, maybe that was a blink of recognition… or perhaps it was just habit.
All this unfolds with a distant, slow-burning pace befitting a Scandinavian drama. Hvistendahl’s direction is elegant and purposeful, and the film’s muted, natural lighting makes it feel like a story filtered through the haze of grief — everything is a little less bright, loud, and colorful when the loss is so raw and painful.
It’s what makes the slow realization that these undead are just pale shadows of the people they once were all the more potent. That’s the horrifying twist at the center of Handling the Undead — not the takeover of brain-eating corpses, but that these loved ones are well and truly dead. The hope that the three families were given, or maybe deluded themselves into, is cruelly ripped away to reveal nothing but the reality of grief.
But despite the poignancy of this approach, and the truly devastating portrayal of grief in all its forms, there’s something missing from Handling the Undead. There’s no sharp cliff drop from this slow-moving stream of sadness, no gut punch that comes once the guts start spilling. Handling the Undead is a mesmerizing tableau of dread and mood, but its characters are so trapped in their grief that the movie’s emotions start to feel one-note. It may seem cheap to ask for more emotional manipulation from a movie that so refreshingly withholds that kind of catharsis from its audience, but if Handling for the Undead is asking for our empathy, it should do more to earn it.
Ultimately, Handling the Undead is more successful than not. It’s melancholic and mesmerizing, and a painful depiction of the lengths we go to for our loved ones. But in the end, this portrait of grief through a truly unique supernatural lens is better in concept than execution.
Handling the Undead premiered on January 20 at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be released theatrically in the United States by NEON in 2024.
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