Handling the Undead

Handling the Undead

2024, NR, 99 min. Directed by Thea Hvistendahl. Starring Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bjørn Sundquist, Bahar Pars, Bente Børsum, Olga Damani, Dennis Østry Ruud.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 7, 2024

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead biggest change to zombie horror wasn’t adding gore, but in changing the undead from creations of black magic into a public health crisis. The monster is not the creature but the disease, but few zombie films have gone deeper under the skin of that idea than a good disembowelment.

There are exceptions. The 2011 Austin Film Festival award winner Harold’s Going Stiff used the revenant as a metaphor for dementia, while 2017 Fantastic Fest selection The Cured posed the quietly horrifying question of how to integrate former flesheaters back into society. Almost 20 years after its original publication, Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist's revisionist zombie novel Hanteringen av odöda gets a big screen adaptation as Handling the Dead.

Moving the story eastwards to Norway, Virgins4Lyfe director Thea Hvistendahl (who cowrote the script with Lindqvist) does little to explain the mechanism of a sudden mass resurrection. There’s a strange sound, an electrical outage, and that old shorthand in Scandinavian cinema of high weirdness, flocking birds. Hvistendahl’s cinematographer on Virgins4Lyfe, Pål Ulvik Rokseth, covers Norway in a mournful gray that doesn’t become brighter when everyone’s loved ones suddenly shamble back into their lives. David (Lie, Reprise) can convince himself that it’s a medical miracle when wife Eva (Pars) is revived after a car crash, yet Tora (Børsum) can have no such comforting knowledge when her late wife, Elisabet (Damani), suddenly appears in their kitchen, silently staring into the fridge. Most disturbingly, there’s nothing but metaphysical horror for Anna (Reinsve, Lie’s The Worst Person in the World costar) when her father (Sundquist) returns with her son Elias (Ruud), who he dug up – rotting, stinking, wheezing like an old pipe organ, covered with flies – from his grave.

These dead are passive, mobile but barely interacting, their inner lives a mystery to the actual living who see only what was once there, rather than what has returned. There’s a quiet cruelty in Hvistendahl’s depiction of their responses, akin to the slow decay experienced by the slowly decaying protagonist of Éric Falardeau’s extreme body horror Thanatomorphose, and it’s the emotional weight that is most suffocating. Yet Hvistendahl cannot quite resist the magnetic pull of traditional zombie tropes, a third act insertion that is at odds with brutally tender moments like a slow dance to Nina Simone’s version of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Every family has such a moment, each member of the superb cast getting a chance to break your heart, but that’s what they remain – moments. It’s the parts of a body, not the whole, and this meditation on mourning never truly feels complete.

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More Renate Reinsve Films
The Worst Person in the World
Worst person? No. Best performance of the year? Maybe.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Feb. 18, 2022

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Handling the Undead, Thea Hvistendahl, Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bjørn Sundquist, Bahar Pars, Bente Børsum, Olga Damani, Dennis Østry Ruud

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