In a genre often steeped in gore and jump scares, “Handling The Undead” offers a uniquely meditative take on the zombie film. Directed by Thea Hvistendahl in her accomplished feature debut, this Norwegian drama anchors its horror in the relatable pains of humanity. Adapted from the novel by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist (“Let The Right One In”), it examines the sorrow that lingers after loss.
The film follows three families in Oslo struggling with grief over deceased loved ones. Their worlds are turned upside down when strange events mysteriously resurrect their lost partners and children. Yet this is no straightforward happy ending. The returned loved ones are distant – neither alive or fully gone. As the families react in varying ways – denial, euphoria, confusion – “Handling The Undead” evolves into a haunting rumination on the inability to let go.
Anchored by Renate Reinsve’s (The Worst Person in the World) raw performance as a mother grieving her young son, the film mines incredible pathos from its actors. Meanwhile, Hvistendahl’s patient storytelling and eerie atmospherics masterfully build tension without the need for zombie pandemonium. This emotionally resonant approach ultimately culminates in a devastating critique of humanity’s desperate and dangerous refusal to accept loss. Rather than cheap scares, the horror stems from the cavernous abyss of grief itself.
Grief and Loss Haunt the Living Dead
On a muggy Oslo summer day, we’re introduced to three families all paralyzed by grief. There’s elderly Mahler, desperately trying to connect with his embittered daughter Anna. Still reeling from the death of her young son Elias, she now fills her home with only icy silence and bossa nova records rather than a child’s laughter.
Across town, Tora returns home alone from her partner Elisabet’s sparse funeral, their apartment now a hollow memorial devoid of life or visitors. Meanwhile, Eva kisses her family goodbye for separate evenings out, shortly before a strange power outage claims her life in a sudden car accident.
Yet soon, death is not so final. Sinister power surges reanimate corpses across the city. To both euphoria and agony, lost loved ones return as zombies – detached, hollow-eyed, suspended between worlds. Desperate for a miracle, the families embrace these chilling “resurrections.” Mahler exhumes and cradles his grandson’s rotting corpse. Tora tenderly dances with her muted dead lover. Eva’s grieving husband David brings her home, hoping she will heal.
But such second chances cannot overcome the uncanny valley between life and undeath. The zombies remain passive, mute, and absent no matter how their families pretend otherwise. As the risk of losing them again haunts the mourners, they realize embracing these tortured undead only prolongs their trauma. Yet the danger soon grows as the creatures inevitably revert back to hostile form with shocking violence.
In the heart-wrenching climax, the once doting families realize they face harrowing choices to survive this nightmare. We witness the true horror as parents and partners must confront whether their returned loved ones were ever more than an illusion – one that could doom any still living. In its poetic final moments, this melancholic tale resolves around the human agony of letting go, suggesting there are sometimes fates worse than grief.
Sorrowful Visual Poetry on the Struggle to Let Go
At its decaying heart, “Handling The Undead” is an elegiac meditation on the seemingly impossible struggle to overcome grief and let go. Rather than exploit the undead for cheap thrills, the film minimizes genre chaos to focus on mournful character studies. This patient approach allows the work to haunt viewers through emotional resonance rather than gore.
Hvistendahl’s confident direction favors visual poetry and texture over dialogue. Cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth lingers on lonely figures framed against gray Norwegian light or in the shadows of dreary, lifeless rooms. An early scene holds on Anna staring out a rain-streaked window for what seems like forever, wordlessly conveying her inner abyss. These visuals crawl under the skin, perfectly matching the film’s funereal tone.
Much credit also goes to the ominous drifts and swells of Peter Raeburn’s score. Rather than bludgeon us with musical stunts, the compositions only rise to the fore during moments of peak tension. This restraint renders their impact almost subconsciously chilling. The sparseness of sound design likewise builds an uncanny atmosphere.
But nothing resonates more than the raw performances, especially from leads Reinsve and Sundquist as the severed father/daughter duo. Through micro-expressions and body language, we feel their wordless pain as if it were our own. When the resurrected Elias returns, the confusion and anguish on their faces harbors more frights than any monster makeup.
By centering grief as the true villain, Hvistendahl pierces our souls clearer than any zombie bite. Her patient descent into emotional darkness pays dividends when the dead finally riot, their loving families forced to execute them once more. Through these wrenching final choices, the film reveals its core theme – the danger of clinging to those lost instead of accepting their demise. Like those living dead, our ghosts keep us from thriving until we let them rest in peace.
An Imperfect yet Powerful Genre Hybrid
In braiding together the stories of three devastated families, Hvistendahl displays impressive directorial control. The coherence with which these strands interweave centers the drama on shared human experiences rather than descending into an episodic zombie anthology.
For much of its run, the film also strikes an evocative balance between wistful drama and chilling horror. The initial resurrections carry a moving beauty that gradually warps into uncanny dread as we realize something remains missing behind the dead’s eyes. As with the best genre hybrids, labeling the movie as either “horror” or “arthouse” fails to encapsulate its richness.
However, an indulgent final act risks dulling the razor’s edge. One too many glimpses of zombie carnage dissipates the atmospheric tension for generic gore. Themes also bluntly override nuance in service of an overstated climax that ham-fistedly underlines key messages on letting go.
Nonetheless, these pacing missteps don’t negate what came before. “Handling The Undead” deserves praise for side-stepping clichés to deliver a melancholy spin on the living dead. Tracing the fault lines of grief instead of relying on jump scares, it wrings horror from the human inability to accept loss. Anchored in raw performances and textured style, the film will resonate with patient audiences seeking emotion over easy shocks. Imperfections aside, Hvistendahl haunts in her own unique way.
A Funereal Masterpiece, Not Without Flaws
Rather than simply supply more undead chaos, “Handling The Undead” focuses on the human stories amidst zombie resurrection. This dramatic core mines incredible pathos from families traumatically reunited with lost loved ones. Patient viewers will find themselves moved by the melancholic mood, textured visuals, and phenomenal central performances.
Yet the film remains recognizably a horror story too – just one more concerned with inner demons than cheap gore. Through oppressive atmosphere and emotional violence, Hvistendahl builds an escalating sense of dread towards resonant themes on the necessity of letting go. If the final act leans too hard into genre cliches, it takes little away from the overall funereal power.
Imperfect pacing and muted scares may limit the appeal to hardcore horror fans and even general audiences. But patient cinephiles will appreciate a rare genre hybrid unafraid to crawl inside grief rather than exploit it. Free from jump scare tricks, this tale of love and loss lingers in the mind long after viewing. Overflowing with intelligence and ravaged heart, “Handling the Undead” emerges a flawed yet staggering triumph – and arguably Thea Hvistendahl’s masterpiece.
Handling the Undead
Despite some pacing issues that threaten to unbalance its riches, "Handling The Undead" remains a genre standout for trading cheap zombie thrills for melancholic mediations on grief. Carried by raw performances and textured style, this Norwegian drama will devastate patient audiences with its poetic portrayal of trauma and haunting themes of letting go.
- Raw, emotionally resonant performances
- Patient storytelling and pacing
- Gorgeous cinematography and atmosphere
- Haunting score heightens tension
- Unique spin on familiar zombie tropes
- Devastating themes of grief and loss
- Overextended runtime
- Heavyhanded finale lacks subtlety
- Risks alienating horror genre fans
- Slow pace tests audience patience