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HANDLING THE UNDEAD Review: A Heartfelt and Haunting Tale

Standing my a lake a woman holds her child
Image Courtesy of Sundance

By Dolores Quintana

TW: suicide, self-harm, animal cruelty

HANDLING THE UNDEAD is a beautifully human tale of the undead. Norwegian director Thea Hvistendahl's much more meditative vision of the dead returning to life brought me to tears. Grief is so complicated for human beings to deal with, and we have such a fear of death that the film's concentration on the confusion and terror that death and grief bring up in humans, especially when it happens to their loved ones, quickly made this one of the most frightening films about a zombie apocalypse. 

Thea Hvistendahl co-wrote the script with John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish author of the novel on which the film is based. Both have the same title. Lindqvist is also the author of the book on which the acclaimed Swedish film Let the Right One In is based. 

The synopsis for the film says, “On a hot summer day in Oslo, the dead mysteriously awaken, and three families are thrown into chaos when their deceased loved ones come back to them. Who are they, and what do they want? A family is faced with the mother’s reawakening before they have even mourned her death after a car accident; an elderly woman gets the love of her life back the same day she has buried her; a grandfather rescues his grandchild from the gravesite in a desperate attempt to get his daughter out of her depression.”

Hvistendahl concentrates on three stories, three families who all have a dead family member at different stages of grief. One immediately after a death, one after a funeral, and one where some time has passed, but the grief is still fresh. 

The film stars Renate Reinsve, winner of the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in The Worst Person in the World, Bjørn Sundquist, Bente Børsum, Anders Danielsen Lie, Bahar Pars, and Inesa Dauksta round out the cast. All actors give sensitive, heart-rending performances filled with shock, hope, and deep sadness. 

Death is the ending of life, which none of us can avoid. Zombie apocalypse stories are frequently so very compelling because they bring out the terror of our own death, those of our loved ones, and the collapse of society and safety. While the taboo elements of the fear of being eaten alive are frequently brought to the forefront in gory detail, the specter that really haunts our imagination is death, loss, and being left alone. 

I’m not saying that we are not afraid of being eaten alive, which is undoubtedly a very unpleasant way to go, but our deepest terror is that of death itself and grief. Grief so frightens human beings and human society that even the mention of death and funerary rights in certain situations makes people react angrily. If you are interested in the funeral industry, and yes, it is an industry, you are considered freakish. In fact, we hide death as much as possible, inventing arcane rituals of burial and ceremony that give us our loved ones dressed up, with make-up, and wounds repaired for open casket funerals. Faces of Death was famous for a reason. It purports to give you an authentic look at death. For a similar reason, horror will always have an audience: we scare ourselves to help ourselves come to terms with our own deaths. 

The cinematography is by Pål Ulvik Rokseth ("The Continental," 22 July). The film's visual language is a view of the world that always seems hazy and unreal. In the opening sequence, the film fluidly follows a route to arrive at the apartment of one of the characters, with slightly canted angles that give the very beginning of the film a sense of unease. 

The score by South African composer Peter Raeburn goes from delicate and haunting electronic music to a violin-led finale that swells with delicate softness. 

HANDLING THE UNDEAD takes a different tack from most zombie apocalypse stories. While most zombie media concentrates on the horror of the collapse of society, HANDLING THE UNDEAD is closer to the terrors of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, but where King’s novel gives the audience the entertaining out of a supernatural evil, HANDLING THE UNDEAD gives no reason and leaves you with poignant questions. 

The bereaved get their wish and get their loved ones back, but they aren’t the same. Director Hvistendahl leads the audience by the hand to the reanimated corpse of their loved ones and leaves them with it. The complicated emotional responses to death and the undead make the film sing. Occasionally, zombie media, movies, and TV shows reach for the pain of human loss but often falter by not exploring the quiet despair in mourners' minds and hearts. 

It is only when a film or show gives the story the time to show the connection between human beings so that the audience can feel that loss and grief that it successfully makes that emotional connection. It heightens the horror when you deepen the drama of human frailty and need. One of the reasons that Train to Busan is so beloved is because the film has both terrifying zombie action and a deep emotional connection between its characters.

HANDLING THE UNDEAD is a different kind of zombie apocalypse with eerie anxiety and deep emotional connections between the three characters and their lost loved ones. It takes the time to allow you to begin to mourn along with the living and then gives you the terror of the dead. Emotionally vivid, relentless, and shocking, HANDLING THE UNDEAD treads new territory for zombie horror. Profoundly emotional and so very human, it brought me to tears.


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