Handling the Undead: the walking dead offer hope for the bereaved in this mournful zombie movie

Recently deceased loved ones are suddenly brought back to life as zombies in a thought-provoking John Ajvide Lindqvist adaptation that’s more about grief than gruesome horror. 

30 January 2024

By Sam Wigley

Renate Reinsve as Anna in Handling the Undead (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

The writings of Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist have already inspired Let the Right One In (2008) and Border (2018) – two fresh, modern arthouse wrinkles on vampire and troll mythology respectively. It follows that his 2005 novel Hanteringen av odöda (published in translation as Handling the Undead in 2009), which imagines an unexplained phenomenon that brings the recently deceased back to life, would also be optioned for the screen. In fact, this unusual twist on zombie tropes was sized up for a film version (with Ajvide Lindqvist adapting his own novel) soon after publication, but has only come to fruition, nearly 20 years later, in the hands of former music video director Thea Hvistendahl.

In the process, the setting has changed from Stockholm to Oslo, where one hot summer night an unnerving apocalyptic montage signals the sudden supernatural event. Traffic lights start blinking. A ceiling fan crashes to the floor. Birds murmurate in startled formations across the sky. Static floods the radio. The power goes out across the city. This sequence arrives as the crescendo of a slow-burn opening section in which Hvistendahl – with haunted, floating camerawork – introduces us to three families whose lives will be impacted by the happening, but also to the sombre, mournful tone that will permeate the film. This is a zombie movie that’s more about grief than gruesome horror. It posits the fascinating, resonant idea that, for those mourning the recent loss of a loved one, a return from death might not be cause for terror so much as the fulfilment of a desperate hope.

Each of the three parallel stories effectively conjures the numbed fugue-state of bereavement. In one, Renate Reinsve, star of Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (2022), does heartbreaking duty as a single mother driven to attempt her own suffocation after the death of her young son, but who is stunned when her ageing father brings home the boy’s recently buried body – now a living cadaver with jaundiced skin and bloated, sparkless eyes. Elsewhere, an elderly woman returns home from the funeral of her partner to find the dead woman now apparently alive again and raiding the fridge (It’s a witty touch that this reanimated geriatric, more recently passed, is notably better preserved than the disinterred youth). And another Trier regular, and Reinsve’s Worst Person co-star, Anders Danielsen Lie plays a bereaved husband who discovers his wife has come back to life in her hospital bed.

These incidents are woven together in the style of a multi-character hyperlink narrative, joining up lives across a city. Indeed, with its patiently built orchestration of the drama, Handling the Undead oddly suggests a kind of feature-length equivalent of the freak frog storm of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) in which a cross-section of melancholy souls are connected in their sadness by a nature-defying phenomenon. This film’s own time-stopping set-piece occurs to the strains of Nina Simone singing Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’ – a choice that’s on the nose but also felt deeply in the gut, as a shared montage of bittersweet reconnections between the living and the newly undead sees the elderly lovers locked together once more in a wistful slow dance. It’s a zombie encounter as Wong Kar Wai might have filmed it.

Bente Børsum and Olga Damani in Handling the Undead (2024)

Perhaps Hvistendahl’s background in music videos is betrayed by the confidence in such moments and the narrative faltering in others. Not all of the relationships depicted feel fleshed out enough for the weight of sadness that the film places upon them, while the script is also hazy on the bigger picture. How widespread are the effects of this Midwich Cuckoos-like occurrence? How many others have been affected? And when the film takes the turn towards the sinister and threatening that viewers lured by the promise of walking dead will be expecting, there are some potently disquieting moments – a face at the cabin window; a figure appearing on the shore of the fjørd – but the overall impact feels rushed and anti-climactic.

A more searching, less generically satisfying, endpoint might have found a way to take the story’s concept to its logical conclusion by pushing harder against the film’s most provocative questions. If we could get our just-dead loved ones to breathe again, would that be enough? Or would these breathing but unresponsive corpses be a comfort at first but then soon a burden? Can a rotting apple be any kind of compensation for losing a fresh one? For all its disappointments while you’re watching it, then, Hvistendahl’s film seems to come alive again when you think about it afterwards.

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