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Handling the Undead

Zombies don’t have to be fast. It’s a fun novelty sometimes, sure. But the essence of zombies as a horror subgenre is best expressed as a feeling of creeping dread, the idea that something horrible is coming and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Executed properly, the slowness can actually enhance the terror, letting it sink into the viewer’s bones over long, breathless seconds. In this specific aspect, “Handling the Undead” is a great zombie film. 

The official synopsis for Norwegian director Thea Hvistendahl’s feature debut describes it as a “drama with horror elements,” which is accurate; even when the movie indulges in classic horror scenarios—an isolated cabin, a woman skinny-dipping in a lake—it does so in its own restrained, mournful way. Built around three interwoven storylines, the film comprises a series of hushed tableaus that are tastefully composed and elegantly shot. There’s very little dialogue, and everything is bathed in an overcast gray light.

The understated filmmaking fits the intriguing premise: What would realistically happen if the dead started coming back to life? “Handling the Undead” is based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose “Let the Right One In” and “Border” take a similarly grounded approach to their supernatural elements. The reactions of the characters to the freak electromagnetic event—portrayed here as a power surge that fills radio waves with static and interrupts the fight patterns of migrating birds—that returns their recently deceased loved ones to them are realistic as well. 

That is to say that they’re sad, desperate, and irrational. When Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist) hears his dead grandson banging on the lid of his coffin, he doesn’t scream. He fetches a shovel and digs the boy up. When Elisabet (Olga Damani) gets out of her casket and wanders home to her partner Tora (Bente Børsum), Tora is shocked but happy to see her. And David (Anders Danielsen Lie) is confused when a doctor tells him that his girlfriend Eva (Bahar Pars) was dead, but now she isn’t. But he chooses to latch onto the hopeful part of the doctor’s statement, not the disturbing one.

Add “The Worst Person in the World” star Renate Reinsve as the despondent mother of the undead boy, and you’ve got a symphony of frozen grief and false hope playing out over 97 somber minutes. As an audience, we know that the characters’ optimism is doomed. We’ve seen one of these movies before. That lends a heartbreaking sadness to scenes where characters embrace their dead loved ones, whose appearances range from slightly “off” (Elisabet’s back is purple, from her blood pooling as she laid in her coffin) to full-on zombie makeup in the style of a George Romero film. 

Thanks to all this brittle emotion, Hvistendahl’s film is absorbing, even captivating at times. But it moves at a pace that can be charitably described as “measured.” (The uncharitable word is “sluggish.”) This works to its advantage when creating tension—Hvistendahl gets a lot of anticipatory mileage out of static shots of dark hallways—but it can also test the patience of even the most invested viewer in scenes where the tone doesn’t click. Thankfully, these moments are rare enough that they don’t completely break the tonal spell Hvistendahl has worked so hard to cast over her film. But given how slow the movie is in general, they’re also missteps that “Handling the Undead” can’t afford to make. This is one zombie movie you don’t want to watch after midnight. 

Katie Rife

Katie Rife is a freelance writer and critic based in Chicago with a speciality in genre cinema. She worked as the News Editor of The A.V. Club from 2014-2019, and as Senior Editor of that site from 2019-2022. She currently writes about film for outlets like Vulture, Rolling Stone, Indiewire, Polygon, and RogerEbert.com.

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Handling the Undead movie poster

Handling the Undead (2024)

98 minutes

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