Handling the Undead

Handling the Undead

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Zombies don’t necessarily need to be fast-moving. That is something that can make them novel and fun sometimes. However, I think that the real fear of zombies in a subgenre is more about creeping dread – the idea that something terrible is approaching, and there is nothing you can do about it. Done right, this deliberate slowness actually intensifies the horror, making it dig deeper into the viewer’s bones over long, breathless seconds. In this regard the book “Handling the Undead” makes for an excellent zombie movie.

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 are several silent tableaus that are tasteful and beautifully composed shots. There are few utterances as everything appears under an overcast grey light.

The understated filmmaking fits the intriguing premise: What would realistically happen if people started coming back to life after dying? “Handling the Undead” was adapted from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist who also wrote “Let the Right One In” and “Border” which share similar down-to-earth style with their supernatural aspects. Similarly realistic are responses of these characters to some freak electromagnetic event (in this case depicted as a power surge causing radio waves to turn staticky and interrupting migration patterns of birds) bringing their recently departed back.

This means they are unhappy, desperate and senseless. When Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist) heard his lifeless grandson banging against the lid of his casket, he didn’t scream. He went to fetch a shovel and dug him out. When Elisabet (Olga Damani) gets out of her coffin and finds her partner Tora (Bente Børsum), Tora is shocked but happy to see her. And David (Anders Danielsen Lie) wonders when a doctor tells him that his girlfriend Eva (Bahar Pars) was deceased, but now she is not anymore. However, rather than being disturbed by this statement, he chooses to focus on its hopeful aspects.

Renate Reinsve, “The Worst Person in the World” star comes as the grieving mother of the undead boy: 97 minutes filled with frozen grief and false hope under symphonic performance. We can tell as an audience that their optimism isn’t going to work for them because we have seen a movie like this before. That makes some scenes where characters embrace their dead loved ones even more sadistic because the dead look just slightly different from living human beings in terms of makeup effects like Elisabet’s fresh back from staying in her grave which is blue or others completely made-up like the zombies featured in George Romero’s films.

In spite of all this fragile emotionality present in Hvistendahl’s film, it invariably keeps attention riveted on it and sometimes captivates viewers’ imagination too. But it happens at such a slow pace that one might call it something that tends to be sluggish.” (“Sluggish” would be unkind.) This works well for creating suspense—Hvistendahl gets much mileage as possible with sitting people watching empty corridors—but also makes difficulty for someone who has invested so much time into following events without understanding what should make them more prominent scenes not always clicking. Luckily, they are infrequent enough not to shatter the haunting tone that Hvistendahl tries so hard to maintain in her film. However, these also become missteps for a “Handling the Undead” which is way too slow all through the movie. You won’t need to watch this zombie movie after midnight as it is one of its kind.

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