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Handling the Undead (Håndtering av Udøde)

Norwegian director reinvents the zombie movie, replacing gore with tragic and decaying existences - from Sundance London

Thea Hvistendahl reinterprets a very familiar genre. The blood, the slashing, the ravenous attacks, the horrific deaths, and the frenzied action give room to a slow-paced, dystopian drama. The undead are in a permanent catatonic state with little to no appetite for human flesh.

A bizarre, scarcely explicated cosmic occurrence triggers the recently deceased loved ones to miraculously come alive. This unearthly turn-of-events manifests itself in a selection of personal stories. We see a recognisable face in Renate Reinsve, playing a grieving mother to a dead young boy. The other two stories feature a departed elderly partner turning up alive, if uncommunicative, at the front doorstep and a mother/ wife, who remains alive but unresponsive on a hospital bed. Expectedly, as the film’s tenor suggests, this re-emergence comes with caveats. The resurrected, in some instances in a semi-decomposed state, are initially met with wonderment and welcome, but hope slowly erodes once they appear unable to snap out of their placid stupor and for things to go further awry.

On paper the film occupies a space within the sci-fi and horror realms, but the execution here has more the markings of a Nordic psychological thriller. Subtlety, eeriness, psychological manoeuvring, misery with grey, natural, streamlined aesthetics. Hvistendhal approach is subdued, allowing for an ever mutable, if often dawdling, storyline to unfold where nothing superfluous, exaggerated or even scary happens. The focus is very much on those alive, who are left in a perpetual state of flux.

The horror genre-bending recalls Yorgos Lanthimos’ sophomore feature Alps (2012), where we see people take extreme measures in order to mitigate the immense pain of mourning. And in similar directorial fashion, great efforts are made in order to portray an outlandish situation in the most hyperrealistic manner. It almost works. The problem is that the viewing experience is a little long-winded. Events take place and revelations are made in an incredibly unhurried stride, and that is if and when they do. Simultaneously, the deciphering of these mysteries (through the minimal exposition on offer) is what keeps the film going. At a lethargic and unstable pace, much like a zombie.

Ultimately, there is a lot of food for thought here. Grief, loss and death are all inescapable.

The narrative choices do not rest solely on Hvistendahl shoulders, but are designated by the original source, the 2005 eponymous book by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote vampire novel Let The Right One In (which was turned into two films).

Handling the Undead showed at Sundance London.

By Daniel Theophanous - 13-06-2024

Daniel has contributed to publications such as Little White Lies, BFI, Tape Collective, Hyperallergic, DMovies and many others. A lot of Daniel’s work is focused on LGBTQI+ cinema and hosts a podcas...

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