Handling the Undead

My thinking on Handling the Undead changed slightly over the course of 24 hours. Immediately after seeing it, my thought was that it was boring. I couldn’t stop thinking about the film afterward, though, and I’ve come to appreciate what it’s trying to do, including obliterating a slow-burn tone with one of the most shocking scenes my eyes have ever witnessed. The film still has significant flaws that it can’t overcome, but I have grudging respect for it.

Oslo inexplicably finds its dead rising from the grave. A woman who perished in a car accident returns to her family. An older woman is reunited with her deceased partner. A food prep worker (played by The Worst Person in the World’s Renata Reinsve) is shocked when her father digs up and retrieves the little boy she lost. Whereas most cinematic zombies come back to munch on brains, the ones here just kind of hang out for a while. The living, meanwhile, try to carry on as best they can. That old woman, for example, tenderly puts makeup on her partner in a gesture of love and affection.

Handling the Undead asks the question: What if the dead came back and did nothing? The deceased here exist with no trace of personality or vibrancy. They merely gravitate to the places and people that were familiar to them, without showing any detectable pleasure. Writer/director Thea Hvistendahl hypothesizes that the impact would be on the families and friends, who would attempt to return to a status pre-death. They would, in other words, pretend nothing had happened, choosing instead to seek comfort in the rituals and routines of the past.

As dramatically gripping as that idea is, the film fails to do enough with it. These living characters aren’t developed. We learn nothing about them over the course of the story. That, coupled with extremely sparse dialogue, means we get little sense of their grief. To work, the movie needed to emphasize the cognitive dissonance they feel upon having a loved one revive in a radically different form. Tons of emotional possibilities exist within that framework, yet Hvistendahl opts to give Handling the Undead a cold, detached tone that keeps viewers at arm’s length.

Even if you can get through the funereal pacing, a nasty surprise awaits. During the last half-hour, the low-key ambiance is shattered by a disturbing, sickening scene of animal cruelty. No, the filmmakers didn’t hurt an animal for real. What’s shown is nevertheless extremely long and unpleasant, focusing on the poor creature’s suffering. It does for this movie what the chestburster scene did for Alien, times about ten. An artistically valid choice? Yes, undoubtedly. Something you want to actually subject yourself to? Maybe not.

Handling the Undead sets out to do something very specific. Technically, it accomplishes the goal. I can respect the ambition of it all but the experience of watching the movie was one of tedium, followed by being made to feel sick to my stomach.

out of four

Handling the Undead is unrated, but contains an extremely graphic and disturbing moment of animal cruelty. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan