Earlier in io9’s 2024 Sundance Film Festival coverage, we reviewed In a Violent Nature, one of the most unconventional slasher movies ever made. That theme continues with Handling the Undead—a most unusual zombie movie, and one that offers proof (yet again) that the genre still has the ability to innovate.
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A lot of that is down to the source-material novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, probably Sweden’s most famous horror author thanks to the global success of Let the Right One In and its subsequent adaptations. First-time feature director Thea Hvistendahl, who co-wrote the script with Lindqvist, shifts the action from Sweden to Norway, but—though there’s a certain Scandinavian austerity that permeates everything—this story really could take place anywhere. It focuses on three different stories of people dealing with grief that’s still fresh and raw: an elderly woman who’s just lost her wife; a grandfather and mother struggling to accept the death of the latter’s young son; and a vibrant mother—the only character we meet before she dies—who succumbs to a car accident, leaving behind her bereft husband and kids.
Given the morbid subject matter, it’s no surprise sadness and gloom cling to every frame, and Handling the Undead is in no hurry to offer any relief; the first third of the movie inches along at a glacial pace. But then, something happens. The power goes out; when it comes back on, this seemingly natural glitch turns supernatural, and the recently deceased start waking up. For the three families we’ve met, the situation greatly complicates the grieving process in different ways. The elderly woman is thrilled to reunite with her sweetheart, who simply strolls back home wearing the elegant clothes she was set to be buried in—leading to tender moments that feel like a romantic spin on Pet Sematary or “The Monkey’s Paw.” The frost that’s permeated the young child’s family—the mother is played by Renate Reinsve, who starred in 2021’s The Worst Person in the World—melts almost immediately as Grandpa and Mom unite to care for the boy. And the family of the car-crash victim, who reanimates in a hospital morgue, struggle with how to feel as she undergoes a string of medical tests that can’t explain her sudden recovery.
Beyond the hospital scenes, a few interactions with the police and glimpses of the media, and one moment where we see kids mockingly acting like zombies in the background, we don’t learn much about how the wider world is reacting to all this. Handling the Undead is far more interested in these intimate stories, and as a result it ends up offering an eerily realistic exploration of how ordinary people might react to seeing their loved ones come back to life. The range of emotions feels deeply human, but pure horror—and Handling the Undead is most definitely a horror movie, something that becomes perfectly clear as it progresses—lurks beneath every happy tear and eager embrace of a suddenly breathing-again corpse.
Handling the Undead premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival; Neon will distribute it in the U.S. though a release date is not yet known.
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