Good Griefs
By Eileen G’Sell

Handling the Undead
Dir. Thea Hvistendahl, Norway, NEON

There are times when loss is so terrifying, so brutally eviscerating, that only the horror genre can do it justice. Natalie Erika James’s Relic (2020) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) are but two films from the past decade in which the supernatural allows us (sometimes literally) to peel back the skin of our own mortality and peek at the darkness beneath. In Relic, a dementia-addled granny turns monstrous toward her daughter, her creaking home as moribund as her body and as labyrinthine as her mind. In The Babadook, a mother grapples with her sanity as her son becomes violent six years after his father’s death. That it is often women navigating such grim psychological terrain seems no accident; our bodies become sites of life or death during pregnancy, as it is also often women charged with the responsibility of cleaning up after family trauma.

It is also often women who make horror films about this thorny process. Norwegian director Thea Hvistendahl is the latest example; her directorial debut Handling the Undead premiered at Sundance to avid applause (though a handful fled the theater during a scene featuring a pet bunny). Based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who penned the vampire tome Let the Right One In), Handling the Undead is a zombie movie for people who care less about zombies than what they symbolize about our bodies postmortem. It is a movie that shows rare empathy for these bodies, which so recently housed sentient, animate beings that others loved and were loved in kind. The film is just as invested in the desperation so many feel after a death, when a breathing, blinking being disappears, even when, in some tangible form, the body still exists.

Set in contemporary Oslo, Handling follows three families who have lost, or lose, a loved one: Anna (Renata Reinsve), a working-class mother whose son has died for reasons undisclosed; David (Anders Danielsen Lie), an amateur comedian whose wife, Eva (Bahar Pars), has a strained relationship with their teenage daughter Flora (Inesa Dauksta); and Tora (Bente Børsum), the sole attendee at the funeral of an elderly woman Elisbet (Olga Domani), who looks approximately her age. When the power grid mysteriously cuts off midsummer, the dearly departed suddenly reappear, their nonchalance no less startling than the expected grisly spectacle.

Eschewing traditional methods of exposition like dialogue and voiceover, Hvistendahl reveals character relationships and plot primarily through meticulous attention to audio and visual details. Jump scares are few; instead, the camera tends to remain stationary for ominously long intervals, and dread accumulates slowly, especially in the film’s first act. In general, the camera itself seems to hesitate before exposing any gruesome visual content beyond the frame, something we are often clued to anticipate through the gradual intensification of common sounds—from the drone of an oscillating fan to the clatter of footsteps on pavement. You might say that Handling handles the squeamish viewer with care; one has time to prepare for moments of gore and to choose whether to keep one’s eyes on the screen—yet another reason this film feels as compassionate as it is disturbing.

From the caliginous opening shots of a sunless living room, the film proceeds with marked gravitas. The first three minutes swell with somber choral music as the camera lingers on the face of a dejected old man smoking on a black sofa. We are tempted to piece together the cause of the man’s distress from the spartan mise-en-scène of his flat. Newspapers curl next to a stack of wooden coasters on top of his small, barren refrigerator; his cigarette is left burning in an ashtray when he exits. One imagines the man is recently widowed, unaccustomed to the burdens of domestic life.

But for all central characters in Handling the Undead, snap judgments based on genre conventions are quickly upended. Hvistendahl weaves a tapestry of grief that deliberately evades sentimental archetypes. Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist), the old man, turns out to be Anna’s father. “I’ll eat at work,” she tells him, rejecting the plastic bag of leftovers he’s brought to her apartment, situated in the same drab public housing project as his own. Eight minutes into the film, it’s the first line spoken, and a sign of what’s to come. Punctuating the haunting score by Peter Raeburn and equally eerie sound effects, silence directs our focus to subtle visuals. Anna’s fridge offers nothing but nail polish bottles and a liter of Diet Pepsi; a small neon green toothbrush livens her otherwise colorless bathroom.

The first hint of zombies—loopy and larger-than-life—shows up on Flora’s television screen when her mother disrupts her first-person-shooter game to demand the return of her cigarettes. A few minutes later, on the way to David’s stand-up performance, Eva gives her husband a cheery pep talk. “You’ll do great. Why are you so nervous?” she jests. “You only say that to comfort me,” he smiles back. It makes a creepy kind of sense that the most light-hearted, garrulous exchange in the movie is followed by the first sign that something is seriously off. Dogs bark at nothing from their chains, the car radio blasts random static, flocks of birds flee the town, streetlights flicker on and off as Eva and Mahler sail, in separate vehicles, through Oslo’s Bjorvika Tunnel. Only one of the two makes it to their destination.

When the undead rise onscreen, they look more spooked than spooky. One appears in the kitchen of her own well-appointed home, gazing into the refrigerator and waking up her beloved. Another’s heart starts beating again after she’s pronounced dead at the hospital. A third, sickly gray on his pillow, requests a sip of water. Disquietingly, the zombies mostly resemble sympathetic people; they behave like human beings just enough, and just long enough, for their loved ones—and us—to want to hold onto and protect them, no matter how misguided we know that to be.

Ultimately, the mourners must choose what to do when their undead, as befitting its genre, bare deadly appetites of their own. Letting go is less an act of moving on than a means of survival. In a time when medical advances make it ever more possible to stave off mortality and bring one back from the brink of death, Handling the Undead doesn’t feel merely metaphorical. What does it mean to love a person versus that person’s body? What can be gained by accepting loss, no matter how horrifying the aftermath? In this film, grief is the central character, dignified by the beauty and restraint of Hvistendahl’s cinematic language. As Anna rocks her boy in a rowboat in the final scene, the sun glows in the distance and she lifts him into the air.