Handling the Undead

Handling the Undead (Håndtering av udøde) (2024)

Handling the Undead (Håndtering av udøde, 2024)

Near the beginning of Handling the Undead (Håndtering av udøde), Eva (Bahar Pars) tries to get the attention of her young adult daughter Flora (Inesa Dauksta), but Flora is thoroughly and rudely absorbed by the video game she is playing. This game, a shooter in which the player’s armed character tries to survive a zombie apocalypse, offers a representation of the undead, and a way of handling them, familiar from the countless zombie films that have appeared in the wake of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and have been revived (with many variants) ever since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) resurrected and renewed these narrative modes in the early Noughties.  

Yet while Norwegian writer/director Thea Hvistendahl’s feature debut (unless you count her 2017 concert movie The Monkey and the Mouth) does itself present a zombie apocalypse of sorts, it is very different from the kind portrayed in Flora’s game or in endless recent films and television series. For in this sequence, the focus is as much on Flora’s fractious relationship with her loving mother as on her in-game gunplay – and it is that human element which will continue to dominate the film after a never-explained electrical event brings the recently dead back to life, and so figures death itself as squelching, staticky interference in our normal programming. Now Eva, who has just been killed in a car accident, is seemingly alive again, and kept under observation by the hospital while her husband David (Anders Danielsen Lie), Flora and Flora’s younger brother Kian (Kian Hansen) are left in a limbo between mourning and hope.

Meanwhile grey-haired Tora (Bente Børsum) is briefly interrupted from her solitude and sadness when her life partner Elisabet (Olga Damani), to whom Tora has just bidden farewell at the funeral parlour, comes back home – and Anna (Renate Reinsve), still raw with grief, must learn once more to let go after her elderly father Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist) comes home with the living but visibly deteriorated body of her young son and his grandson Elias, buried not long ago. Though these revenants breathe and wheeze and stare, have a certain mobility, even a homing instinct, and remain appetitive, they no longer speak and are hardly their former selves – more absences than presences – and so their return serves merely to gauge the emotions (loss, despair, denial, acceptance) of those they had left behind who still cling to the memory of what they once were.

Handling the Undead

“My darling, are you in there somewhere?”, Tora asks the affectless Elisabet, as though she is still back at the funeral home addressing her lover’s encoffined corpse, “I miss you.” As these living characters, already struggling to handle the dead, are confronted with the persistently undead, Hvistendahl uses genre to dramatise the shifting nuances of grief, with only a hint towards the end that these blank zombies might, after all, be rather like the ones normally seen in videogames and movies, consuming their loved ones in more than just sorrow. Human emotion is key, as we watch people working through their intense, unimaginable feelings of loss, and negotiating their new relationships with the dead.

Adapted by Hvistendahl and Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist from Lindqvist’s own novel Hanteringen av odöda (2005), Handling the Undead may recall Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008), also adapted from a Lindqvist novel, for the way that it mediates a very human kind of monstrosity through horror tropes. Its closest analogue, however, is Robin Campillo’s The Returned (Les Revenants, aka They Came Back, 2004), which similarly examines the psychological fallout of a mass return by the aphasic undead. Hvistendahl focuses on the particularised stories of three different families, while hinting that their experiences might be multiplied throughout the population, so that her intimate domestic tales also come with a universal resonance.

“I love you whether you like it or not,” Eva says into her smartphone, in what will turn out to be the last voicemail that she ever sends to her daughter Flora. Here love abides, perhaps even is eternal – but it can also fester and rot, as it is redefined by death.   

strap: Slow zombies: Thea Hvistendahl’s haunting feature traces its living characters’ journey through grief as a close encounter with genre

© Anton Bitel