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'Handling The Undead' review: When the dead just won't stay dead & let you grieve in peace

Renate Reinsve holding Dennis Østby Ruud in front of a lake and a small boat

If you throw a rock right now, there's a 100% chance that you'll hit a filmmaker who has discovered the new and exciting word known as grief. What a novel concept it is to make a movie that discusses that part of the human condition. That brings us neatly to mournful, desaturated Oslo that acts as the setting of Handling The Undead (Håndtering av udøde in Norwegian), a horror drama directed and co-written by Thea Hvistendahl that adapts fellow co-writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel of the same name (Hanteringen av odöda in Swedish).

We follow three different storylines of people who have all lost a loved one recently, only to find out that they have come back to life as zombies which complicates things. Young mom Anna (Renate Reinsve) and her dad Mahler (Bjørn Sundquist) reunite with her deceased son Elias (Dennis Østby Ruud); elderly woman Tora (Bente Børsum) gets her partner Elisabet (Olga Damani) back; whilst David (Anders Danielsen Lie) and his kids Flora (Inesa Dauksta) and Kian (Kian Hansen) are again joined by his partner and the kids' mom Eva (Bahar Pars).

It's very easy to see why one would want to adapt this story in the first place and you definitely get a sense of what Hvistendahl and Lindqvist are going for in regard to thematic exploration and emotion. There's a lot of ground to cover when it comes to dealing with loss, acceptance and, uh, grief *shivers* in these characters' lives. What if the last thing you said to someone wasn't a sarcastic or hateful remark? What if you could see and touch them again? Would things be the same or would they be different? Is it better to remember them in all their beauty than to get them back looking like zombies? Hvistendahl occasionally taps into that well in the scenes that she constructs, particularly with the juxtaposition that Anna and Tora's different shades of sadness offer. Both struggle with and express the same feelings despite one having loved a short while and the other a long, long time.

The bad news is that said tension is indeed only occasional and much more is left unexplored. The film is oftentimes an excruciating experience, and not because of any zombie horror scares but because of the dreadful pacing that the director employs, as well as awkward editing by Thomas Grotmol and Trude Lirhus. There really isn't any kind of momentum, fully fleshed out character arcs or a sense of truthfulness guiding you even though the film treats the situation in a fairly ordinary manner. Sometimes it even plays like a parody of stories drowning in Nordic melancholy, down to the flat look provided by Pål Ulvik Rokseth's cinematography and the colour grading, which just underlines how lifeless the movie can be when it fails to expand on its themes, although it does exist on a fine line between the beauty of the living and the peacefulness of the dead.

''Undead'' ends up being one of those frustrating works where you can see the potential as clear as day, but it just doesn't find the right words or images to turn that vision into reality. It's not quite moving enough, it's not impressive enough, it's not deep enough—it just kind of brainlessly exists, for what feels like four hours but is actually 100 minutes, before it finally exits the building.

Smileys: Premise

Frowneys: Pacing, editing

Elisabet used to be Tora's bae, now she's just her Zombae.


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