The first word that comes to mind when thinking of how to write about Thea Hvistendahl’s Handling the Undead is: dread. To expand: slow, ponderous dread. Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (and based on his novel of the same name), this is a zombie movie in the tradition of the author’s own Let the Right One In. There are zombies here but, as with the vampires in the latter work, the focus is elsewhere, mostly. Its genre construct is meant to elevate a deeper kind of pain. In this incarnation, a series of sad people dealing with different variations of grief must contend with an unsettling new reality: those loved ones they’ve buried have come back to life.

But only somewhat. Stand-up comedian David (Anders Danielsen Lie) loses his wife (Bahar Pars) in a car accident, forced to face their two children in the immediate aftermath. Hours later, there she is––near-comatose in a hospital bed. Anna (Renate Reinsve) has lost her young son. Until her father (Bjorn Sundquist) digs the rotting little boy out of his grave after hearing pounding inside the casket. One-half of an elderly couple (Bente Borsum) returns from the funeral of her partner (Olga Damani) only to find her back in their home, standing stoically by the window.

And so these people attempt to resuscitate and revive and reanimate those they loved while negotiating the lingering grief of having lost them still––an engaging premise that doesn’t much evolve. The film is impressively detached and vacant in its framing, dour in its lighting (courtesy Pål Ulvik Rokseth). All of this sets the mood well, but then nothing really changes. Reinsve is superb as a confused mother with no clear direction forward, her only real goal being more time with whatever is left of her alive-ish son. (The camera’s unflinching eye at the not-so-animated living corpse of the young child frankly wore on this viewer.) Lie is as compelling as Reinsve in limited screentime. This marks something of a dubious The Worst Person In The World reunion, as the two performers don’t share a scene.

Despite a short runtime, the pacing builds a narrative that plays much longer. There’s plenty of silence, punctuated by brief crescendos of score and moments of unsettling violence. (Watcher beware: there is one sequence of disturbing animal cruelty.) Handling the Undead is ultimately much ado about not that much. Despite some devoted performances and interesting formal choices, its endgame is rather rote. That the film is quieter and more deliberate in getting there doesn’t make it any less cliche. The zombies may not be the central focus, but a straightforward zombie movie this is.

Handling the Undead premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by NEON.

Grade: C+

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