The dead return to life during a hot Oslo summer in this adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist.
When the deceased return during a hot summer in Oslo, they bring with them not the usual lurching carnage but the potentially more destructive baggage of grief. Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist has adapted his 2005 novel in collaboration with Thea Hvistendahl, who also directs, and they give zombies a similar melancholy makeover to the vampire in that tale. Hvistendahl’s debut feature, Handling The Undead maintains a rigor mortis-strong grip on the mood as this increasingly chilling triptych unfolds.
The slow-build horror, powered by an amplified sound design and a broody score, will be released in Norway on February 9 after its Sundance world premiere and European bow at Gothenburg. Neon has acquired the US and UK rights, where it is more likely to spark interest with audiences looking for chills that stem from the thought of what might happen, rather than graphic on-screen horror. That The Worst Person In The World stars Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie both feature might also help sell it to arthouse crowds..
Reinsve plays bereaved mum Anna, who lives with her elderly father (Bjørn Sundquist), his ragged breath as he returns to her apartment an early indication that the sound design from Bent Holm and his team will be key. He might as well be a ghost for all the attention his daughter gives him. A fallen dinosaur and a handful of other toys signpost their grief.
Danielsen Lie meanwhile is David, a comedian living with his partner Eva (Bahar Pars) and two kids (Inesa Dauksta and Kian Hansen). An accident is soon to leave them in a state of limbo as well. In the third strand, the elderly Tora (Bente Børsum) says goodbye to her dead partner Elisabet (Olga Damani) at a funeral, little realising that this will not be their last farewell.
The dead do not immediately rise to this occasion, however. Instead Hvistendahl lets a cool mood of contemplation settle in the spaces they used to inhabit. The camera of Pal Ulvik Rokseth drifts around the rooms of the living: in one, a ringing phone shatters the silence; in another, David waits anxiously for news. But if the grief felt by these people is raw, it only becomes more acute after a strange power surge strikes the city – signalled by a cacophony of car alarms, the hum of electric overhead cables and birds twisting in murmurations. This is the trigger for their loved ones, in a variety of ways, to end up back in their lives.
While they look like the person who was left behind, all three zombies are mute. The sound of breath again becomes vital as we hear the hitched inhaling of Anna’s son, the buzzing of flies an indication of the state of decomposition. Elisabet is more recently deceased but, at least at first, virtually unresponsive as Tora cares for her, while doctors are confused by precisely what is going on with Eva.
The spare scripting makes us acutely aware of the other sounds that fill the silence; the different rhythms of breath, the click of a fan or, as the film finally takes a turn in a more horrific direction, the snap of teeth. Beyond the sound design, Peter Raeburn’s music moves seamlessly from low rumbling and electronic moments to more elegiac string and piano-driven scoring.
Hvistendahl gives her ensemble time and space to deliver the conflicted emotions they are feeling, a mixture of shock and longing playing out on their faces and in their movements, with the generally middle-distance camera closing in at key momentas. As these dead people push their nearest and dearest away not through violence, but simply by their presence, Handling The Undead becomes less about holding someone close and more about letting them go.
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