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The Sundance sensation “Handling the Undead” is a breathtaking meditation on grief and another homerun indie horror hit from Neon.

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Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist has dreamed up the ideas behind several of the best surreal horror films of the last two decades: He wrote the book and screenplay for Let the Right One In (2008), wrote the book and co-wrote the screenplay for Border (2018); and now, he’s co-written the screenplay for Handling the Undead (2024), which is based on his novel of the same name.

The movies based on his written work always have an uncanny eeriness; they exist in a realm a few degrees off from what we know as reality.

For Handling the Undead, his co-writer Thea Hvistendahl also directed the film, which imagines a gentler – yet more upsetting – version of what would happen if the undead (zombies, although that word seems too crude for this film) roamed the earth.

Handling the Undead focuses on three different families in Oslo who reunite with their recently deceased loved ones after a strange electrical event affects the city.

A single mom (Renate Reinsve) and her father (Bjørn Sundquist) are on the run after digging up the grave of her recently deceased young son; an elderly queer woman (Bente Børsum) tries to adjust when her life partner (Olga Damani) returns to their home; and a father (Anders Danielsen Lie) and his two children (Jan Hrynkiewicz and Inesa Dauksta) try to get answers when his wife (Bahar Pars) dies in a car accident, then appears to come back to life.

The incredible sound design and music immediately immerse viewers into the world Hvistendahl has created with this film.

Handling the Undead

The sweetly sad original music (which earned Peter Raeburn the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Original Music at the Sundance Film Festival) combined with the more natural sounds (birds, wind, lapping waves) lulls viewers completely into this world, which is like a fever dream of reality.

Hvistendahl’s thoughtful and precise cinematography – lingering on shots of graveyards at dusk, the expressions on the characters’ faces as they grapple with the undead, and the careful set designs of each family’s home – works with the sound and music to perfect the unsettling yet dreamy atmosphere.

This in-between world, where the characters’ zombified loved ones aren’t quite alive but aren’t quite dead, calls to mind some of the similarly uncanny worlds created by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul in films like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011) and Cemetery of Splendour (2016).

Like Weerasethakul’s films, Handling the Undead dissolves the line between the living and the dead to provide a different understanding of what death can look like.

However, Hvistendahl’s film also adds a darkness and bleakness largely absent from Weerasethakul’s movies.

The characters in Handling the Undead journey from disbelief and unexpected joy when their loved ones first return to unease as their attempts to connect with them fail in increasingly upsetting ways.

In one scene, the elderly woman whose lover has returned tries to feed her a piece of bread. She pokes at her slack lips, trying to provide nourishment. Suddenly, her lover’s teeth snap at her hand, more like a wild animal than a human being.

Some scenes are deeply affecting, like the family of four who loses their mother in a car accident, only to have her heart start beating again.

They’re the only family where we see a glimpse of what their mother was like when she was alive, and Bahar Pars gives all her warmth, humor, and gentleness to the character. Contrasting this with her later undead state gives the film one of its most disturbing moments, as her family realizes that this zombified version is nowhere near the loving woman they knew.

Incredibly, Handling the Undead is Hvistendahl’s first feature film.

Deft directing, combined with a stellar script, the actors’ dedication to opening themselves to the surreal possibilities presented by the film, and the evocative sound and music make this film an unforgettable meditation on grief, love, and how people show vulnerability and strength in extraordinary situations.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5

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