‘Handling the Undead’ Shreds Zombie Movie Playbook

No gore, no problem? Subdued horror film lacks a pulse, purpose

“Sometimes dead is bett-ah” – Fred Gwynne, “Pet Sematary”

That classic line haunts the most unconventional zombie film in years. “Handling the Undead” ditches the shambling walks and brain-eating tics we expect from the genre.

The undead here are vacant and still, harmless shells of their former selves. Or are they?

Norwegian director Thea Hvistendahl teases that question without the histrionics we’re used to when the dead come back to life. It’s a meditation on loss that feels like we’re stuck at a stranger’s funeral. 

And it never ends.

HANDLING THE UNDEAD - Official Sundance Trailer

“Handling the Undead” follows three families dealing with the loss of a loved one.

A car accident. Old age. An undisclosed illness.

We see them carrying on with their lives, the heaviness stark and oppressive. A good 20 minutes into this somber affair an electronic pulse rumbles through their community.

Suddenly the dead start moving again.

A grief-stricken mother (Renate Reinsve) reunites with her child, who bears the markings of having been dead for a while. The makeup effects give “Handling the Undead” its creepiest moments.


An elderly woman reunites with her lost love, going through the motions of their former life together. The dead can dance, but badly.

A family man waits at home while doctors refuse to let him see his wife. She was declared dead after an accident but she’s still not quite … alive.

The undead here barely move. They don’t speak. They open their eyes with effort and show little of their former selves. And their families cling to them anyway.

Loss. Regret. Healing. It’s all embedded in the story, but we need more to power a 90-plus minute feature. By that measure, “Handling the Undead” can’t deliver.

The film offers unsettling details that lurk in the background, adding to our discomfort. The story is set in the present, but there’s a discernible lack of people and traffic in some scenes.

It’s a quiet riff on dystopian zombie tropes, no?

Dialogue is sparse. Zombies rarely speak in conventional horror films. Here, we hang onto every word for extra meaning.

Everything about “Handling the Undead” is tasteful and reserved, from the performances to the mournful score. It’s also excruciatingly dull.


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The opening sequence foreshadows that plodding pace. A grandfather (Bjørn Sundquist) takes food to his adult daughter’s apartment, a journey we watch as if it were caught on drone cameras without a single edit.

Fine. Establish the mood. Let us settle into this mournful family’s existence. We’ll still need more to engage us.

A few familiar horror beats sneak into the story, but they happen so late it clashes with the film’s restrained approach. Why now? What was the purpose all along?

The zombie genre is so played out we crave a fresh way to examine what eternal life might look like. “Handling the Undead” offers such a re-imagining, but we’re left not just hungry for brains but famished.

HiT or Miss: “Handling the Undead” is an “un-horror” movie that fails to replace shocks with the dramatic heft the story craves.

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