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Handling The Undead Shambles Against the Boundaries of Horror

I try not to have too many rules when it comes to movies—I want to experience each one with an open mind, and see where the creators want to take me. But I do have one question I ask, as needed: Was that animal death necessary?

There’s the obvious, visceral reason—I like animals and I don’t like seeing them die as part of what is ostensibly entertainment.

There’s also just that I, like a lot of you reading this, grew up with The Animal Dies as a stone-carved rule of the books I read and movies I watched during my childhood. It was a rare day when the beloved dog or horse or deer or whatever didn’t either sacrifice itself for the kid it was bonded with, or had to be put down because of an illness, or put down because the family couldn’t afford it, or had to be killed for food for the human family to eat. Maybe you’d get lucky and the animal would be given away to a new home, or sent back into the wilderness to live a life of freedom. Even a book like Black Beauty, where, spoiler alert, the titular character lives to old age, is positively littered with horse corpses along the way.

This was an exhausting way to be introduced to literature and film—to watch hapless kid after kid Learn About Life over the limp body of their beloved pet or the bleeding headless chicken they had to kill for dinner.

And in addition to that, though certainly no more important, is that an animal death, especially a gruesome onscreen one, is a back-alley shortcut to emotion, right? You show us an animal in the opening scenes, hang a threat over it, and then maybe kill it in some terrible fashion by the last reel to force the audience to feel something. It’s cheap.

So I ask again: Was that animal death necessary? In The Lobster, it absolutely was. In Alien, it was the animal’s survival that was a surprising key to greatness (and the spawning point for a whole subgenre of writing advice manuals).

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now why I’m musing on this at the opening of my review of Handling the Undead. Yes, there’s an animal death. It’s protracted, difficult to watch, and feels both inevitable and gratuitous, buried in amidst all the human death. I’m still asking myself whether it was worth it.

I’m leaning toward yes, because I think the interesting thing that Handling the Undead does with the zombie story is kind of, forgive me, to deaden it—to flatten the shock and terror into a very slow, very quiet feeling of grief. But toward the end of its run time it’s the animal death that forces blood back into the movie, and, if you have any empathy at all, forces you to feel for the animal, and for the family who has to deal with his loss on top of all the other losses.  

Handling the Undead is an adaptation of the Swedish novel Hanteringen av odöda by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote Let the Right One In. The film was directed by Thea Hvistendahl, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lindqvist, and focuses almost completely on three families that are affected by the inexplicable, and unexplained, return of the recently dead. I saw Handling the Undead two weeks ago and I’m still mulling on whether or not it worked for me, but if it did, I think it’s because of the animal death.

Remember the slow- vs. fast-zombie debates of the early ‘00s?

For those of you who were little kids then—or, uh, not alive yet—in 2002, 28 Days Later introduced fast-zombies-that-weren’t-really-zombies, but rather people infected with the “rage Virus”. They acted like classic flesh-eating zombies in all ways but one: they moved very fast. Like, rabid Tasmanian Devil fast. This was incredibly effective because it took the slow, shambling Romero-style zombie and gave us a version that could get infected, turn bad, and sprint after you, possibly before you realized you were in danger. But speaking of Romero zombies, in 2004 Zack Snyder and James Gunn’s re-imagined Dawn of the Dead gave us Romero zombies on amphetamines (and replaced Passion of the Christ in the #1 spot at the U.S. box office—people just would not stay dead that year), and fans of the original got to see some of the same beats played out with fast zombies. This led to pop cultural conversation about which type of zombie was better, and whether fast zombies even counted as zombies.

Then Shaun of the Dead opened in the US that fall, and stuck with classic slow zombies, but spent its last moments imagining the ways those zombies might be folded back into society once the initial panic was over. I thought at the time that that might be the actual death of the zombie movie—how could any horror film take these guys seriously after they were so thoroughly deconstructed?

Look, every once in a while I’m wrong.

As the subsequent 7,000 interminable seasons and spinoffs of The Walking Dead have proved, people still love these things. Across the last two decades, we’ve gotten World War Z, The Girl with All the Gifts, a sequel to 28 Days Later with another one on the way, Zombieland and its sequel, The Ravenous, Army of the Dead (which could be seen as a sequel to the Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake), iZombie, Cargo, Warm Bodies, Train to Busan, Fede Álvarez’ Evil Dead remake and Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise, Anna and the Apocalypse, Cabin in the Woods, Santa Clarita Diet, One Cut of the Dead, Life After Beth, As Above so Below, and—possibly my favorite of the bunch for personal reasons—The Dead Don’t Die.

The reason I bring all this up is because I found myself asking: what does Handling the Undead bring to this teetering, over-full table? And I found myself thinking about the fast-vs.-slow zombie conversations of the early ‘00s.

You’ll never find slower zombies than in Handling the Undead. Most of them can barely walk at all, let alone shuffle or shamble. This works for the film because the story itself is not just slow, it’s Slow, as in Slow Cinema. Or at least the closest a horror movie can GET to Slow Cinema. Shots are held long past the point a human is in them to be a point of focus. Light is considered. Weather is meditated upon. And it’s a little frustrating but also necessary for the film to work—if it works—because what Hvistendahl is doing here is making you sit in grief. There’s no speeding grief up. Each second ticks by bringing a new unfolding of pain, like reality is a blooming flower that you’re only just now seeing, that you cannot look away from. The young grieving mother, Anna (played by Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve), can’t escape her pain, no matter how she blasts her music and paints her nails bright colors and tries to create a simulacrum of the teen life she had before her child. The elderly woman (Bente Børsum) we see burying her wife has to go home and sleep in their giant bed alone, and no amount of riches can cushion her from her solitude. The family who loses their mother are a different shape now than they were before her accident, and it doesn’t matter that it’s about to be the son’s birthday, or that the last thing the daughter said to her was shitty and rude. We live with these people, moment by moment, as they try, and mostly fail, to move through a reality that feels like a nightmare. This is neither comfortable nor fun, and believe me my brain coughed up variations on “How slow are these fucking zombies?” to try to break the tension.

Thanks, brain. You always have my back.

But yes, when the zombies show up they are slow, and more to the point they are loved ones returned. And at least as first, they seem like they might be truly coming back. They don’t act like monsters, they just act like sick people. They need to be dressed and fed and cleaned the way anyone with a debilitating illness does, and their loved ones all immediately oblige. Maybe, if they take care of them enough, they won’t die a second time? Maybe they’ll make full recoveries?

By focusing so closely on a few affected families, Hvistendahl removes us from the usual politicized zombie tropes. There’s no sweeping aerial shot of Las Vegas subsumed under hordes of the undead, or malls gleefully destroyed, or even almost-normal people shuffling off to the jobs they can still do. Instead you’re forced, again, to sit with these families and think really hard about what this would mean, if your dead loved one showed up at the door. What would you do? How would you respond in the moment, and how would you respond when you woke into the new reality the next day? Are these people mad, to take these revenants back into their homes? Or is this an act of hope?

Now I know I just said this film wasn’t political but of course it is. Everything is. If you think about that title, Handling the Undead—well, who handles the dead, generally? Back in the day, the mothers and grandmothers and sisters of families that experienced loss were usually the ones who washed and anointed the bodies of the dead, until that care was passed on, at least in the West, more to professionals in hospitals and hospices, nurses, doctors, morgue attendants, paramedics, religious workers.  In the film we mostly see a mother and her elderly father caring for a child zombie, and the older woman caring for her undead wife. And what about the family that lost their mother? Well, she’s being cared for in a hospital, by professionals. Her husband and children visit her during set hours. The husband ricochets between coping with the reality where he’s now a shocked, grieving, terrified single parent, and the one where he has his partner back, but she’s utterly incapacitated, and he has to manage her care on top of their children’s.

I think what the film is really about is the limits of care. Not the limits of love, but the limits of a person’s ability to tend another’s physical reality. And I found myself asking whether or not this film is truly a horror film. I was lucky enough to attend Tribeca Film Festival this year, where I saw a film called The Devil’s Bath (I’ll be reviewing that one soon, too!) and it really fed into my thinking about Handling the Undead, and make me ask the same question.

What are the bounds of horror, if it has any?

Is this movie even horror?

Or should I say–of course it’s horror, but in the human way that it’s horrific when you get the phone call that your mother is dead. It’s horrific when the cop shows up at the door because your child has been in a car accident. It’s horrific when you go to the hospice center to sit beside the partner who no longer recognizes you. These things are horrific, they’re what zombie and vampire and ghost movies are about, really—they’re all just us finding a way to live with death.

But how does it work when someone turns the genre inside out, and makes a slow quiet drama that also has zombies in it? Where they’re not metaphor or symbol, they’re actually just the dead people that were already being mourned?

There are a couple of legitimately terrifying scenes looped around how the little boy returns to his family, and his mother’s reaction is one of the most upsetting—but perfect—things I’ve ever seen on film. If you asked me how I’d react if a dead person I loved came back, I would never in a million years think of doing what she does, and yet when she does it, it makes perfect sense. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched something with a giant grin on your face, while also being unable to breathe, but I can now say that I have. And there are some more traditional zombie moments toward the end of the film as well, but they feel like the movie crossing items off a to-do list after it’s already said everything important.

This brings me back to the animal death. It’s manageable. In the midst of this terrible reality of human death and undeath, the animal, who is small, helpless, and clearly dead, gives us something to grab onto, something was alive and now isn’t. Something we can mourn without as many worries about where life begins or ends. Surrounded by an existential terror and grief so large as to be unsee-able, we can let ourselves feel something for the animal, and that leads us into a way to feel for all the living and undead in the film. icon-paragraph-end

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