‘Handling The Undead’ Director Thea Hvistendahl On Sad Zombies And Working With Puppets

handling the undead

Author John Ajvide Lindqvist is known for his deeply affecting horror novels that are both terrifying and heartbreaking. His most popular is the vampire novel Let The Right One In, which was successfully adapted not once, but twice into horror films. Now, filmmaker Thea Hvistendahl is tackling his novel Handling The Undead as her feature film debut.

In Handling The Undead:

On a hot summer day in Oslo, the dead mysteriously awaken, and three families are thrown into chaos when their deceased loved ones come back to them. Who are they, and what do they want? A family is faced with the mother’s reawakening before they have even mourned her death after a car accident; an elderly woman gets the love of her life back the same day she has buried her; a grandfather rescues his grandchild from the gravesite in a desperate attempt to get his daughter out of her depression.

We spoke with Hvistendahl about tackling this adaptation, working with puppets, and creating the film’s uniquely haunting look and atmosphere.

Dread Central: I watched this last night and had to pause it and take a break because I got too sad. So thank you so much for delivering this incredibly unique horror experience.

Thea Hvistendahl: Thank you. I’m happy that you were sad. [Laughs]

DC: How did you get involved with this adaptation, and what was that process like? To take a book and then distill it into this slice of life look at a crazy horror tragedy?

TH: So I was very interested in Lindqvist’s universe. Then luckily my producers met his agents randomly at the lunch, and they told him that I wanted to adapt a book by him. They said that Handling The Undead was available. So I hadn’t read that, but I read it very quickly and I was like, yes, this is great. And then he allowed me to do it, which was nice. I actually inherited a script that he had adapted for another director

Lindqvist himself wrote that one, so he had already made some changes, and then he gave me permission to do what I wanted with it. There were some things that I didn’t think really worked in the script that I got. So it took me quite a while to finally be able to distill it. I didn’t see immediately how to do it, but Handling the Undead ended up in a very distilled way, I think, of the novel.

DC: Yeah, because the novel’s pretty complicated. Here you were hyper-focused on the three families. Was that already in the script you inherited, or is that something that came from your head?

TH: No, [the inherited script] was more based on the families, but the old ladies, that was a much smaller story and with a straight couple. He had already placed on those two families and left a third storyline out of it, as well as the storyline about how the politicians dealt with it. But [the original script] was a bit more of how it affected the society a little bit. It’s much easier in the book to push the suspension of disbelief.

So yeah, it didn’t work out the same way. Also, you need so much information to tell [the original story], and then the more info you give, the more answers you have to give. Through the process of rewriting, it became a very distilled version of the book. I think it’s more like the essence [of Handling The Undead].

DC: The film still has that emotional core that I think all of his books have. I love his writing, and there is something so deeply upsetting about his writing. You really hit that emotional core when it comes to the experience of grief and what that looks like, especially through your cinematography.

I love how you and your DP [Pål Ulvik Rokseth] work together to make you feel like you’re watching from afar, but then you’ll cut to a closeup. I love this kind of tension between staying far away, and then getting close to our characters. So what was that like to develop that look and feel with [Rokseth] to make this feel both grounded emotionally and also distant?

TH: Because the characters are in such deep grief from the beginning, I felt like if we’re getting too close or pushing that too much all the time, the film was just going to be too sentimental or too much to handle if you push that on the audience all the time. So that’s why I really wanted it to be more observing and also to leave the audience more space to do a lot of the work themselves. I wanted the mise en scene and the camera to tell the audience more about the emotional state of the characters rather than just seeing sad faces all the time.

DC: But I love that opening shot where you follow the father from his apartment to her apartment. It sets the tone so well that you’re watching someone being very sad and it’s nothing you can do about it. There’s something even more tragic about that.

TH: And also all these characters are very isolated in their grief. So it was also a way of just watching them being by themselves.

DC: Was Elias a boy or a puppet?

TH: He is a mix.

DC: Okay, I couldn’t tell if it was a real person or not!

TH: Yeah, it’s mixed, but it’s mostly a puppet. We did do some tests with makeup on a small child. But the thing is that you can only have a child that age in makeup for two hours, and it takes more time to put on the prosthetics. Plus children are so lively. They’re constantly moving and their eyes are glittering, and yeah, he did not look so bad then. That’s why we had to go for a more dull version of the boy [via a puppet]. So that was very crucial and I hoped it would work because it’s so essential to the film.

DC: It’s creepy in a good way though. Are you a genre film fan? Is that something you enjoy watching in your spare time?

TH: Yes, but I think I tend to lean toward more eerie, unsettling, creepy stuff than the very scary.

DC: What are some of your favorites?

TH: Cure, for instance.

DC: That’s my favorite movie, and I talk about it all the time. It is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. And as you said, it’s just dread.

TH: It’s so creepy and it’s so unsettling. So that’s one I love. Then another one that also opened to me how and what horror could be is a French film called Innocence. It’s really creepy, but it’s also, I don’t know, it’s mystery, drama, horror. It’s very poetic, but very eerie and uncanny.

DC: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today about Handling The Undead. Thank you for making me cry.

TH: Thank you for crying. [Laughs]


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