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‘Handling the Undead’ Star Renate Reinsve on Shocking Zombie Son Scenes: ‘Seeing That Little Boy on the Bed Gave Me a Panic Attack’

Norwegian director Thea Hvistendahl’s zombie movie “Handling the Undead,” premiering at Sundance and to be released in the U.S. by Neon, sees the reunion of Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie, the stars of Oscar-nominated “The Worst Person in the World,” in a poetic, visually-charged chronicling of a hot summer’s day in Oslo when the dead mysteriously come back to life.

Hvistendahl’s feature debut, an adaptation of the eponymous novel by “Let the Right One In” author John Ajvide Lindqvist, is not your conventional zombie movie. “It’s very important to mention to people who are going to see it that they shouldn’t expect the regular zombie flick. I made the film with the zombie genre in mind, and wanted to subvert some of the classic tropes, but if people are only looking for a thrill, this film might not be it!,” quips the director.

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Hvistendahl acquired the rights to Lindqvist’s novel back in 2019 after wanting to adapt one of his books for years. While the book expands on the story of several characters as the dead return to life in the Norwegian capital, the director ultimately chose to focus on three parallel storylines for “Handling the Undead”: a recently widowed older woman, a family of four who lost their matriarch, and a mother and grandfather who are grieving following the death of a young boy. “Writing it was so difficult,” the director adds. “I kept thinking: why didn’t I just have one character with one problem? But I was just so drawn to the story and to the genre-bending in John’s books.”

The director credits her decision to have a toned down, dialogue-light genre film to wanting to make a “movie for the cinema.” “When you are trying to cover too much, it kind of fizzles out, so I gradually began removing more and more dialogue. You don’t need to feed your audience with unnecessary information. Since what’s happening is quite absurd, I felt like talking about it too much would remove the space for the audience to put themselves into the film.”

This stylistic choice, according to the director, was inspired by the likes of Lynne Ramsay and Lucile Hadžihalilović and is on par with Hvistendahl’s short films, often heavily stylized snapshots of a character’s mental decay. It was precisely the distinctive voice in Hvistendahl’s shorts that attracted Cannes best actress winner Renate Reinsve to “Handling the Undead.”

“[Thea] just does her own thing. She is very brave in her creative choices and I knew she was going to do something different, something special,” Reinsve tells Variety out of Sundance, where she arrives with not only “Handling the Undead” but Aaron Schimberg’s A24 psychological thriller “A Different Man,” in which she co-stars with Sebastian Stan.

“The movie is about grief and loss, and what attracted me to [the character of] Anna is that she is so closed off, she is handling the grief of losing her son like a machine,” the actress says. “She is not able to connect to other people or to herself. When she gets a second chance, it’s with a son who is neither alive nor dead so there are all of these emotions of hope and confusion. She learns how to accept her grief and let go, and that is what really moved me about the stories.”

Still, dealing with such grief was not easy for Reinsve, who mentioned struggling with first seeing the doll created to represent the barely alive son who Anna lost. “It was such a horrific image. Seeing that little boy on the bed gave me a panic attack. The reaction was not in the script but Thea ended up using that version because she thought it felt truer to how it would be like to be in that situation. The whole process was very painful, to be thinking of this little boy half dead and alive caused me so much pain.”

Speaking about the makeup and prop design process, Hvistendahl said that some of the inspiration for the look of the undead came from the book, but she spent a long time talking to pathologists and funeral directors, on top of looking for images online and in books. “Me and my special effects and makeup supervisor wanted it to be as realistic as possible. It is scarier to have it realistic than monstrous.”

Hvistendahl is well aware of the buzz surrounding the reunion of Reinsve and Danielsen Lie, and hopes people won’t be disappointed to learn the two don’t share a scene since they belong to different storylines within the film.

“When I cast the two, I didn’t know how big a success ‘The Worst Person in the World’ was going to be. Then I thought it was a bit wack that they didn’t play against each other [laughs], but they were definitely the best ones for the parts and we as a country don’t have a lot of actors to choose from. I think it’s good that people know them, and I understand that a lot of people are excited about seeing them together — it’s really lucky for me.”

The duo signed up for “Handling the Undead” before Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” made a big splash at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, with Danielsen Lie first telling Hvistendahl he and Reinsve were headed to the French Riviera during a camera test for the zombie movie three years ago.

Reinsve says of reuniting with Danielsen Lie: “We talked about it being a social realism film but going into a fantastical segment. We were very curious as to how we were going to do this and since the storyline moved us so much. We ended up connecting even though we don’t share a scene together.”

She adds that “The Worst Person in the World” was “life-changing for people, and for us as well,” and hopes people will be able to relate to Anna, her character in “Handling the Undead,” as much as they did with hopeless romantic Julie. “When I get into a character I try to be altruistic — it’s not about me, it’s about people connecting to this character.”

On top of having two films premiering at Sundance this year, Reinsve just finished shooting Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel’s “Armand” and will begin shooting her next collaboration with Trier in August, a family drama titled “Sentimental Value.”

Other projects in the pipeline include “The Governess,” the sophomore feature of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” director Joe Talbot, alongside Lily-Rose Depp, and Piero Messina’s sci-fi “Another End,” starring Gael García Bernal and Bérénice Bejo.

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