Review: The Unliving

Swedish horror films are so few and far between that when public national broadcaster SVT co-produces and broadcasts one, it’s worth taking notice.

Directed by Swedish first-timer Hugo Lilja as a film school exam project in 2010, the 28 minute award-winning Återfödelsen (meaning ‘rebirth’ – international title is The Unliving) takes place 25 years after the big zombie breakout. However, things are not too worrying because the zombies are under control and are actually being “reschooled” (lobotomized by a power drill through the eye) to participate in society. Not as good citizens, but as slaves. In fact, Sweden and its politicians have become dependent on the unliving to man industries and agriculture, so politicians have created “catchers” that find roaming zombies so they can be processed in what looks more like a slaughter house than anything else. The movie follows a couple where one is a catcher and the other is a zombie factory worker.

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As one of several short films funded by Swedish Television and Swedish Film Institute in order to allow film students to make professional first projects, The Unliving boasts exceptional production value. Rarely have special effects been better in a Swedish film, at least not in a horror film, as gore, CGI, violence and set design are seamlessy integreated to create a completely believable universe. The film simply succeeds in looking and feeling the way it intended. Add great acting to the mix, mostly by unknowns, and a multifaceted story, and you understand why the film has received several awards, and is being considered for expansion to a feature film.

The most interesting aspect however is the political subtext. In the film, Sweden needs more labour, more workers, and politicians go to great extremes to achieve that. Just like many people would argue that Sweden’s current right wing government headed by Fredrik Reinfeldt forces sick people to work so that the government’s income can be spent on lowering taxes for those with a job. The film’s allegory can hardly be missed, and should not be missed either, because the description of a political system is the scary thing about the film. While being a film that adheres to most zombie rules, The Unliving is not scary at all on a pure horror level. There is no creepy atmosphere or shocks or disturbing violence that goes beyond things seen in the genre otherwise. It’s when you realize that every worker in Sweden is in fact a zombie already, you’ll start looking over your shoulder to check that your employment is safe.

If that wasn’t enough, there is even one more level, that of personal relationships. The 90.000 Euro film deals with these in an efficient and relevant manner, though not in the traditional “so we can sympathize with the lead characters” way but in a more existential way that would be everyone’s challenge in a world with domesticated zombies everywhere.

Clearly one of the best horror films from Sweden in 2010, so let’s hope it will be expanded to a feature as planned.

Directed by Hugo Lilja.

Rated 9 of 10.

Sweden, 2010.

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