As a lover of extreme horror, The Sadness was exactly what I wanted to see. In the film, a contagious but mostly benign virus undergoes a (somewhat) unexpected mutation and begins an infectious rampage through Taiwan. The mutation attacks the limbic system, driving everyone infected to follow every malicious, violent, ghastly impulse that enters their twisted minds. Society collapses, chaos reigns, and through it all, we follow a young couple, Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu), as they try to reunite.
Fans of Garth Ennis’ Crossed will find some familiarity in The Sadness. The infected are not quite zombies; they’re sentient, intelligent, and with purpose beyond the consumption of flesh — and boy do they hold a grudge. This malice is what makes the infected that much more dangerous and terrifying.
The infected of The Sadness are impulse-based, and this includes the pursuit of all sexual impulses as well as the violent ones. Usually it’s both. Murder, torture, rape, and mutilation are only the beginning. This film is mean, with bloody indulgences so over-the-top that it’s like writer/director/editor Rob Jabbaz is winking at you from behind the camera. You know it’s unrealistic. He knows it’s unrealistic. And that’s part of the fun.
The practical effects are perfectly gruesome and highly impressive. I don’t know how much blood was used in the film, but surely it must be close to breaking a record. There are multiple points in the film that stand out in my memory, vividly, that elicited such a strong response from me upon my first viewing that one of my notes simply contained the words “HOLY. SHIT.”. Jabbaz pushes the envelope, tears it up, and reaches for a new one. It’s a level of brutality that I haven’t seen on film in a while, and I couldn’t look away.
Jabbaz — a Canadian filmmaker based in Taiwan — makes the most of his brisk 98-min run time; there’s not a moment wasted. The Sadness blends right in with Hong Kong’s Category III films — a period of exploitation flicks forbidden to anyone under the age of 18 — which include such infamous titles as Man Behind the Sun, Ebola Syndrome, The Untold Story, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, and Three… Extremes.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about The Sadness is the levels to which it “goes there”. This is one of the rare films to come from Fantasia Fest that has been issued with a trigger warning, and it’s well earned. While it’s not quite as traumatizing as a Crossed two-page spread (if you’ve read it, you know the one I’m talking about), The Sadness goes to some very dark places. And while it consistently pushes its violence — both sexual and a bit of the old ultra — it’s incredibly bleak as well.
The Sadness is completely unhinged and unabashedly vicious, but it also sneaks in some social commentary with reflections on conspiratorial denial during the COVID-19 pandemic. Developed over 8 months during the pandemic (written in the spring, shot in the summer, and edited during the fall), Jabbaz set the film in an alternate version of Taiwan with an irresponsible government and a cynical population, which, watching from North America… seemed familiar. Dialogue mentions that it could not be a coincidence that the virus “happened to appear during an election year” and that “it’s a hoax”, and that “no one trusts doctors anymore”.
The film — I will also note — has one of the most anxiety-inducing villains I’ve seen, in the simple and unassuming form of a businessman who is hyper-focused on getting what he wants. Which, in itself, seems like a non-subtle reflection on male/corporate entitlement. As a whole, The Sadness is surprisingly poignant and timely (for a film that so viciously bashes your brain with violence). It’s also — I might add — incredibly well shot. For all the chaos erupting on screen, dangit, it looks great.
While it’s more or less marketed as a zombie movie, it’s… not exactly that. But, it is a fresher and meaner way to do the zombie subgenre. Could we see a shift in how those films are approached moving forward? We’ve certainly seen rage virus films before, but — in terms of the overall productivity and sentience of the infected — The Sadness is perhaps a bit less 28 Days Later and a bit more Mayhem, just amped up to an outrageous degree.
Perhaps this will open up a new vein of pandemic horror that moves away from undead shambling, instead, shifting more towards rabid mania. It’s kind of the perfect intersection between the slasher and zombie subgenres; these killers have purpose, focus, and a methodical creativity that the walking braindead could never quite achieve. It makes for a far more exciting approach, and allows for some creative depravity.
After I watched it, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Sadness. Its imagery sticks with you. It infected my brain and took hold. I rewatched the movie. I re-read Crossed. And still, now, writing this, my mind flashes back to key moments that have been living inside me for days.
Horror as a genre is intended to provoke a reaction. That reaction will vary amongst everyone, but it pushes different buttons in our psyche to elicit a specific response. It’s like testing our reflexes. Though a lot of us pride ourselves on our lack of that reflex — nothing phases you — certain horror films will always try to hit that perfect spot that will make your knee involuntarily jump with a moment of “oh shit”. The Sadness is one such film.
The Sadness is certainly not for all viewers. But those who like their horror brutal and bloody will find a lot to appreciate in this film. It’s extreme horror made a bit more accessible, it’s zombie horror made a bit more exciting, and it’s pandemic horror made — despite its unreality — a bit more real.
Playing as part of Fantasia Fest 2021, you can keep your eye out for The Sadness on the festival circuit. And be sure to stay tuned for my interview with writer/director/editor Rob Jabbaz.