I first heard of Rob Jabbaz’s The Sadness when it was chosen as a selection at The Fantasia International Film Festival last August, where it won the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature. I’ve solemnly awaited the film’s release to a theater, virtual festival, or streaming platform near me, desperately craving a viewing. Horror critics, as well as fans, have raved about its trigger warning brutality and over-the-top gore for nearly a year, and they weren’t exaggerating that. The Sadness isn’t just blood-soaked; it’s a menacing sea of endless red prompted by shocking violence that is everything promised by the hype.
A few weeks ago, as Shudder released the Uruguayan zombie thriller Virus: 32, I said the debate between zombies and Crazies was back. The Sadness also fits into that conversation, going off the rails quickly as an influenza-like infection spreads through the streets, causing its victims to become relentless and deranged psychopaths who get a Hellraiser kind of pleasure by inflicting pain on others through the most unconscionable acts. Any semblance of good nature in the people committing these atrocities is contained in the tears they shed as they give in to their darkest thoughts, suggesting the moral consciousness of their actions.
Amid this chaos, we watch young couple Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei) navigate the streets of Taipei. Jim drops Kat at a train station as she makes her way home and heads home, stopping at a coffee shop along the way. Jim witnesses the effects of the virus up close and personal, finding himself chased home by infected people. Meanwhile, Kat’s ride into the city isn’t going any better, and her subway car is filled with disease-ridden sadists. With the city filling up with the depraved, Jim tries desperately to reach Kat before they both end up vying to commit vicious acts to satiate The Sadness.
An act of micro-aggression on Kat’s train also suggests social division between the generations. Younger millennials aren’t particularly social outside of their devices, reading and scrolling through social media and never interacting with those outside of their personal cliques. As Kat meets a businessman (a diabolically intense Tzu-Chiang Wang) on the train, he pays her a compliment and feels further entitled to a conversation with her. He seems harmless enough, but his persistence becomes increasingly uncomfortable to Kat. He turns into a kind of incel when The Sadness comes for him, targeting and hunting Kat for turning him down. That beta male sexism shows up in other characters as the film continues. Meanwhile, the rest of the subway’s young patrons record the incidents on their phones rather than intercede or help the attacked individuals.
There’s also a good amount of political commentary baked into The Sadness, offering the virus’ existence as politically debatable. The film starts with conspiracy theories that the media is looking to tank stocks so its CEOs can buy in while stocks are low, while scientists fight an uphill battle to solicit caution. Whatever your affiliations, the movie never gets preachy, showing the spread of the virus through the eyes of millennials who never provide their political leanings.
However, the film likely gets its name from the 1989 movie A City of Sadness, about the political repression of the Taiwanese people by the Chinese Nationalist Party and the violence wrought by “White Terror” authoritarianism. Everything is disarmingly subtle in the film, following the down on their luck generation caught in the middle of propagandizing politics. Jim gathers advice from his neighbors and YouTube posts until he sees the savageness of the virus right before their eyes and decides to take action. Like most who peddled dissenting views and didn’t take precautions against Covid, seeing is believing, and by then, it’s often too late.
That, of course, leads us to the film’s message of civility. In a world where everything calls for political commentary, we’ve lost our sense of manners. There is no acquiescence, and no accountability, just non-stop spin. Though The Sadness was made in Taiwan, writer-director Rob Jabbaz was born and raised in Canada. This straddling of cultures has led to a unique viewpoint on global politics. This film likely applies to many government responses in the early days of the pandemic. Yet, it resonates specifically with my personal disappointment in watching citizens storm the capital building or a militia show up with guns outside of Michigan’s statehouse. In these acts, there is much sadness, especially when you consider the perspective of the generation that will inherit them.
The Sadness is extreme horror in gore and content. There’s nudity, rape, and violent acts that reference cult shocker A Serbian Film but are never portrayed to an overly grotesque extent. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans with a weak stomach for viscera and shocking content should stay away. However, those who’ve traversed the genre at its most severe will see The Sadness as a more accessible version of brutality that will bring to mind the films of Eli Roth and not Adam Rehmeier’s The Bunny Game.
While I was tremendously psyched to see The Sadness and definitely had to pick my jaw off my chest from time to time, it really needs to be seen for people to understand how wickedly barbaric it is. It’s not as fatalistic as Train to Busan, which I think is the best zombie film of the last 10 years, but it does err on the side of nihilism, especially with humanity presented at its absolute cruelest. As a Crazies film, I think George Romero would have loved all of the real-world implications incorporated into the film, especially where quite a few scenes undoubtedly resemble scenes from his movies. Despite its gross-out, grisly and staggeringly gruesome scenes, it’s not nearly as nauseating as some of today’s current events.
The Sadness premiers May 12 on Shudder.