It was about halfway through watching Rob Jabbaz’s debut feature The Sadness that I realized I was in the hands of a maniac. Taipei resident Kat (Regina Lei) is hiding in a hospital waiting room and watching an emergency broadcast when a drooling, laughing man shoves a grenade into the president of Taiwan’s mouth on live television. Make no mistake, The Sadness is strong stuff – a disgusting and pissed-off middle finger to the audience. A work of supreme nihilism, The Sadness is exclusively concerned with the unspoken, unknowable impulses floating around in our cerebral fluid, and a virus that sprays these impulses across an entire city. Jabbaz has created a powerful, repellent horror spectacle.
Kat and Jim (Berant Zhu) are a young couple sharing a Taipei apartment. The “Alvin” virus is spreading across the country, but nobody seems that concerned – it is, after all, just like the flu. Their neighbor opines that fears around the virus are little more than government propaganda meant to manipulate the stock market. And besides, the virus couldn’t possibly mutate into something worse, could it?
Of course, Alvin does mutate, but instead of just getting flu-like symptoms, the infected transform into gibbering maniacs with rape, torture and murder on what’s left of their minds. While the onset of the disease seems to manifest as a single tear rolling down the host’s cheek, the infected mostly seem to exist in a state of amused delight. Kat and Jim are separated early on, and for the remainder of the film he struggles to reach her while she fends off an infected businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang, arguably this movie’s secret weapon) after previously rejecting his romantic advances on the subway.
An unpleasant cloud of horned-up male aggression pervades The Sadness. The businessman harangues Kat for being a “snobby bitch” when she turns him down, and later in the film she winces when, after borrowing a male security guard’s phone, she is greeted by a big-titted cartoon character on his lock screen. But that is only the beginning; where others might hesitate to add too much rape to their zombie apocalypse, Jabbaz has created a virus where violence and sexual sadism go hand in hand. When Jim saves a man from sexual torture at the hands of an infected baseball team, the victim reveals himself to be afflicted with the virus as well. “Why did you stop them?” he asks. “I was about to shoot my load!”
The Sadness has a loud-quiet-loud structure, repeatedly setting up new scenarios for the infected to bring havoc to. And while Jabbaz is adept at staging scenes of violent chaos, he is less sure of himself in the quiet moments. Pacing issues aside, any fault to be found in The Sadness is negligible when compared to its achievements. Calculating for sheer lunacy and violence, there is simply no other horror movie in recent memory that rewards audiences on this level. Jabbaz is obviously a student of the genre and has filled the movie with Easter eggs and references to its fore-bearers. These nods include some of the classics in the fucked-up-movies canon, including Irreversible, Salò, Funny Games, and even Scanners. (You can probably guess what that looks like!)
Filmmakers have taken the zombie apocalypse narrative in many directions since Night of the Living Dead, but they usually draw the same conclusions about how human beings react when the chips are down. As the pandemic enters its third year, we are now seeing films that aim to understand it, to work within its restrictions, and to perhaps glean what we have learned from the experience. If the overwhelming nihilism of The Sadness feels like too much to handle, consider what we’ve all learned from the last two years. Sometimes, like the unfortunate infected victims in The Sadness, all you can do is laugh.
A Raven Banner Entertainment release, The Sadness is now streaming exclusively on Shudder. If you’re not already subscribed, be sure to use the promo code “Grimoire2022” for an extended 14-day free trial as opposed to the standard 7 days!
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