The Sadness, Canadian writer/director Rob Jabbaz’s feature debut, is completely drenched in buckets of blackened blood. Inspired heavily by Garth Ennis’ unflinchingly graphic comic book series Crossed, the film similarly revels in the cruelest acts of violence that human beings are capable of inflicting upon each other. Though the film’s premise draws from a pandemic that turns the infected into full-blown sadistic zombies, its COVID parallels aren’t so overt that they feel ham-fisted in their attempt to channel relevance. The Sadness is incredibly gorey and gleefully embraces just about every documented taboo—but instead of an exhausting edgelord sensibility, it accurately depicts just how little convincing a crumbling society needs to obliterate itself.
The morning starts off as any other day would for Taiwanese couple Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei). Kat gets ready for work, and the underemployed Jim gets ready to drive her there on his motorbike. They get into a couple’s quarrel when he reveals that the two might need to postpone an upcoming vacation so that Jim can take a rare gig. Before they leave, Jim even exchanges pleasantries with his green-thumbed neighbor through the patio dividers, who promises to stop by with fresh Thai basil for the couple later on.
By the time Jim drops off Kat, though, he’s already acutely aware that something sinister is going on. Earlier that morning, he saw a blood-smeared old woman standing on a nearby roof. While biking over, the couple pass a grisly crime scene, watching as red-stained white sheets soak up the blood of the victims’ bodies. After dropping Kat off, Jim stops in a café for a hot black coffee—and that’s when all hell breaks loose. The woman from the rooftop shows up, spitting on customers before maiming the barista with piping hot oil, ripping his smoldering skin off of his face with her bare hands as it sizzles.
Jim immediately flees, reorienting his priorities to find Kat and get her somewhere safe from the mayhem. Meanwhile, Kat’s morning commute turns into a bloodbath. While riding a packed subway car on the way to work, people begin senselessly stabbing, raping and killing each other. An old man (Tzu-Chiang Wang) Kat awkwardly rejected just moments ago transforms into a psychotic sex fiend, intent on violating and murdering her at any cost. If only anyone had listened to health experts, who have been routinely pleading on the news for citizens to take the so-called Alvin virus seriously—after all, the disease’s ability to mutate always seemed highly dangerous to experts. But it’s too late now. The Sadness has officially begun to plague citizens en masse, its name derived from the tears the infected shed despite their dementedly giddy demeanor.
Sure, the rage-filled zombie was popularized by 28 Days Later, and the “torture porn” horror subgenre has consistently pushed the boundaries of contemporary gore films over the past two decades. But what truly distinguishes The Sadness among the remakes and reimaginings are the film’s impressive practical effects: The crew painstakingly crafted stomach-churning carnage, featuring exploding heads, gouged eyes and brutal cranial bludgeoning. Of course, all of these gruesome acts immediately evoke a cinematic counterpart: Scanners’ iconic exploding-brain moment, Lucio Fulci’s eye torture fixation, the brutal fire extinguisher kill in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. Unlike many of these touchstones (particularly the latter), though, The Sadness never feels so over-indulgent in its own capacity for brutality that it forces the viewer’s eye away from the screen. Jabbaz knows just when to cut before the gore becomes unbearable to witness, a clever move for a film that’s so steeped in sadism it could easily turn away unprepared audiences, even on a horror-exclusive streaming platform like Shudder. The artistry of the crew is fascinating to take in on its own, as they allegedly spent three months producing all of the requisite props for the shoot. This careful craftsmanship is easy to discern in each image conjured in the film, making us scream and squirm without knocking the wind out of us.
Of course, masterful gore effects don’t necessarily make The Sadness an easy watch, nor does the film’s extended exploration of rape and sexual assault during this outbreak. Those who are infected carry out their deepest, most repulsive and perverted inclinations—which includes rape, incest and broader sexual torture (one instance even involves a post laced with barbed wire). However, these acts don’t ever feel like a gimmick played up for shock value. Jabbaz is intentional in touching upon how prevalent this violence already is within our society, particularly through Kat’s initial conversation with the creepy old man. These displays of sexual violence are shocking and grotesque—but their hideousness undeniably comes from their proximity the fears inherent in a patriarchal society. In this sense, bringing these sentiments to the surface full-throttle isn’t a stretch by any means.
Teeming with death, denial and damning governmental incompetence, The Sadness reflects the continued unraveling of our society since COVID first sent us into lockdown over two years ago. Yet, because the film’s premise is essentially lifted from an existing comic series, the pandemic plotline doesn’t feel singularly tethered to this moment. After all, these issues of inequality have always existed—but nothing brings out the worst in people like the task of self-preservation in the wake of an emergency. While this certainly rings true when it comes to our current global health crisis, it’s simply a general human quality that rears its ugly head during periods of intense strife. For a directorial debut that has so much resting on gutsy on-screen effects and clever social commentary, it’s astounding that The Sadness works so well. The film is transgressive in its violence without being inexcusably vile; it deftly handles its pandemic plot without echoing tired COVID-era platitudes; it distills the danger of ignoring that all-important gut feeling, one that many of us walk around fostering day after day on a doomed planet. The Sadness reflects our deepest societal sicknesses right back at us—terrifying in what it posits lurks just under the surface of “polite” society.
Director: Rob Jabbaz
Writer: Rob Jabbaz
Stars: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei, Tzu-Chiang Wang
Release Date: May 13, 2022 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan