Trigger warnings: extreme violence and cruelty, extreme gore for mainstream film, and rape. However, if you’re game, you will be rewarded with one of the best zombie movies ever made.
THE SADNESS is the first feature film from writer/director Rob Jabbaz, a Canadian living in Taiwan. His background is in VFX and animation and considering this is a first film, it is an astonishing achievement. You may not agree with me, but it’s true. Just because a film is incredibly violent, gory, and filled with the most disgusting depths of human perversion doesn’t mean that it is bad. No, really.
Say it with me: portrayal is not endorsement. However, I will say here that if you are triggered emotionally by portrayals of rape, this is not the movie for you.
Art is an expression of our humanity. Humanity, despite what the normal usage of the word would have you believe, does not always mean goodness, kindness, or morality by default. That’s what we tell ourselves, but that’s not the truth. Art includes the entirety of the human experience, which includes the evil things that we do too. It’s essential to our growth as people and a society to acknowledge and face that evil.
A loving young couple, Kat (Regina) and Jim (Berant Zhu), wake up in the morning ready for a new day in Taiwan during a pandemic that no one seems to be taking that seriously. Jim drops Kat off at the train station. Strange things start to happen as the pandemic turns into a full blown wave of violence and terror. No one knows what is happening and there is nowhere that is safe.
Rob Jabbaz’s script and direction of THE SADNESS uses brevity, simplicity, and empathy to tell this story in a very vital way. The construction of the script is wise because it allows you time to get to know characters and like them long enough for you to care if they suffer and die. There aren’t any cartoonish evil doers, there are just people who are overwhelmed and unprepared for what’s happening and gleeful infected maniacs. People who are just following orders because that’s what society tells you to do. Even the actions of the zombies have their own internal logic. That logic isn’t terribly complex, but it doesn’t need to be. Fulfilling their most unholy urges with the happiest smiles on their faces is what the infected do. Why? Because they enjoy it. Think about that when you think about the people you know and hear about in everyday life these days who do incredibly hurtful and anti-social things just because they feel like it. Using the rage virus zombie in this film was the right choice. While some purists will argue that they aren’t really zombies or that it’s outside of the norms of the subgenre, I think that debate is long over. Even Romero had his zombies marching slowly towards a recovered sentience and Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later made the point that a virus could create zombies just as well. Even Romero himself made a film, The Crazies, about enraged people attacking their friends. The “rage zombie” is a completely logical extension of the classic and modern interpretation of the zombie archetype, which has always been a twin with the vampire archetype. No, they don’t have to be dead to be considered a zombie and a living zombie presents humans with problems that are even more terrifying. Rage zombies don’t have to worry about rigor mortis. Rage zombies can reason and set traps. Rage zombies don’t die because you’ve pithed them like a frog.
THE SADNESS is an incredible work of film art. It starts in a very normal place that is kind, gentle, and very safe, and after one disturbing image that seems not to make sense, it continues at its own pace until Hell explodes into your face. The success of the film rests in its ability and willingness to make the horror very personal to the characters and, by extension, to you. Usually a zombie film dazzles you with the, by now, rote scenes of the world collapsing around the protagonist’s ears. Scenes of panic in a big city with zombies attacking everyone in sight are our cues to thrill to the descent into chaos as our heroes run to safety. You can normally feel safe, from an audience members' perspective, that the characters that you are clearly being told to identify with are not going to get their guts ripped from their torsos and eaten. You can safely enjoy the spectacle of the zombies eating people alive and people screaming for help without being placed in the position of being terrified out of your wits. THE SADNESS has the change of perspective in common with the zombie series Black Summer, which also doesn’t allow you to divorce yourself from the horror. Many of the zombie films that continue to be released don’t have this level of visceral identification with the terror onscreen. The most memorable and successful zombie films, like THE SADNESS, do not allow you to merely be a voyeur, they pull you bodily into the feelings of helplessness and fear. It’s one of the major issues with the TWD Universe. TWD stopped being this wicked and this dangerous of a viewing experience, so it stopped being scary, which is deadly for a creative endeavor in the zombie subgenre. You have to scare the audience and make them feel unsafe on a very primal level to be successful. There are some exceptions like the fantastic One Cut Of The Dead, but zombies are not the core of that very funny film. It’s actually about making movies, the zombies are incidental.
Filmmakers working in the zombie subgenre have to find a way to make a subgenre meaningful to the audience. As usual, creating an emotional connection with the audience and finding new ways to present the material are key to creating a film that really resonates with the audience. Rob Jabbaz has done all of that and more, creating a film that is uncommonly disturbing and delicately touching at the same time. His storytelling and direction are very confident and he’s crafted a thoughtful reflection on how emotions like love survive even the worst outrages of humanity. That even in insanity or in the grip of the deadliest illnesses, our emotional drives still exist and our behavior and the illness itself is influenced by our core being. Love really does win, even when the win is someone hunting you down to kill you. There’s also a theory on what the virus really is in the film and it makes quite a bit of sense. It’s an unpleasant thing to contemplate after the film is done because Covid 19 does have a neurological component and viruses mutate. The best horror films are the ones that give your mind something disquieting to chew on after the film is over.
THE SADNESS, which is a title that might seem odd from the outset, but makes perfect sense once you watch it, is a fountain of glorious gore and viscera. IF SFX ART MAKER is responsible for the special effects and just watching this film has made me very interested in seeing more of their work. Jabbaz also had a hand in day to day stunts and special effects work as well as developing animated film within the film and working on visual effects. Jie-Li Bai did the cinematography and while I’m not sure what the budget on this film was, Bai, Jabbaz, and the other craftspeople have made the film look like a million bucks. In particular, the penultimate image of the film is absolutely beautiful and unforgettable, lit in vivid purples and blues. It’s smashing work by a DP who has only worked in the camera department before. But the shots that start off the film have a low key coolness and a strong sense of the horror to come, indoors they have the overtone of yellowish green that gives way to a subdued “natural” lighting that circle around to red, purples, and blue. I have mentioned a couple of shots already, but there are more that are very memorable and delicate. If there’s one thing that I keep coming back to it is that for a film that is so outrageously violent, there’s an undercurrent of gentleness to it all that makes the film that much more unnerving.
TZECHAR is responsible for the music and there’s an undertone of subtle cacophony at work in the musical background. It’s a mixture of strings, horns, and percussion, not all of which I can identify. There aren’t the big orchestral swings here, but the music is powerful for being so well suited to the film and its chaos.
Rob Jabbaz and Jay Lian, the casting director, chose their actors wisely. They chose fearless actors with great faces. The leads Regina Lei (76 Horror Bookstore) and Berent Zhu (We Are Champions) both have a luminous beauty, intelligence, and grit that makes you care for them, but all of the actors in the film have great and expressive faces. Tzu-Chiang Wang (Dream Raider) is phenomenal and terrifying as the Businessman. He’s the man on the subway train that won’t leave you alone amped up to insanity. Some even achieve their acting feats through their voices only. Ying-Ru Chen as Molly, Emerson Tsai as Warren Liu, Ralf Yen-Hsiang Chiu as Mr. Lin, Chi-Min Chou as Old Woman — OMG, Lue-Keng Huang as Kevin/MRT Employee, An-Long Cai as the President, Chang-Han Liou as the General are all committed and outstanding, but many of the players in smaller roles, particularly the infected, are amazing. These ghoulish smiles are going to haunt me for a long time. It’s more than just the black eyes, it’s the homicidal good cheer behind those dark orbs.
Because of the extreme content of the film, all of the actors were extremely brave and willing to not just bare their bodies and their selves, but to fully commit to the action and the storyline. Full commitment is what it takes to be great. However, the POV of the story does pull back a bit and doesn’t show every act in detail. While the film fully deserves all the warnings, it doesn’t really rub the audience’s face in the carnage too much. THE SADNESS is also very funny. You heard me right. It’s got some of the darkest humor I’ve seen in a while and I’ve never seen a grenade used as a punchline before, but it works. Humor and horror go hand in hand for a reason.
When I first heard of the concept of THE SADNESS, I was immediately reminded of the extreme horror comic series created by Garth Ennis called The Crossed. I loved the comic, but it’s really one of the most violent and gut churning horror comics that’s ever been published. Most people are disgusted by the very concept, but I’ve always found that it had a moral core. Additionally, I believe that one of everyone’s favorite zombie films of recent years, the beloved Train To Busan, has a scene that is also inspired by The Crossed as well. It’s the scene where the dad, Seok-woo, gets a call from his mother and you hear his mother start turn on the phone. She starts to breathe heavily and tell Seok-woo to take care of Soo-an, his daughter. Then his mother starts to behave strangely and accuse Soo-an of loving her mother more than she loves her. The next thing she does is call the little girl a bitch and start to snarl like a zombie. In The Crossed: Wish You Were Here, written by Simon Spurrier, there’s a scene where the protagonist, Shaky, calls his loved ones with similar and predictable results. The red lettering indicates the speech of one of The Crossed. This is what happens when a creation in art sinks into our communal consciousness. Even if it is extreme, it does influence other creators who understand the material. Yeon Sang-ho and Rob Jabbaz understand The Crossed.
As it happens, Rob Jabbaz is quite open about how he took inspiration from Garth Ennis’ comic The Crossed, which was a favorite of his as it was one of mine. Here’s a featurette where he discusses the genesis of the film and the reasoning behind his film.
THE SADNESS is very much inspired by that work. Right down to small notes like the character who has his nose ripped off and the blood pattern on his face makes him look like a “Cross face”. My rule for using other people’s work as inspiration is that if you do, you have to add something of your own to it. Jabbaz has done that. He has made most of the infected fully in control of their faculties, other than the irresistible urges, able to speak, and they retain most of their cognitive abilities unlike most of The Crossed. He’s added the idea of a nation, tired of a pandemic, refusing to do the things that would end it. As he says in that video, he said that to create THE SADNESS, he had to make an alternate Taiwan, which is one of the Covid success stories of the globe, a Taiwan that is much more like the United States with our selfishness and fully botched response to Covid 19. If you are an American, yes, you should be embarrassed.
THE SADNESS is so much more than your average zombie horror film. It’s a film on the level of Train To Busan and some of my other favorites of the genre that say so much about humanity. It’s an emotional epic of gore and cruelty amped up to an almost unbearable level that clamps its teeth into your soul. Surreal, bloodthirsty, and strangely gentle, THE SADNESS is filled with a grotesque good humor that can make you want to cry. It’s a film that understands madness quite well. THE SADNESS is a graphically sexual and and fearsome conundrum for the Covid Age. The idea that human beings are not the rational stoics that we insist we are, that we are at the mercy of our own limbic system.
Here’s that glorious red band trailer. For me, THE SADNESS is the unrelenting nightmare that I’ve been waiting for. It’s now a top ten zombie film and one of the best films of 2021 in my book. THE SADNESS makes me feel a lot of things. I’m appalled, soft feathers of terror fall in my heart, and I am filled with delight.