Director: Rob Jabbaz
Writer: Rob Jabbaz
Cast: Regina Lei, Berant Zhu, Johnny Wang
Producers: David Barker
Cinematographer: Bai Ji-lei
Editor: Rob Jabbaz
Cert: 18 (TBC)
Running time: 99mins
What’s the story: Taipei, Taiwan. People have grown tired of restrictions following a pandemic caused by the Alvin virus. But, suddenly the virus mutates and transforms the infected in homicidal maniacs. Young couple Jim (Zhu) and Kat (Lei) must battle through rampaging hordes to be together again.
What’s the verdict: For those disappointed that COVID-19 was more low-key than apocalypses promised by horror and superhero movies, Rob Jabbaz has your back. The Sadness is an outrageous splash of end-of-the-world cinema. Unequal parts 28 Days Later, The Ebola Syndrome, Ichi the Killer, and the daily news for the past 18 months.
Remember that blood coming out the lift doors in The Shining? That’s approximately how much Jabbaz deploys here in telling his gory story. An uncut BBFC 18 certificate is likely, but this will give the Board pause.
Not that the film is a mindless gauntlet run through a cinematic charnel house. Jabbaz weaves in caustic points about the social and political responses to the coronavirus (“To politicise a pandemic is dangerous,” warns the one medical expert who can see the mutation coming). Other targets include anti-vaxxers, toxic social media, and urban paranoia in an age of COVID and terrorist attacks. Plus the casual misogyny permeating everyday life in an age where seemingly everything has been pornified.
Some audiences will eye roll at the suggestion the Canadian Jabbaz is doing anything more than putting a fig leaf over a juvenile glee to offend. But, there is a brain at work here (honest). Not least in how a streak of blood black comedy prevents all this becoming an unwatchable depress-fest. Although laughs do occasionally stick in the throat. Those dreading an onslaught of sexual violence may be relieved to read depictions are brief and largely kept offscreen, sexually aggressive dialogue carrying most of the menace. Much of it spat out by Johnny Wang’s late middle-aged train perv turned full-on monster post-infection.
One criticism is that the plot rarely rises above a series of perilous scenarios the separated lovers must navigate. A flaw that allows a monotony to settle in around the 70-minute mark.
But, the panache with which The Sadness escalates tension before unleashing graphic mayhem is too accomplished to be dismissed as morons with ketchup and a camera. Per most zombie movies, as likeable couple Jim and Kat (played by the equally likeable Zhu and Rei) get on with their routine, the apocalypse begins in the background. The military quickly prove worse than useless, and the climax is fittingly nihilistic for a film sharing the same subgenre as Night of the Living Dead. If you ignore the whole rage virus vs. zombie debate…
46 years ago, David Cronenberg’s Shivers was as wild as this subject matter could get. Telling then that although Jabbaz’s film out-shocks that movie visually, its nihilism stops short of involving children (save for teens beating up a male teacher and a baby in a bin). Elsewhere, some moments land better than others. A 10-minute underground train sequence will be one of the year’s horror talking points (take a bow make-up team IF SFX Art Maker). An implied eye-rape however plays into the hands of those dismissing this as empty-calorie shock.
Too harsh to be a crossover hit like 28 Days Later or Train to Busan, The Sadness is an effective time stamp film for an age of endless disasters. Mask up and settle in.
Podcast: The Movie Robcast