This review of The Sadness is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
When the inevitable history is written on our current global pandemic, whole chapters will be devoted to the art that was birthed during its reign. Films touching on the topic in 2021 have run the gamut from the funny (How it Ends) to the introspective (Bo Burnham’s Inside) to the laughable (Songbird). Not to be left out, the horror genre has seen its own share of virus-inspired films ranging from the great (Host) to the embarrassingly exploitative (Corona Zombies). More will undoubtedly follow, but for now, the pandemic horror movie to beat — hell, the year’s best new horror movie to beat — is Rob Jabbaz‘s The Sadness. Fueled equally by blood and adrenaline, oblivious to lines of supposed “good” taste, and utterly terrifying in its accurate snapshot of humanity, this is horror that hits you in the gut while testing both your limitations and your gag reflex. You will have audible reactions to this one, and they will be glorious.
Kat (Regina) and Jim (Berant Zhu) are young, in love, and unfortunate to be living during a pandemic. Like the rest of Taiwan, and of the world, really, they’ve endured over a year of shutdowns and masks with no end in sight, but when things look to be taking a turn for the better they instead nosedive into unfathomable horror. A variant of the virus arrives that turns the infected into sadistic, bloodthirsty killers, and its spread through the city’s populace is as fast as it is fierce. A calm morning becomes a bloody afternoon and a carnage-filled night, and the young couple enter a fight for survival as they struggle to reunite.
The basic premise to Shabbaz’s zombie-like horror — no, it’s not technically a zombie film and is instead more aligned with the rage virus of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), but just roll with it — is recognizable to fans of the subgenre, but that familiarity won’t prepare you for what’s coming in The Sadness. There is an unhinged madness to Shabbaz’s vision, but rather than feel messy or amateurish the film delivers polished thrills and suspenseful set-pieces as society collapses around our protagonists. The film may not be messy, but the walls, floors, and ceilings within all take a sloppy beating.
The script is straightforward enough in its setup and will hit home for those on the side of rational thinking as early beats reveal a pandemic that’s been politicized to the point of hopelessness. Talk show hosts call for an end to masking, people return effortlessly to selfish lifestyles, and the inevitable bill comes due as the sick turn suddenly and increasingly violent. They’re not just here to take a bite and leave, oh no — these infected are far crueler than that. They want to hurt you. They want to cause intense pain. They want to savage your flesh, assault your body, and leave you suffering… or in pieces. And The Sadness is here to capture it all.
Well, almost all. It’s a good thing, though, I promise, as Shabbaz and cinematographer Bai Jie-li wisely pull away from the sexual violence. No one of any gender is safe from the carnage, and while it’s clear what’s happening just offscreen it remains the one element of terror left to our imaginations. It’s all the more horrifying for its visual scarcity as the threat looms large and remnants of assault are evident. The thought alone is terrifying and the visual teases we do get amplify the feeling plenty.
Everything else, though, is on the table in The Sadness, and for horror fans missing the good ol’ days of gory excess and pure horror this is like waking up Christmas morning to a media room overflowing with previously unseen video nasties. Faces are burned in boiling oil, fingers are eaten, bodies are dismembered, eyeholes are fucked — in one of two nods to the excesses of A Serbian Film (2010) — and that’s barely a taste of the bloodcurdling mayhem unfolding here. A subway attack sequence terrifies as a knife-wielding infected person paints the car red, and a later set-piece in a hospital sees the sanctity of the place befouled with heinous acts of horror. From the sharp acts of violence glimpsed in films like 30 Days of Night (2007) to the erupting hellscape of Tumbbad (2018), Jabbaz smiles knowingly as he immerses you in a world other movies typically only detour through. Here, though, the nightmare is the destination.
Part of what makes it all the more frightening is the presentation of the infected. Their eyes bleed, they smile gleefully at the thought of what they’re about to inflict, and while controlled by their urges — towards violence, cruelty, and sexual assault — they’re not so mindless as to forget how to speak. While far gorier and more graphically brutal than anything the Canadian filmmaker has made, there’s a real sense of Cronenbergian deviance (a compliment, I swear) to their primal thirst. Think 1975’s Shivers, but with a desire for explicit violence and gore being paired with the unleashed ids and sexual drives, and you’ll be in the blood-drenched and horned-up ballpark. This is no esoteric piece of dark escapism, though, as Jabbaz and friends are also offering up a scathing indictment of the current state of humanity. We’ve all seen the abject indifference and cruelty our fellow humans are willing to subject others to at a time when we should all be rallying together, and that truth makes the film’s fiction that much more devastating.
While the bulk of the gore and bloodletting in The Sadness is practical there’s some CG here and there that threatens to distract, but the effect doesn’t last long before the next eye-popping moment or nerve-shredding set-piece arrives. To that end, the depravity unleashed on the screen won’t be to every horror fan’s taste — it’s mean, nihilistic, and relentlessly bloody, and the lines of decorum that are crossed might understandably lead some viewers to tap out. There’s absolutely no shame in that as this is a film that swings for the fences, albeit with an ax and a baby’s head replacing the bat and ball, but you get the picture. Haunting slow burns and spooky ghost stories have their place, but sometimes you just want a brutally efficient horror movie. It’s as if Herman Yao’s Ebola Syndrome (1996) and Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) shacked up during a Covid lockdown and drunkenly conceived a child out of equal parts love and rage — The Sadness is pure joy.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival