Is the world ready for a post-COVID outbreak movie? Are zombie pandemics and rabies-style brain viruses still an unreal enough escape for horror fans, after everything that’s happened and all we’ve seen in the last year and a half? It’s a question, I’m sure, that everyone will answer differently, but to Canadian-born writer-director Rob Jabbaz, it’s not only time to get back to one of the most beloved (and arguably, overused) sub-genres in film history, it’s time to give it an even nastier upgrade too.
The Sadness is Jabbaz’s feature debut, a sensationally over-the-top and genuinely disturbing Chinese-language horror, set in Taipei City amidst the outbreak of the mysterious ‘Alvin virus’; a fast-spreading follow-up to COVID that turns its frothing infected not into brain-hungry cannibals, but sadistic rapists and killers. It’s a zombie movie on crack; an ultra-gnarly gore-fest with the most unsettling of foils – the general public feeding not on flesh and intestines, but genuine human suffering.
It’s a helluva twist on a horror staple, and one that Jabbaz delivers straight to the jugular, ditching any and all humour and hanging the bare-bones plot around shock after twisted shock. The result is something incredibly effective, but also deeply, deeply unpleasant, and very rarely crowd-pleasing. Echoing the ’00s Asian Extreme wave of Miike, Chan and Chan-wook Park, Jabbaz doesn’t just deal in the usual swarming evil, building entire set pieces around everything from screaming blood orgies, all the way up to barbed-wire nutcrackers and something devoutly hideous involving a young woman’s eye socket that I’m not willing to type into a published review. Distinctly nasty stuff that the right audience will have a ball with, but will split just about everybody else.
If you’re still along for the ride after the first wave of nastiness hits, The Sadness will likely be very much your thing. Jabbaz shoots the action beautifully in mad, eccentric bursts, the two leads are the perfect mix of being wildly out of their depth whilst still being able to hold their own in a fight, and the practical gore effects are second-to-none, boasting a chunk-tactic head explosion that gives even Cronenberg’s Scanners a run for its money.
But The Sadness is ultimately a very specific kind of horror movie; one that appeals to the most depraved side of all of us, more terrifying in its nihilism and lack of hope that it ever is in its tension building or gory imagery. This isn’t the sort of horror that acts as a simple, fun escape from the mundane everyday, or one that offers a cathartic release for the deepest of fears. It’s a bottomless pit of nastiness and suffering; one meant only to revel in the obscene and the blackest of black. It’s an achievement, but not a nice one, nor one that it feels particularly kind to recommend.