Ever since George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead turned a monster movie into a meditation on institutional racism, zombie movies have been one of the horror genre’s most effective vehicles for sociological observations: Dawn of the Dead takes down consumer culture, while Shaun of the Dead parodies the soul-killing nature of routine work and life. But that doesn’t mean every zombie movie has to take on big topics about the state of humanity. With The Sadness, Shudder’s new Taiwanese sort-of-a-zombie-movie, freshman Canadian writer-director Rob Jabbaz certainly wants to join the ranks of those classics. But he can’t find the proper measure of finesse and shamelessness to marry his grotesque gore and violence to, given the moral lessons he seems to think he’s obligated to offer.
The Sadness, loosely inspired by Garth Ennis’ Crossed comic series, follows a young couple in Taiwan, Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei). Jim drops Kat off at work just hours before a zombie(ish) outbreak that leaves them searching for each other amid the chaos. These infected aren’t traditional zombies. Jabbaz substitutes something more gruesome: His highly contagious virus, which shares similarities to rabies, cause victims to act out their most sadistic impulses. They have no shame and no power to stop themselves — and they give in to their horrifying urges with wide, unwavering grins on their faces.
[Ed. note: The rest of this review includes brief descriptions of some particularly grotesque acts of physical and sexual violence.]
That’s a fine enough premise, but Jabbaz focuses too much on trying to find a profound metaphor that isn’t there, rather than letting the setup just be an excuse for some of the most gratuitous and ridiculous gore in recent memory.
Throughout his script, Jabbaz tries to find something important to say on a number of topics. At the beginning of the movie, before the chaos begins, a news broadcast includes a scientist complaining about all the people who believe the in-universe pandemic is a hoax, and how no one believes scientists anymore. As Kat bashes in the head of one infected character — a man who’s spent the entire movie trying to rape her — he exclaims that this makes her just like him, seemingly implying that on some level, almost everyone craves the chance to engage in extreme violence. The movie even doubles down on this when a non-infected character, with his dying breath, mentions how good it felt to kill babies.
Jabbaz also spends some of the movie’s pre-infection time with Kat as she’s harassed on her commute home, briefly exploring the horror of women being accosted and threatened in everyday life. Her harasser later becomes infected and stalks her across the city. But the exploration of normal gendered violence is quickly dropped, and just minutes later, people are being raped in the street by infected people who grin and wave at passersby.
It’s completely unclear what Jabbaz wants viewers to get from all this. Are the news broadcast’s allusions to real pandemic responses meant to bring some insight to the infection here? Is he suggesting humanity is only reined in by social order, or is the “Everyone secretly wants to carry out atrocities” idea just plain old-fashioned horror-movie cynicism? Whatever the answer, Jabbaz raises questions, then drops them altogether, which makes the movie feel hollower than if he’d never brought them up at all.
It’s a disappointment that the messaging side of the movie flounders, because The Sadness is at its best when it’s shamelessly violent. When the virus first hits, Jim is at a diner getting coffee when an infected person walks in and attacks someone, killing them and spreading the infection to everyone in the vicinity. What starts out as a mundane coffee order suddenly becomes a dizzying action scene and chase sequence, as people start tearing each other apart, Jim sprints out, and several infected people pursue him from back alleys to busy streets. Immediately after that, a train car descends into close-quarters violence that ends with the entire car soaked in gallons and gallons of blood.
Underlying all of these attacks are some outstanding practical effects and prosthetics. Victims are maimed and torn apart in all kinds of ways, and each death looks unique in its own impressive, disgusting way. Jabbaz even uses the fountains of blood that spray from cuts and stabs to give the scenes forward momentum, like he’s making a red timeline of the fight on the floor and walls.
But he isn’t satisfied with resting on all that fantastic gore. He spends most of the rest of The Sadness’ run time setting up quasi-vignettes where his infected — and sometimes non-infected — characters do the worst possible things imaginable. The specific acts, from ramming a man’s crotch into a pole covered in barbed wire to a man raping a woman’s empty eye socket, are designed for shock, and they’re certainly horrific. While none of this feels incongruous with the movie’s other atrocities, it does feel out of step with the scenes from the opening. It’s as if Jabbaz is saying, “If you think sexual harassment is bad, just think about how much worse it could get.”
Plenty of great movies have played fast and loose with the grotesque — and many have been much harder to stomach than this one. But exploitation horror films like Wes Craven’s 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes do so with less shame and more finesse. (Jabbaz has a habit of having his characters remind the audience, in the most thuddingly literal terms, about the atrocities they just committed.) The line between absurdity and effectiveness is delicate when dealing with these kinds of extremes, and The Sadness ends up in absurdity too often for its shock value to actually land.
As odd as it may sound in a movie where a man is force-fed a hand grenade, some of this feels like a problem of timidity. Jabbaz stops at every turn to try to justify himself or demur from the absolute worst of his carnage. But he lacks confidence in his own nastiness, as if he feels turning the violence into a metaphor will make it more acceptable. Gross-out splatter movies don’t need to strain for some thin justification — they can just exist to unsettle the brave few of us who want that, and The Sadness’ tonal dissonance only gets in the way of that goal.
While zombie movies usually work in broad strokes, the kind of extreme exploitation horror Jabbaz is working with thrives on the specificity of its circumstances and characters. But with The Sadness, the pileup of bodies becomes so exhausting, and the violence is so widespread, that it renders any wider point moot.
To Jabbaz’ credit, he’s playing in a difficult genre, and one that’s been content-starved for the last few years — though 2021’s Wrong Turn remake will better serve those looking for something shocking. More frustrating is that it’s clear Jabbaz is a talented director. Hidden in bits and pieces of The Sadness is a truly great Train to Busan-style zombie action movie, but Jabbaz’s film is so weighed down by its own importance and self-destructive impulses that the action never gets a chance to shine.
Cinema is full of gifted line-crossers, and provocation cinema has a long and celebrated history, from 1916’s Intolerance and 1929’s Un Chien Andalou to Cannibal Holocaust and countless movies since. If you’re going to make something gross, you’ve either got to do it right, or very, very wrong, and The Sadness can’t quite manage either one. It just can’t acknowledge that not all zombie movies have to have a moral, a metaphor, or a message.
The Sadness is streaming on Shudder starting on May 12.