By Nicole Veneto
The Sadness is an especially brutal film about societal collapse and how public health crises like Covid-19 amplify whatever savage impulses lie dormant within us.
The Sadness, written and directed by Rob Jabbaz, now streaming on Shudder.
A few months ago I was waiting for my dad and younger sister to meet me for dinner at a local sports bar. When 15 minutes passed with no sign of them, I called my dad for an ETA, assuming they were just held up in Washington Street rush hour traffic. With a small but noisy crowd of Sox fans gathered around the bar area, I made a spur of the moment decision to use my speaker phone so he’d be able to hear me on Bluetooth over all the chatter.
This turned out to be a grave mistake.
Suddenly, I realized someone was shouting. I turned to my right and leaning across the aisle in the booth next to mine was an enraged older woman jabbing her witchy finger at me. “Get off your speaker phone! What the hell’s the matter with you?” she shrieked over a half-empty glass of wine, her husband silent beside her poking at his meatloaf. Before I could get a word in to diffuse the situation, she venomously spat, “You’re probably one of those woke people!” (For the record, I prefer to be called a pinko commie.)
Were I not alone, I would have retorted with something stronger than nervously stammering “Calm down and keep drinking your wine” while holding back tears. But I’d seen enough viral videos of Karens and Kyles freaking out and assaulting random people over stuff like masking and Starbucks cups. I texted my sister — who overheard the exchange on the phone — that I was scared and to please hurry. For all I knew this crazy wino was going to throw her drink at me for being a “woke” millennial. Another excruciatingly long 15 minutes passed before my dad and sister arrived, by which point I was in the throes of a panic attack.
Karen and her henpecked husband eventually left and I spent the rest of the night wracking my brain over how feral people have become in Covid’s wake. To quote Slavoj Žižek in Pandemic! 2, such unhinged outbursts are both “a reaction to the immobility imposed by social distancing and quarantine” and evidence of a long-raging ”genuine conflict [over] global visions about society.” “The horror,” Žižek writes, “does not reside in our transgressions of social customs,” like screaming at strangers or haranguing service workers over masks. Rather, violence “erupts when we become aware that these customs are falling apart, that we have no firm ground to rely on.”
It’s scary to be suddenly accosted by a stranger foaming at the mouth over something so mundane. Now, imagine if that lady tried to eat my face off?
I couldn’t help thinking about this incident while watching The Sadness (哭悲), the no-holds-barred feature debut from Canadian expat Rob Jabbaz. With more eye-gougings than a Lucio Fulci movie and enough blood spilled to summon the ghost of Herschell Gordon Lewis, The Sadness is a radically sadistic rejuvenation of the zombie genre in the epoch of Covid-19. Forget Romero’s lumbering corpses or the sprinting rage-monsters in 28 Days Later — Jabbaz’s zombies are vulgar homicidal rapists, completely coherent and fully conscious of their actions due to an unprecedented mutation in Taiwan’s ongoing “Alvin virus” pandemic. Stripped of their inhibitions and empathy, hordes of bloodied maniacs run through the streets violently raping and killing the uninfected without remorse. Clearly the omnipresence of death and contagion have not scared us into complacency, so Jabbaz reconfigures the zombie formula away from fear of the walking dead toward something far more terrifying: that proverbial rage brewing under the surface.
Caught up in the carnage are Kat (Regina Lei in a gutsy screen debut) and her boyfriend Jim (Berant Zhu, We Are Champions), a young couple in Taipei who must find a way to reunite from opposite ends of the city once the violence erupts. Their morning begins like any other in the midst of a pandemic: Jim scrolls past pictures of masks and YouTube debates between conspiratorial Alvin-deniers and scientists warning of the virus’s “mutation potential” while Kat gets ready for work, too miffed over her and Jim’s conflicting work schedules to notice the bloodied old woman standing on the rooftop outside.
After dropping Kat off at the train station for her morning commute, Jim stops into a café for some coffee, unaware that the blood-smeared old woman has followed him until she hurls a basket of boiling grease in the cashier’s face. (This is the first of many over-the-top yet technically audacious gore sequences featured throughout the film, among which includes the best cinematic head explosion since Scanners, seriously.) All at once ordinary people begin throwing themselves off of buildings, running pedestrians over in their cars, and using any and every conceivable object they can to rape, murder, and maim anyone in sight. Besides sharing the same wide, pitch-black eyes and feverish expression once turned, the infected shed a tear before succumbing to madness.
While Jim outraces hordes of “homicidal sadistic maniacs” through Taipei, Kat finds herself in the worst place to be at the onset of a zombie rapist outbreak — sitting next to a chauvinistic businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang) on the train. In a film where stab wounds spray blood geysers and unspeakable things are done to eye sockets, the exchange between Kat and the businessman preceding the bloody train massacre might be the most nerve-shredding scene in the film. Casual small talk over the book Kat’s reading quickly devolves into inappropriate comments and needling questions, the kind all women intuit as immediate danger. She rejects his advances and politely asks him to stop bothering her. His response? “What has happened to this country?”
Kat subsequently becomes the target of the businessman’s perverted bloodlust once he’s turned. His dogged pursuit of Kat and Molly (fellow fearless newcomer Ying-Ru Chen), an injured passenger Kat helps escape the train car, isn’t motivated by an insatiable desire to consume human flesh as per zombie tradition. Hunger isn’t what drives The Sadness’s zombie flesh-eaters to do “vile and repugnant” things to other people — the Alvin mutation simply makes the infected act upon whatever violent urges come to mind as reflexively as blinking. Whether this means The Sadness isn’t technically a zombie movie doesn’t really matter, not when the final product is the goriest thing you’ll see all year.
Credit where credit is due of course; the concept of conscious zombies is lifted from Garth Ennis’s comic book series Crossed, which Jabbaz cited as a key inspiration to The Sadness’s take on a pandemic-induced zombie apocalypse. Crossed, however, played most of its gratuitous violence for laughs and dark humor, whereas The Sadness revels in its own cynicism in order to hold a mirror to our present reality. I really can’t stress enough just how violent this movie is, although this shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the extremities of East Asian horror. But even by those standards The Sadness is an especially brutal film about societal collapse and how public health crises like Covid-19 amplify whatever savage impulses lie dormant within us. To defer to Žižek once more, “Viruses are undead, always ready to spring back to life” like zombies from the grave. Coronavirus hasn’t changed us for the worse; it’s merely resurrected primal fears of the Other we long thought dead and buried.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.