Through the lens of the 2020 pandemic, all past, present, and future zombie movies will find themselves compared to the Covid outbreak. For decades to come, the spread of a deadly contagion will make generations of people recall their time in quarantine and have them remember how they and others behaved. Movies about a deadly contagion not only reflect how humans react in a crisis, but also how they treat others as well as their response to scientific evidence. Writer and director Rob Jabbaz places his film THE SADNESS (or 哭悲 in Taiwan) in the present day and explains how a deadly virus turns people into murderous and lustful fiends. The virus theme obviously reflects the real-world devastation over the last year and a half, but Jabbaz’s story goes beyond relevant commentary as he includes gory exploitation horror to shock and entertain.
In Taiwan, the Alvin virus poses a threat to all the citizens mostly because non-scientists believe all news about the disease serves as a political scare tactic. And therefore, no one trusts the doctors because everything has to be politicized. Many inhabitants become burned out in hospitals and living in fear, and they prefer to believe the sickness is nothing more than a hoax. However, medical experts understand the real concern surrounding the sickness. Even though zero deaths occurred because of Alvin, scientists believe the make-up of the virus could easily mutate into a rabies-like disease. Amidst the anti-government message and dark portrayal of humanity, we see the young couple of Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina) who go about their day as normal as possible by having little arguments, cuddling, and going to work in spite of the increasing evidence of violence around them.
The most important part to remember is you need to prepare yourself for some gore! Fifteen minutes into the film and an old woman dumps hot oil on a man’s head, and then she proceeds to rip at the already malleable flesh. When the virus starts to take a strong hold of the citizens of Taiwan, ferocious chaos breaks out all over, leaving our main characters separated from one another. Desperate to find his girlfriend, Jim defends himself against his neighbor while Kat witnesses a fountain of blood on the subway. Throat-ripping, dismemberment, and an eye-gouging help start this hellish exploitation party, but with each new scene the horrors increase from normal gore to grindhouse-level. The make-up crew absolutely drenches scenes in blood and provides plenty of discarded guts in each new set-piece.
While the amount of blood and body parts definitely makes the film eye-catching, another feature which separates the movie from other undead affairs comes from the depiction of the monsters. The ‘zombies’ in THE SADNESS do not resemble the typical shuffling, groaning, brain dead creatures most commonly used. Instead, once infected with the virus, the people imitate the moral corrupting contagion of Joe Lynch’s Mayhem. People want to hurt and even kill others in violent ways, and they want to laugh in your face as they do it. So, replace the sounds and images of slack-jawed faces and moans with sinister smiles and wicked laughter and you’ll understand just what kind of hellscape Jim and Kat now find themselves in.
In a film about the government abandoning its people and the people swiftly turning on each other, choosing one villain seems impossible, but THE SADNESS still manages to sift through all the murderous and bloody rage and find one person who can out ‘terrible’ everyone else. The Business man (Wang Tzu-Chiang) plays an unsuspecting, yet amazing baddie. He starts as an unassuming middle-aged man who demonstrates his inability to respect or even recognize boundaries. He begins as an oblivious and crude commuter, but once the virus takes a hold of him, he becomes a blood-thirsty vengeful incel. The character does not get a lot of dialogue, but just relying on his grin and his actions he expertly terrifies the audience.
Aside from the opening sequence in which Jim and Kat argue about their relationship and a now-canceled getaway, the film does not provide much in the way of plot. Kat continuously flees danger in hopes of finding safety and Jim always seems to be just one scene behind her in his pursuit to rescue his love. The film alternates between the current carnage experienced by each main character and any semblance of a plot point merely serve as an excuse for another blood bath. And even though THE SADNESS takes place in Taiwan, the underlying plot about an uncaring government in the time of a crisis does not accurately depict the culture on screen. In real life, the country did well with suppressing COVID-cases, so the deadly screen version of a virus exists in an alternate reality or is perhaps meant to serve as a reflection on other countries’ behavior.
THE SADNESS offers a little political commentary, no character development, and barely a plot, but the surplus of gore and creative death and torture scenes provide a lot of entertainment. Not everyone will sit comfortably when the screen gets painted red with blood and innards, or when they find out what deviant behavior gets inspired by an eye socket, but the screams, the chases, and the gross-outs will all leave the audience content with the amount of gore they consumed.
THE SADNESS (哭悲) had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
All images courtesy Fantasia International Film Festival.