There have been a few recent films that have touched on the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have largely been duds like ‘Songbird’ and ‘Locked Down’. What you need for good pandemic-driven motion picture entertainment is insanity in the streets, truckloads of corpses and really gnarly symptoms. For a lot of filmmakers, it’s still way too soon for audiences to embrace that stuff. Not so for Canadian filmmaker Rob Jabbaz - his directorial debut ‘The Sadness’ is vivid, gory, tasteless and all the better for it.
Slacker Jim (Berant Zhu) and corporate Kat (Regina) are a good-looking 20-something couple living in an apartment in Taipei, Taiwan. Their world is in the initial stages of a global pandemic called the Alvin virus, which seems to have impacted society in roughly the same way as the Coronavirus did in our world. When Jim notices an old woman in a bloody garment standing on a nearby rooftop, he shrugs it off as easily as he ignores the conspiracy theories of his next-door neighbour.
Unfortunately, it’s a grim portent of what is to come. A mutation begins turning Alvin sufferers into what I like to call “Saddies” – perpetually cheery homicidal maniacs with a lust for rape and sadistic violence. A major difference between these guys and other fictional zombie (‘Army of the Dead’) or insanity-virus (‘The Crazies’) epidemics is that they still retain a basic human-level of intelligence: thus, they are still capable of using weapons, setting traps, and coming up with creative ways of inflicting pain.
Jim is at a local café when the old woman returns. Within moments, some poor sap gets boiling fryer oil poured on his head, and the carnage has commenced in earnest. Riding off on a scooter with a howling mob on his heels, desperate to locate his girlfriend, he encounters hellish scenes straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting as he journeys through Taipei.
Meanwhile, Kat is being pestered by a middle-aged businessman (Tsu-Chiang Wang) during her metro train ride to work. She tells him off just as a grisly multiple stabbing occurs in her carriage, carried out by a dude who looks like Bill Paxton in ‘Near Dark’. Cue: a gravity-defying blood geyser straight out of Wes Craven’s original ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’. When the young woman sitting next to her has her eye pierced, Lucio Fulci-style, by the tip of an umbrella, Kat takes the victim to a local hospital. They are pursued through the subway by the sex pest businessman in a scene the recalls ‘An American Werewolf in London’.
The film cuts between Jim and Kat as they try to fight their way across a city in turmoil, the bloodshed around them becoming increasingly bizarre and extreme.
Rob Jabbaz is clearly a student of the horror genre, as his film is littered with subtle nods to the classics, like an exploding head straight out of Cronenberg’s ‘Scanners’ and wink towards ‘A Serbian Film’ that you won’t believe even as it unfolds before your eyes. Most of all, ‘The Sadness’ is heavily inspired by Irish writer Garth Ennis’ comic book series ‘Crossed’, to the extent that it’s sort of an unofficial adaptation of the premise. The key difference is that, instead of a cross-shaped rash, the villains of ‘The Sadness’ have hyper-dilated eyes with yellow tears streaming from them.
Rob Jabbaz is clearly a student of the horror genre, as his film is littered with subtle nods to the classics.
Ennis had attempted to jump ‘Crossed’ from the comic book to live-action for over a decade, but Hollywood studios shied away from the extremely grisly subject matter. So, it's quite impressive that Rob Jabbaz was able to whip this film up by himself, assisted by what appears to be a healthy budget and a lot of creative freedom. It’s also ironic that an unofficial adaption gets so much closer to the dark, mischievous spirit of Ennis’ oeuvre than any previous adaptations of the comic book veteran's work to date, even more so than Amazon’s ’The Boys’ and AMC’s ‘Preacher’ (both produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who are tone deaf to what makes Ennis' writing sing).
Gore flicks aren’t my thing, and I found ‘The Sadness’ difficult to watch due to the high level of nasty violence. Even the most helpless victims aren’t safe from the Saddies - the film is incredibly merciless and mean-spirited. But it’s equally as hard not to appreciate how well-oiled the cinematic machinery is that keeps this story racing along at such a frenetic pace. There is some beautiful cinematography by Jie-Li Bai, impressive set design from designer Liu Chin-Fu and an unsettling atmospheric score by Australasian duo TZECHAR. Berant Zhu and Regina are heroes that you will find yourself rooting for. Finally, I can’t say enough good things about the tremendous ingenuity of Rob Jabbaz’ direction and his amusing dialogue, which pokes fun at politicians, scientists, conspiracy nuts, podcasters and the like. It’s a slick piece of work.
‘The Sadness’ is very, very, very violent. It’s also terrific. Consider yourself warned.