Rob Jabbaz’s feature debut, the Taiwan-set movie The Sadness, revives two genres. Welcome back the zombie movie, which has been having an afternoon nap since Train to Busan persuaded more or less everyone that there was no point trying to top it. And the torture porn/gorno movie, which has been absent without leave for a little longer.
Both combine spectacularly and splattertacularly in a story that’s ostensiby about a nice young couple who wake up one day to find that the world outside their window is now populated by virus-infected flesh-eating humans. In fact The Sadness is more about Kat (Regina Lei) than it is about Jim (Berant Zhu), a handsome young man who is going to be put to the test a bit. But it’s pretty, elfin Kat who’s going to bear the brunt of Jabbaz’s taste for shock and gore.
Both Kat and Jim have lovely soft, flawless skin, which surely was a consideration when the film was at the casting stage. All the better to point up the difference between Kat and Jim and the zombies, who are invariably coated head to toe in blood, liquid or caked-on, or body parts.
The zombies here don’t stumble or moan, they run and yowl. They have full control of their intellects. As a doctor who at one point helpfully explains, what’s happened is that the Alvin virus, which is raging through the country, is having an effect on the limbic system, and has yoked together the areas that experience violence and the areas that experience sexual pleasure. Hurting others makes you horny, in other words. And potty-mouthed. The infected not only like to bite off a nose, or a lip, but they like to talk dirty while doing it. “I’m going to finger your girlfriend”, Jim’s previously kindly but now infected neighbour yells at Jim as he attacks him with the pruning shears he was only minutes earlier tenderly using on his balcony herb garden.
More shocking than the sheer quantity of blood, and the way it fountains, pools and then starts to coagulate, is the glee with which the zombies/infected attack. So many shots of faces, eyes widened ecstatically, teeth bared in a cackle and grimace, as if human suffering were crack and they’ve just discovered it.
Jabbaz carefully constructs his story to be specific rather than general – Kat is being pursued by one particular businessman who she’d rebuffed on the commute to work – but there is also no shortage of non-specific godawfulness. Like the gang of the infected who have taken a man prisoner, wrapped his genital region in barbed wire and are now ramming his balls into a wooden post. There is the bit with the bone saw in the hospital. Whizz whizz! Another bit involving an umbrella and somebody’s eye. And that eye socket gets its own special treatment later on in a scene that will either make you laugh (possibly nervously) or squirm. Note for the squeamish: apparently there were some edits. One scene involving one of the infected shitting into the skull of a patient undergoing brain surgery didn’t make the cut. Small mercies.
The effects are mostly physical and they are incredibly good. Just the consistency, colour and stickiness of the blood is worth singling out, but it’s the sheer mad scale of it all that’s impressive – heads explode and body parts are removed and intestines spill and it all looks fearsomely realistic.
Take it as a metaphor for violence against women (since it’s Kat’s story) if you’re looking for a depth I’m not sure is there, though zombie films can always be pressed into symbolic service. Or as Taiwanese nervousness about being invaded by China (in this respect it is faintly reminiscent of the 2010 Australian movie Tomorrow, When the War Began). But mostly it’s a gauntlet-fling, a challenge to other film-makers. Top this!
Even so, Jabbaz runs out of splat and gore eventually, or possibly enthusiasm. This is a film that comes with the best shocks front-loaded. Which is actually very handy, because you might not make it to the end.
The Sadness – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022