Everything about the premise of writer/director Rob Jabbaz’s feature debut reads like another formulaic zombie or outbreak horror that’s become overly familiar in the wake of our real-time pandemic. It quickly becomes apparent that The Sadness refuses to adhere to the average viral horror movie. Jabbaz keeps a death grip on the pulse of the current climate, delivering a rage-filled manifesto that aims to every cinematic taboo possible and tests your gag reflex in the process. It’s transgressive horror of the highest, most aggressive order.
The Sadness should look and sound familiar at the outset. Residents and the government of Taiwan largely ignored a pandemic, both slipping back quickly into their everyday routines. A talk show host flippantly ignores the warnings of his guest, a medical professional, about a new mutation in the virus- one that induces rabid-like symptoms in the infected. It’s background noise on a quiet, unassuming morning that introduces lovers Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu). Once Jim drops Kat off at work, though, it becomes a fight to reunite as the mutation spreads like wildfire and the city descends into violent depravity.
Nothing will prepare for the stark raving madness that ensues. Jabbaz wastes no time at all unleashing the gross-out horror. A peaceful breakfast service at a local diner gets shattered by the infected, blood flows, and hot grease melts flesh. The shocking violence is merely a gentle introduction to this particularly nasty outbreak. More than just mimicking rabies, the virus represses the id, and the afflicted give in to their darkest impulses. Emphasis on dark; every single taboo gets touched upon here. Anything that can happen will happen and in the most disturbing ways. Jabbaz ramps up the danger and depravity at a steady, rapid clip, testing the boundaries of taste at every turn.
The narrative provides just enough details about Kat and Jim to ensure we root for them to survive as unscathed as possible on their harrowing voyage through limb and corpse littered streets. But The Sadness doesn’t have much time for character depth or development as it barrels from set piece to set piece. The mild-mannered pair often gets lost and overshadowed against the bombastic, morally twisted infected they encounter.
“Everything must be politicized,” a doctor mournfully explains to Kat as he tells her that no one trusts doctors anymore. It’s a rare pause in the abject chaos that makes it abundantly clear that Jabbaz isn’t aiming to shock without purpose; The Sadness is a scathing indictment. It captures a societal breakdown through humanity’s absolute worst. It’s not just the blood-splattered atrocities committed that serve as a warning, but the speed at which it all happens.
Jabbaz’s confident, daring debut operates on pure, unbridled fury. Its title emotion sets in once the end credits arrive, finally bringing a reprieve from the violence to leave you with a further withered view of civilization. The Sadness puts you through the wringer- trigger warnings abound for rape, necrophilia, and beyond- but there’s a method to the madness. The filmmaker delivers his message with blunt force trauma, breaking all the rules along the way. It’s a vicious anthem that keeps you in its grip, forces you to stare into the abyss, and dares you to look away.