The Sadness is a film awash in blood, gore, and complete, unfiltered savagery. Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Rob Jabbaz, the new Taiwanese horror film is partly inspired by Garth Ennis’ Crossed comic book series and tells a story that some may find too relevant for their liking. Set in a modern-day version of Taiwan, the film invites viewers into a city that is in the midst of recovering from a pandemic, one that many of its citizens have grown tired of worrying about.
By the time The Sadness begins, the lives of many of its characters have all returned to normal, much to the frustration of the few prominent scientists who continue to argue that there’s a chance the pandemic’s virus could mutate in dangerous ways. Considering that The Sadness is a full-fledged horror film, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to say that those scientists are proven to be tragically correct in their predictions. As a matter of fact, it takes less than 20 minutes for The Sadness to begin throwing its fictional reality into complete and utter chaos.
At the center of the film’s inevitable viral outbreak are Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu), a young Taiwanese couple who get separated just before the literal blood hits the fan. Much of The Sadness’ narrative is, consequently, focused on Jim and Kat’s attempts to reunite in a world that’s coming apart. Unfortunately, if Kat and Jim are going to be reunited, that means they’re going to have to survive several horrifying encounters with the rabid humans that have been infected by the film’s fictional virus.
Contrary to what most horror movie viewers might assume, The Sadness’ infected are not just another garden-variety form of zombies. While rabid and crazed in the way that most movie zombies are, the infected in The Sadness are totally sentient and intelligent, but are nonetheless driven to carry out as much sexual and physical violence against their fellow citizens as they can. They’re capable of running and speaking, which just makes their all-consuming cruelty that much more difficult to watch.
Throughout The Sadness’ 100-minute runtime, both Jim and Kat find themselves in a number of difficult situations where they are forced to fight for their lives against mobs of infected maniacs. In each of the film’s set pieces, Jabbaz proves himself capable of quickly and effectively ramping up tension on-screen, a skill that becomes undeniably clear just a few moments before The Sadness’ first real horror sequence kicks into high gear.
Jabbaz sets up the scene in question by having a seemingly senile old woman walk barefoot into a packed restaurant. From there, Jabbaz lets the tension build by cutting back and forth from shots of the restaurant’s oil fryers bubbling behind the counter to shots of nearby pedestrians as they begin to notice the woman’s presence. The filmmaker then sends the scene into total chaos by not only revealing the woman’s black, infected eyes, but also by having her dump hot oil on the face of a restaurant worker. She then proceeds to peel off his burning skin with her bare hands.
In case those previous two sentences weren’t enough of a hint of what lies in store in The Sadness, now feels like as good of a time as any to say that Jabbaz’s film is one of the most violent and grotesque horror movies of recent memory. The film consistently pushes its violence to extremes that will likely be too far for most moviegoers to bear, and there are moments in it when it feels like The Sadness is the bloodiest horror movie that has been released since 2019’s famously blood-soaked It Chapter Two.
When the film’s over-the-top violence works, it manages to inject The Sadness with a kind of manic energy and visual madness that’s hard to shake. Lei’s tortured performance as Kat also helps imbue many of The Sadness’ best set pieces and scenes with a level of emotional reality that keeps the film from veering too often into full-blown absurdity. That said, there are moments when The Sadness fails to ride the line between heightened gore and comic violence.
One sequence in the film’s back half, in particular, feels unnecessarily grotesque and mean-spirited in a way that the rest of The Sadness’ horror set pieces don’t (you’ll know it when you see it). It’s also hard not to notice how many of the film’s most violent scenes involve male members of the infected brutally assaulting and attacking women. In some of those instances, it feels like Jabbaz is intentionally trying to say something about the toxicity of everyday misogyny, but there are other moments when it feels like the writer-director has lost his sense of direction and tonal control.
The Sadness’ stabs at social commentary are similarly uneven and scattered. Jabbaz, to his credit, is an observant writer capable of bringing real-life situations and conversations to life on-screen with sometimes cringeworthy accuracy. That’s especially evident during one uncomfortable moment early on in The Sadness when Lei’s Kat finds herself stuck in an uncomfortable conversation with a presumptuous older man (Tzu-Chiang Wang). However, Jabbaz is less successful at bringing his various observations together to create one focused or cohesive social statement.
But The Sadness was never going to be remembered best for its message or themes. The film is a grotesque and gonzo horror experience, and it features several stomach-churning images, some of which may very well end up ingrained in the minds of viewers for many years to come. As a directorial debut, it announces Jabbaz as a horror filmmaker who is worth keeping tabs on.
The fact that he fails to say much of real worth in The Sadness doesn’t really matter in the end. As a purely cinematic experience, the film is viscerally effective in a way that few horror movies manage to be.
The Sadness premieres Thursday, May 12, on Shudder.