While there have been many films since the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic that have used the international crisis as inspiration for horror, most have set their sites on the terror of the initial outbreak. Whether cheesy and exploitative (Corona Zombies) or using the pandemic as a catalyst and incidental backdrop (Host), most of these films rely on the tension of the new and the unknown. Few attempt to nail down the more abstract space many of us now occupy.
The virus still rages and death statistics continue to mount, but we seem to have collectively decided to ignore it. We have, in many cases, become desensitised to the horror. Meanwhile, faith in public institutions has been shaken, perhaps irrevocably. We have seen politicians and leaders fail to protect the vulnerable, while in many cases using the crisis to personally enrich themselves. Perhaps even more damagingly, some of us have lost faith in each other. Just as the virus inspired staggering acts of altruism and self-sacrifice, so too did it expose pre-existing divisions in our societies, and give rise to reactionary conspiracy theories.
It is into this peculiar limbo, characterised by paranoia and unacknowledged fears, that writer/director Rob Jabbaz drops his two protagonists. Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei) are a young couple living in Taiwan, in what people assume to be the tail-end of a pandemic. Lockdown is over, and most people are keen to return to normal. One of these people is their neighbour, who is convinced that the whole thing was a hoax. Experts are urging caution, however. They point out that the innocuously named ‘Alvin virus’ contains enzymes that are similar to rabies in structure, and that a potential mutation could spell disaster. It is only when an old woman in a nightdress burns half of a restaurateurs face off with a chip pan that Jim realises they may have a point.
The Sadness bills itself as ‘extreme horror’, and it’s an epithet well-earned. While other films might boast a greater quantity of gore or more realistic practical effects (a murder on a subway train, in particular, veers gleefully into the cartoonish), few will be able to compete with The Sadness for pure nastiness. Each murderous set-piece is a shocking display of cruelty and sadism, as horrifying both in their conception as their execution. Describing what is done to some of the characters in this movie is likely to elicit reactions almost as strong as seeing it for yourself.
These are not the mindless killers of your classic zombie movie, or the dispassionate murderers that populate most ‘torture porn’ offerings. The virus is closer to the Rage virus of the 28 Days Later franchise, but crucially it doesn’t entirely remove agency. It flattens inhibition in the infected, enhancing their natural cruelties. This analogy is bound to ring true for anyone who watched family members fall down online conspiracy rabbit holes while middle-class columnists called for outright eugenics the second they couldn’t get a haircut.
Tze-Chiang Wang plays a commuter who harasses Kat on a train. Her polite rebuttal sends him into a muttering spiral of incel talking points. The virus takes him from pathetic middle-aged creep to terrifying axe-wielding sadist, hunting Kat down on a murderous rampage. Again, despite the gore that liberally spatters the screen at almost all times, the bleak central message is not lost. The violence and misogyny was already there in this self-professed ‘nice guy’. The virus simply brought it into the light.
There are moments when the orgiastic violence is almost too much to bear, and there are moments of genuine hilarity. An address to the nation by stern-faced officials descends into a display of operatic brutality that can only be Jabbaz’s way of expressing his frustrations with the powers that be. Although implied rather than shown, the allusions to sexual violence is much more difficult to stomach.
With deliberately paper-thin characterisation, the film manages to move at a breakneck pace, delivering as many shocking and visceral scenes as it possibly can in its limited runtime. Though much of the violence is implicit, there’s something about the lurid colourisation, insistence on purely practical effects, and frequent use of close-ups that lends a real gut-punch effect to what we do see. It feels like an adaptation of Garth Ennis‘ ultraviolent comic Crossed, with fast cuts and bright colours adding to its comic-book aesthetic.
It should go without saying at this point that The Sadness won’t be for everyone. However, those that do brave its genuinely horrible subject matter will find a film that has more to say than the standard schlocky gorefest it pretends to be. A virus that makes people weep while committing the most heinous acts imaginable on each other is a powerful metaphor. It reflects the collective trauma that we’ve all gone though over the last few years, and that we’re all trying to avoid acknowledging. That metaphor doesn’t quite get drowned in a sea of blood, but it’s a close-run thing. For those after fast-paced shocks, for whom only the most off-putting horror content will do, The Sadness is a must-see.