Fans of fucked-up cinema, rejoice. The Sadness premieres today on Shudder, and it has everything you need for a stomach-churning good time. Writer-director Rob Jabbaz’s splattertastic zombie film is a pointed indictment of the politicization of health crises, with a keen interest in the ways that misogyny poisons the world. It’s an uncomfortable combination, to be sure, but it’s one that proves once again that zombie films often have the most to say about the world’s ills.
The world is in the middle of a pandemic, and scientists have been warning that the virus has the potential to mutate into a form of rabies. They are roundly ignored and shouted down, however, as we see in an opening interview where the host continually interrupts the scientist with condescension and impatience. Subtext quickly becomes text when the scientist shouts, “To politicize a virus is a terrible mistake!” The Sadness is a movie that shuns subtlety, both in its blood-spurting visual effects and its political messages. When our protagonists Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei) encounter their neighbor, Mr. Lin (Ralf Yen-Hsiang Chiu), he informs them that the virus is a hoax as he coughs and sniffles. When Jim takes Kat to work, however, they start seeing early signs of the “Alvin virus” mutating: people fight on the street next to a stretcher carrying an impossibly bloody body, and the film wastes no time in showing the viewer just how bad things can get.
The Sadness goes from zero to gruesome in no time flat. Gnarly kills and disgusting acts of depravity fill the screen; the Alvin virus not only makes people bloodthirsty, but it also gives them an uncontrollable desire for sexual violence. In many cases, though, it doesn’t implant these desires so much as unleash them. There is a strong undercurrent of toxic masculinity in many of the attacks, particularly in the case of The Businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang), a man who hits on Kat as she takes the train to a meeting. The Businessman is shy and timid as he makes romantic overtures to Kat, but when she rejects him, asking simply to read her book in peace, his inner incel comes out in full force. He sputters angrily, insulting her and muttering about how women are all the same; it’s already terrifying to watch him turn into a rage monster, and he hasn’t even been infected with the virus yet. Once he does get infected, though, his transformation is even more terrifying.
Most of the infected people can’t seem to control themselves. They stab, beat, or gnaw on their victims with a blood-chilling frenzy. The Businessman, however, is slow and methodical as he stalks Kat through the train station and across the city. You get the impression that he has been waiting his whole life for this opportunity to punish the women he curses at under his breath as he watches them in his daily life. It’s a clever take on the zombie film that emphasizes just how monstrous some people — especially men, the film argues — truly are. Other characters take similarly misogynistic attitudes toward Kat: Kevin (Lue-Keng Huang), a transportation employee, doesn’t want to give her his cell phone to call Jim because of the gigantic anime breasts that serve as his home screen, and virologist Dr. Wong (Wei-Hua Lan) surreptitiously watches her undress as she gets ready to take a decontamination shower in his lab. Neither of these men is infected (not initially, at least), but they still treat women like meat to be devoured. Likewise, The Businessman doesn’t need a virus to turn him into a terrifying beast intent on hurting people; he already is one.
Though this is a film for people who enjoy gallons of fake blood and “I can’t believe I just saw that” moments, The Sadness doesn’t skimp on the suspense. An early scene of Jim watching an elderly woman (Chi-Min Chou) in a bloody hospital gown wander about a neighboring rooftop feels ghostly and surreal, and a gonzo attack on Kat’s train is preceded by a tense sequence as the audience waits to see when and how the inevitable violence will play out. Frenetic jazz music accompanies each zombie attack, with slow synth tones playing as the audience takes in the aftermath of each bloody spree. The special effects are impressively gnarly, and slow tears rolling down the faces of the infected (hence “The Sadness”) signal upcoming mayhem.
The Sadness never loses sight of its political or sociological themes amidst all the bloodshed. A scene of abandoned masks littering the ground hits home for those of us who know the COVID pandemic is far from over, as does a sequence in a hospital where the characters discuss the fact that the only things that matter to politicians are the economy and re-election; they simply don’t care about public health. As Dr. Wong says, “No one trusts doctors anymore. Everything must be politicized. There can no longer be truth.” The Sadness is a brutal satire of the myriad ways that people fail each other in the middle of a crisis — people with power refuse to help those without it, and toxic masculinity rages unfettered. Bloody, brutal, and biting, it is a fucked-up movie for a fucked-up world.