THE SADNESS Review - Violence, Depravity, and the Bloody Bystander Effect
E.L. Kings calls The Sadness a film that at times will make you physically ill, but it’s a creative and disturbing look at society, strung together by a love story.
Like any good pandemic film, Shudder Original THE SADNESS, written and directed by Rob Jabbaz in his feature film debut, takes place in a world where the existence of a flu-like virus is debated after a year of causing only mild symptoms. Medical experts fear that the Alvin virus will mutate, but the nation is frustrated, and the conspiracy theories are rampant. Jabbaz creates a perfect mirror of the Covid-19 pandemic and shows us the most horrific outcome imaginable when we collectively ignore how severe the virus is. The film debuted at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival and has earned well-deserved recognition, including the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival, Best Picture at Fantastic Fest, and Best Director.
The film follows a young couple, Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei), through their harrowing experience after Taipei descends into madness. Jim walks out onto his balcony overlooking the city and notices an older woman standing a few buildings over on a rooftop. To his shock, the woman turns to him, and her white nightgown appears to be blood-stained. While this foreshadows what is to come, Jim does nothing. He doesn’t call out to her or phone for help. There is a social psychological phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect, and this is a theme that comes up frequently throughout the film. It typically occurs in groups, but anytime we can help a stranger in need and fail to do so, one could argue that it’s evidence of the phenomenon. We witness this while Kat is on a train later in the film, and bystanders calmly watch the carnage, recording it with their phones instead of calling for help.
As they ride down the streets of Taipei, they see police and the bloody aftermath of a crime scene, slowing down to get a better look. After dropping Kat at the train station, Jim notices more strange things in the streets but thinks nothing of it. He drives his motorcycle to a diner to grab a coffee. The sound design and score are critical elements in this scene, building up tension and ensuring audiences always have something prickling at our ears and unsettling. We hear the clinking of plates and utensils as people in the diner eat, the bubbling of hot oil, and the sizzling of eggs and bacon frying on the grill.
The woman from the rooftop arrives in her nightgown, soaked in blood, feet dirty, and hair matted. Two men having breakfast notice her, and believing she is in distress; one reaches out to help her. She turns to him, her bloated face covered in sweat, eyes black and bloodshot, eyelids pink and puffy, and spits chunks of regurgitated food in his face. She then reaches for the cook, grabs the basket from the hot bubbling oil, and pours it over his head before gleefully tearing the flesh off his face. After all of this, the woman turns to Jim, begins moving toward him, and says, “Handsome boy!” Moments later, the man she spat on is stabbing the friend he just had a quiet breakfast with to death with a butter knife. From this point forward, THE SADNESS is one horrifying, high-octane, and gore-filled moment after the next. In an instant, Jim is surrounded by infected homicidal sadistic maniacs out for blood with no rhyme or reason and frantically hoping to find Kat alive.
The narrative follows two distinct perspectives. We witness Jim and Kat attempting to reunite amidst the chaos and hordes of infected and are equally concerned with the well-being of both parties and invested in their reunion as their two storylines seek to become one.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this infection is what it leaves intact—the infected give into every ghastly desire with no moral compass to stop them. Unlike “Rage,” the virus unleashed by animal rights activists in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), which causes the infected to become both mindless and violent, the Alvin mutation leaves a person’s intellect and motor skills intact. While leveraging familiar zombie tropes, these infected know what they are doing and enjoy it. The Businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang) is undoubtedly a more terrifying villain than Boyle’s British soldiers. Regardless of these differences between the two films, genre enthusiasts are sure to make comparisons.
Mutilation, casual cannibalism, murder, and torture are on the menu, as the Alvin mutation causes the streets of Taipei to erupt with unspeakable acts of depravity around every corner. The makeup, visual effects, and Jie-Li Bai’s stunning cinematography fully immerse the audience. Like the Bystander Effect, what we’re witnessing is horrifying, but we can’t look away. I experienced shock, disgust, and fear as my body flooded with adrenaline while frightening images and blood flashed across the screen. My chest tightened, and my anxiety peaked with rare moments of reprieve to catch my breath. I even gagged, and my stomach flip-flopped at the gratuitous and overtly gory bits, reminiscent of the gore in an episode of The Walking Dead (2010) by far more unsettling.
In all my years of collecting Crossed (2008), I never thought that any adaptation of the comic book series would do it justice. It’s not a direct adaptation, but the film does derive inspiration from the series created by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows. In the comics, the story follows survivors dealing with a pandemic that causes its victims to carry out their most evil thoughts. The infected are referred to as “The Crossed” and are still self-aware individuals—albeit turned into homicidal maniacs, which is reflected in the infected in the film. THE SADNESS is not for the weak-stomached. At times, it makes you physically ill, but it’s a creative and disturbing look at society, strung together by a love story.
THE SADNESS is now streaming on Shudder.