From George Romero’s 1968 classic night of the living dead Turned a monster movie into a meditation on institutional racism, zombie movies have been one of the horror genre’s most effective vehicles for sociological observations: dawn of the dead destroys consumer culture, while Shaun of the dead parodies the murderous nature of routine work and life. But that doesn’t mean every zombie movie has to tackle big topics about the state of humanity. With Sadness, the new Taiwanese zombie-like flick from Shudder, freshman Canadian writer-director Rob Jabbaz certainly wants to join the ranks of those classics. But he doesn’t find the right measure of finesse and shamelessness to marry his grotesque gore and violence, given the moral lessons he seems to feel compelled to offer.
Sadnessfreely inspired by Garth Ennis Crossed comedy series, follows a young couple in Taiwan, Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei). Jim drops Kat off at work hours before a zombie outbreak leaves them searching for each other amidst the chaos. These infected are not traditional zombies. Jabbaz substitutes something more gruesome: his highly contagious virus, which shares similarities with rabies, drives victims to act out their most sadistic urges. They have no shame and no power to stop – and they give in to their horrible urges with wide, unwavering smiles on their faces.
[Ed. note: The rest of this review includes brief descriptions of some particularly grotesque acts of physical and sexual violence.]
It’s a pretty fine premise, but Jabbaz focuses too much on finding some deep metaphor that doesn’t exist, rather than letting the setup be an excuse for some of the most gratuitous and ridiculous gore in recent memory. .
Throughout his script, Jabbaz tries to find something important to say on a number of topics. Early in the film, before the chaos begins, a news broadcast includes a scientist complaining about everyone in the universe who believes the pandemic is a hoax, and how no one believes scientists anymore. As Kat punches an infected character in the head — a man who spent the entire movie trying to rape her — he exclaims that it makes her like him, apparently implying that on some level, almost everyone aspires to indulge in extreme violence. . The movie even doubles down on this when an uninfected character, with his dying breath, mentions how good it was to kill babies.
Jabbaz also spends some of the film’s pre-infection time with Kat as she is harassed on her way home, briefly exploring the horror of women being accosted and threatened in daily life. Her stalker is then infected and stalks her through the city. But the exploration of normal gender-based violence is quickly abandoned, and minutes later, people are being raped in the streets by infected people who smile and wave at passers-by.
It’s completely unclear what Jabbaz wants viewers to get out of all of this. Are the hints in the news broadcasts to real responses to the pandemic intended to provide insight into the infection here? Is he suggesting that humanity is limited only by social order, or is the idea “everyone secretly wants to commit atrocities” just horror movie cynicism? ‘Ancient ? Regardless of the answer, Jabbaz raises questions and then drops them altogether, making the film feel more hollow than if he had never raised them at all.
It’s a bummer that the messaging side of the film is floundering, because Sadness is at its best when it is shamelessly violent. When the virus first strikes, Jim is in a restaurant having coffee when an infected person walks in and attacks someone, killing them and spreading the infection to anyone nearby. What begins as a mundane coffee order suddenly becomes a dizzying action scene and chase sequence, as people start tearing up, Jim sprints, and several infected people chase him from alleys to busy streets. Immediately after this, a train car falls in close quarters violence that ends with the entire car soaked in gallons and gallons of blood.
Behind all these attacks are exceptional practical effects and prostheses. Victims are mutilated and torn apart in all sorts of ways, and each death feels unique in its awesome and disgusting way. Jabbaz even uses the fountains of blood that spurt from cuts and stab wounds to give the scenes momentum, as if he were making a red timeline of the fight on the floor and walls.
But it’s not just resting on all that fantasy gore. He spends most of the rest of Sadness‘ runtime setting up quasi-vignettes where its infected – and sometimes uninfected – characters do the worst things imaginable. The specific acts, ranging from shoving a man’s crotch into a pole covered in barbed wire to a man breaching a woman’s empty eye socket, are designed to shock, and they are certainly gruesome. While none of this seems incongruous with the film’s other atrocities, it does feel out of step with the opening scenes. It’s like Jabbaz saying, “If you think sexual harassment is bad, think about how bad it could get.”
Many great films have played fast and loose with the grotesque – and many have been much harder to stomach than this one. But exploiting horror movies like Wes Craven’s 1977 version The hills Have Eyes do it with less shame and more finesse. (Jabbaz is used to his characters reminding audiences, in the most literal terms, of the atrocities they’ve just committed.) There’s a fine line between absurdity and effectiveness when it comes to this. kind of extremes, and Sadness too often ends up in absurdity for its shock value to actually land.
As odd as it may sound in a movie where a man is force-fed with a hand grenade, part of it sounds like a shyness issue. Jabbaz stops at every turn to try to justify himself or oppose the worst of his carnage. But he lacks confidence in his own wickedness, as if he feels that turning the violence into a metaphor will make it more acceptable. Disgusting splatter movies needn’t bother for a slim justification – they may just exist to unsettle the brave few of us who want it, and Sadness‘ tonal dissonance only gets in the way of that goal.
While zombie movies usually work in broad strokes, the type of extreme exploitation horror that Jabbaz works with thrives on the specificity of its circumstances and characters. But with Sadnessthe piling up of bodies becomes so exhausting, and the violence is so widespread, that it makes any larger point moot.
To Jabbaz’s credit, he’s been playing in a difficult genre, and one that’s been lacking in content for a few years – although 2021 wrong turn remake will best serve those looking for something shocking. More frustrating is that it’s clear that Jabbaz is a talented director. Hidden in pieces of Sadness is really great Train to Busanzombie-style action film, but Jabbaz’s film is so weighed down by its own self-importance and self-destructive impulses that the action never gets a chance to shine.
Cinema is full of gifted linemen, and provocative cinema has a long and famous history, dating back to 1916 Intolerance and 1929 An Andalusian dog for cannibal holocaust and countless films since. If you want to do something disgusting, you either have to do it right or do it very, very wrong, and Sadness can’t quite handle either one. He just can’t recognize that not every zombie movie has to have a moral, a metaphor, or a message.
Sadness airs on Shudder starting May 12.