My Introduction to Extreme Horror
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Rob Jabbaz, The Sadness is a stark and stunning film that highlights the beauty of practical effects. Filmed in less than a month in Taipei and Keelung, Taiwan, the film presents its audience with a true vision of extreme horror. Simply put, this film is a blood-chilling joyride that puts a somewhat fresh spin on the zombie genre. Gore, absurd and grotesque violence, rape, torture, and mutilation; they’re all present here. But, before I get into all that I want to share a little about my introduction to extreme horror.
Back in the ancient days of VHS tapes and movie rental stores, I came across a film titled ‘Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike 2001). Sadly, the quaint video store located in Northampton, MA is no more, but the memories of the brutality in that film remain. I was enamored by the violence, the strange story, and the even stranger characters in the film. I attribute much of my love for extreme horror films to Ichi the Killer, but several other films continued to pique my interest over the coming years.
Following my introduction, within the next few years, I’d head to theaters to watch ‘Saw’ (James Wan, 2004) and ‘Hostel’ a year later (Eli Roth, 2005). High Tension (Alexandre Aja, Grégory Levasseur 2003) was shown to me by a friend, yet was quite predictable unlike the monumental ending of the first Saw film. Of course, I couldn’t skip out on watching the slightly hokey, slightly terrifying, and repulsive film ‘The Human Centipede’ (Tom Six, 2009). Then, nearly nine years later I finally saw the film adaptation of ‘Audition’ (Takashi Miike, 1999), based on the book by Ryū Murakami (Coin Locker Babies, In the Miso Soup). While many other films fit into the genre of extreme horror, those are some titles that have continued to stand out to me through the years. I still wonder how In the Miso Soup isn’t a film, but I digress. Perhaps that will be a post sometime in the future.
In one way or another, these specific titles set me up for the utter brutality that is The Sadness. From the grotesque and disturbing scenes to the over-the-top violence, Jabbaz manages to capture the essence of sheer terror with an artistic touch of absurdity. But still, it’s not just the shock value of the film that makes it great, it also taps into my…
Love for Zombies
At the root of it, The Sadness is undeniably a zombie film. What a fitting medium to explore and reshape in a post-pandemic world. For many, including myself, the idea of zombies is a fascinating topic. The pandemic proved the vast majority of us would join the masses of the living dead, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing there would be a zombie outbreak. It’s a strange fascination; one that has continuously changed in concept over time from black and white B-films to current iterations of the genre mythoi.
My very first memories of zombies are ‘Plan Nine from Outer Space (Ed Wood, 1959). Since then films, television, video games, and comics have introduced us to various types of zombies. For most, the allure of George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead (1968) was the catalyst that sparked our interest in the undead. Romero’s follow-up film, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978), solidified our love for chommpy, bloody, rip-you-apart creatures. For many, the pinnacle of zombie films remains ’28 Days Later’ (Danny Boyle, 2002).
Aside from a few blockbusters here and there, the zombie craze seemed to simmer down with ‘The Walking Dead’ show (2010 -2020 | present) and a few other films carrying on the torch. Meanwhile, the gaming scene saw a huge uptick in zombie-centralized stories such as Resident Evil 7 (Capcom, 2017) – Resident Evil Village (2021), The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2014-present), and Dying Light (Techland, 2015 – present). However, just when the zombie genre started to go from a boil to a simmer, East Asia had plans to reignite our passion for zombie films, sending interest in the genre to a roaring boil.
East Asia Rising Up
Even if you’ve been living under a rock, you’d be hardpressed not to have at least heard the buzz concerning contemporary East Asian cinema. Hurtling East Asian cinema into the eyes of the Western mainstream, director Bong Joon-ho unleashed the 2020 thriller/drama ‘Parasite’. Thanks to the critical acclaim of the film, the West clamored for more. Meanwhile, ‘Train to Busan’ (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016) continued to boom with popularity. For the longest time, mainstream audiences focused only on martial arts films, anime, Kaiju films, and tokusatsu genre shows. Some cite the stigma that “having to read subtitles ruins a film.” However, after a bit of time, the subtitles become synonymous with what’s happening on screen. Considering films like ‘I Saw the Devil’ (Kim Jee-woon, 2011), I’d say those who refuse to watch foreign media because of subtitles are missing out.
The zombie genre is experiencing a rich, bloody surge thanks to the growing popularity of foreign media. Streaming services like Shudder and Netflix have put a great deal of effort into diversifying the availability of shows and films worldwide. Take for instance the 2020 film directed by Il Cho, ‘Alive’, or the hit Netflix series, ‘All of us are Dead’ (Lee Jae-kyoo; Kim Nam-Su, 2022), shows that bring their flair to the already popular gore genre. Each film, show, comic, or game presents either something we’ve seen but from a fresh perspective or puts a whole new spin on the genre. The Sadness takes all of the elements we expect from these horror mediums and propels them to the next level.
The Sadness – Changing the Game
The Sadness mixes up the zombie genre by neglecting many of the stereotypical zombie tropes. By keeping the majority of things that make us human, Jabbaz creates a truly horrific and brutal kind of zombie. What sets them apart and makes them more frightening than your typical brain eater is their madness. A virus infects its host by inhibiting the power to resist their darkest desires. Instead, they can do nothing else but act upon them. Even if they wanted to resist, they act out their craziness with a terrifying smile spread across their face. Depraved sexual acts, grotesque murder, torture, mutilation, and more, the fright comes twofold as both the victims and the infected are fully aware of what’s going on. Although, for some, the virus seems to be more of a blessing than anything else.
The Sadness doesn’t necessarily try to tackle anything significant. It’s not a politically charged film or one that tries to be a social commentary, even though there are certain scenes where one might find it the case. Even I thought there was a slight chance there was a message; but after a second watch, I feel that the movie is simply pointing out the depravity of humanity. There are all sorts of sickos out there horrific and depraved acts of cause and effect. What social commentary the film does point out is kindling for the fire, we’re all revolting in one way or another. Jabba works to point out the depravity of humanity, but it goes no further than that, there is no major message to pass on, just shock value.
The Taiwanese extreme horror film follows a young couple, Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu) as they go about their day. The virus quickly spreads throughout the city. The film quickly turns into a story of a couple seeking to reunite amid chaos, rape, and mutilation. Fifteen minutes in and the movie quickly turns into a face-melting stabity-stab-stab film as Jim witnesses the madness begin with objectified horror. Meanwhile, things get even more gruesome as Kat takes a ride on a subway train. Trapped until the next stop, the train quickly becomes an explosive bloodbath as the virus takes over more of the passengers. Fleeing with another of the passengers, Molly (Ying-Ru Chen), Kat is pursued by the main, nameless antagonist played by Tzu-Chiang Wang.
Tzu-Chiang Wang embodies all of the desires we must suppress in society. When we first see him he expresses his interest in Kat. He continues even after she refuses his advances. We see how his frustration mounts, not just about his rejection, but the repulsive state in which he views the world. In some form or another we share his sentiment, though his is displayed in a much more depraved state. The virus takes hold of him and, as the world is thrown into chaos, the nameless everyday man finds his place amongst the chaos. Later, he makes a remark heavily suggesting that Kat, in a representation of us all, is just like him. We all have dark desires; while society works to inhibit our worst desires, deep down we’re all ready to open the flood gates — we only need a catalyst. In this case, the virus serves as the catalyst.
At the root of it, The Sadness is an extreme horror film that wants nothing more than to present a bloody representation of society. Through all the carnage, it leaves the sickness of humanity intact. While there may arguably be some pockets of social commentary, it does not try to be more than what the characters point out. Society is bound by rules, but in the film our greatest inhibitions are set free, leaving the world to collapse into moralistic and grimly fatalistic tendencies. While The Sadness surely is not for everyone, it has enough going on to satiate those looking for a strikingly dark zombie film. What the film lacks in terms of substance, it makes up for by introducing us to one of the most fearsome zombie types cinema has ever seen — uninhibited horny, sadistic humans with a taste for blood and excessive violence.