Fresh from Taiwan, THE SADNESS (2022) is a nasty, viscerally disturbing horror film that is somehow fitting for the COVID pandemic era.
Jim and Kat are young lovers who separate in the morning, Kat to take the train to work and Jim to grab coffee and start his own day. In the background, we become aware of a new virus dubbed Alvin, which scientists are saying is dangerously mutating, though the COVID weary public, sick of lock downs and infected in a way themselves with viral disinformation, is having none of it. As usual, the annoying scientists are right; Alvin is mutating, and those infected become compelled to inflict pain.
If you’re thinking this sounds like the graphic novel CROSSED by Garth Ennis, which isn’t so much read as inviting stomach-turning visual assault, you’re right; CROSSED is an inspiration for the film, just as it was for THE RETREAT, my zombie series written with Stephen Knight and Joe McKinney (it was also inspired by THE ANABASIS by Xenophon). And man, does it deliver: blood and gore and hacking and stabbing indulged to the max, spiced with moments of graphic torture and sexual assault held back just short of indulgent.
It’s ugly stuff, brutal and nasty, and man, it sets up one hell of an apocalypse. The grinning sadists who form the “zombies” in this story are pretty darn freaky and frightening. The combination of blood, tension, and cruelty is viscerally upsetting. The filmmakers handled all of it right in my view, punching you in the face without celebrating the punch, if you will. They adeptly set up long scenes of steadily escalating tension as characters react with terror and paralysis until the zombies arrive to play. The fairly cynical story runs right up to the point of nihilism, as our protagonists try to help people only to get burned, average people lash out in ignorance and fear and cowardice, and even the expert we meet is villainous.
It all ends on a note of hope, though it’s vague and also not very emotionally satisfying. The problem is in the lack of character arcs. In TRAIN TO BUSAN, for example, a detached dad learns the value and responsibility of fatherhood during a zombie apocalypse. In THE SADNESS, nothing is really learned or gained, making the story entirely about the world ending in slaughter and perhaps a thematic message that when it comes to public health maybe we should listen to public health experts. As a result, I wasn’t as invested as I would have liked in the protagonists, whose story simply ends, and it would have been interesting to see more of the best of human nature in contrast with the infected’s worst.
Despite this, I like this one quite a bit as something new in zombie land, a serious gut punch.