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Shudder Secrets: The Sadness: A Brutal Zombie Movie for COVID Times

The Sadness

I’ve been waiting for a film that really touches upon the madness of the last few years, from the debates about wearing masks, to the politics over the pandemic, to those who oppose mandates, because, well, freedom. Cue writer/director Rob Jabbaz’s movie The Sadness. It’s one mean and nasty zombie movie. For the willing and the brave, I have no doubt this will be one of the fiercest and bloodiest movies they may see all year.

The Sadness is a movie about human impulses, our very worst impulses. Instead of slow-walking zombies, these are sadistic creatures with high functioning brains that drive them to murder, rape, and torture. As a monster, the zombie has an uncanny way of evolving. It’s a creature that won’t stay dead. In the case of The Sadness, it raises questions about what exactly blazing a trail of freedom means for the general population. The result is one of Shudder’s best originals so far this year, at least for those brave enough to endure the runtime.

Fair warning: some minor spoilers below.

Pandemic Politics

The Sadness isn’t necessarily drenched in politics. It’s not out to beat anyone over the head. However, its social themes aren’t exactly subtle either. The film stars Berant Zhu as Jim, a sort of everyman just trying to survive. His girlfriend, Kat, played by Regina Lei, gives one heck of a spirited performance. This young couple is quickly separated and left on their own to defend against the violent masses.

Disinformation and distrust over science become evident within the first 20 minutes. Jim scrolls through one of his social media accounts. He stops to watch a YouTuber interview a doctor. The social media influencer asks the doctor why he promotes “fear” of the Alvin virus. The YouTuber adds that there have been no deaths, and it’s convenient the virus showed up during an election year. This interaction sounds like 2020 all over again.

The doctor, however, pleads with the people of Taiwan to take the virus seriously and not politicize it. Minutes later, Jim encounters his neighbor, Mr. Lin on the balcony. Hearing him sniffle, Jim recommends that Mr. Lin go see a doctor, just in case. The neighbor responds he’s done with waiting rooms, before adding all doctors tell him the same thing, to stay home and rest. He even says, “I could probably be a doctor.” “Low-lifes” in the media blow everything out of proportion, according to the neighbor.

These scenes surprised me in how well they resonate. It reminded me of the well-publicized threats against Dr. Fauci in the US and the general reluctance by some pockets of the population to get vaccinated or to even take COVID seriously, especially in those early months of 2020. Those politics are injected into The Sadness and make it more than just another mindless zombie movie.

The Sadness Highlights Awful Human Impulses

The Sadness sure isn’t for the squeamish. Its level of violence exceeds anything I’ve seen recently and edges grindhouse territory. There’s even a scene where one of the infected screws an eyeball socket. Yes, you read that correctly.

However, Jabbaz really hones in on human nature and impulse. For example, in the opening sequence, we see Jim and Kat in bed. His hand slowly reaches towards her pants, driven by sexual desire. Moments later, when they wake up, he tells her they can’t go on vacation next week because he has a shoot at a German ad agency. Yes, he needs to make money. However, he also dismisses her needs. He’s not bothered by the fact she only gets 10 vacation days a year and it wasn’t easy for her to get the week off. She also says that she wants fresh air and a tan. He points to the ceiling and says she can tan on the roof. Jim puts his needs front and center of their relationship. It’s evident from the opening.

Courtesy of Shudder

In a later scene, while riding the train to work, a businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang) harasses Kat. He sees her on the train daily and wanted to tell her that she’s beautiful. She thwarts his advances and threatens to report him to the police for sexual harassment after he tries to touch her. The man mutters that he’s just trying to be social and even complimented her. According to the man, women are screwing up society and feel they can be rude “just because they’re pretty.” Once infected, he continues to stalk Kat. He’s an unrelenting, impulsive force.

During an attack on the train by the zombies, the businessman is infected. He becomes an ever-present threat in the film, a relentless creature of impulse who constantly chases down Kat. Yet, it’s these interactions between the uninfected, like Kat and the businessman, or Jim and his neighbor, that prove really effective in underscoring the worst traits of human nature. They’re monsters long before they were bitten and became actual monsters. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded one-two more of these human-to-human interactions. They’re just as horrifying as the geysers of blood and guts that drench so many scenes. Human nature ain’t all that pretty, in Jabbaz’s eyes.

Freedom, but at What Cost?

The infected aren’t George A. Romero’s slow-walking ghouls from Night of the Living Dead. And while they can run fast like Danny Boyle’s zombies in 28 Days Later, these monsters are more evolved to reflect where we are in the 21st Century. Romero’s early zombies were appropriate for the late 1960s, while Boyle’s creatures represented post-9/11 fears. Jabbaz’s zombies are even more vicious. They symbolize what it means to absolutely have no restrictions on freedom. These uglies do whatever they want, when they want, and how they want. They get off on watching their victims suffer and have no regard for the rest of society. Think of the parents screaming at school board meetings, the armed men who protested COVID restrictions at Michigan’s capitol building in April 2020, or the customer who screamed at grocery store clerks for having to wear masks. These monsters only care about themselves.

Yet, Jabbaz, like Romero, also shows that humans can be just as monstrous. For instance, when Kat hides out in a hospital with other survivors, the group starts fighting amongst each other. One man punches the other. It worsens from there. Even though they’re uninfected, the group can’t maintain a sense of safety or look after each other.

Courtesy of Shudder

The only contrast to this is Kat. She does her best to help a woman survive after she’s stabbed in the eye on the train by the businessman. She’s willing to put her own safety at risk to help and save others. It’s what makes her such a likable character, one who really carries the film, even more than Jim. Likewise, Jim does have some redeeming qualities, too. He’s willing to risk his safety to make it back to Kat. They’re separated for most of the film. Jabbaz does an impressive job balancing their dueling narratives, too.

If you think there’s absolutely no life left in the zombie genre, give The Sadness a try. If you can stomach heavy gore and brutal scenes, you’ll see that there’s more here than just blood and guts. Like the best zombie movies, The Sadness speaks to our times, specifically political and social anxieties surrounding COVID.

The film comes to Shudder on May 12. For more on the streaming service’s latest content, check out my Shudder Secrets column.