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The Sadness is a Zombie Film for the Covid Era
Pandemics make us hate each other.
Rating: 8.6 /10
In zombie films since at least Romero’s 1968 The Night of the Living Dead, the ostensible horror is contagion. But the real horror is just people—the lurching, hungry, feral humans we have to live with every day, who live beside us, live in our homes, and want to eat us.
Canadian director Rob Jabbaz’s gut-churning Taiwanese zombie film The Sadness builds on the experience of Covid to mash together disease and misanthropy into a new misbegotten birth of disgust and fear. There have been better filmed, better directed, and arguably just better horror films over the last few years. But no horror film has, or is likely to, capture the self-destructive despair, the sadism, and the grotesque failures of the pandemic experience quite like this one.
The Sadness begins with a calm before the storm that will be familiar to any zombie fan. Jim (Berant Zhu) and Katie (Regina Lei) get out of bed on a typical day and head off to work, undeterred by that odd blood-stained figure standing on the roof opposite or by reports of possible mutations of the Alvin virus, which may or may not be related to rabies.
Again, genre fans know what comes next. But the inevitable war of all against all here has a few manic, blood-stained twists. Traditional Romero zombies are mindless creatures, driven blindly—and clumsily—by hunger.
But the Alvin virus doesn’t make its victims slow or stupid. Instead, the virus is “like being possessed by an evil spirit.” It “leaves virtually every brain function intact,” and those infected use those brain functions to devise hideous tortures, including murder, mutilation, and sexual assault. Even for horror aficionados, the level of violence here is striking, not only in its bloody detail, but in its inventive awfulness. There’s an almost certainly intentional reference to Bataille’s Story of the Eye which is I think one of the most repulsive things I’ve ever seen on film.
The over-the-top gore is gratuitous. But it’s not just gratuitous. The parallel with our current ongoing experiment in pandemic auto-immiseration is hard to miss. Faced with a terrifying public health emergency, everyone responds with indifference, naïve skepticism, and counter-productive selfishness. The government doesn’t want to lockdown, because they fear harming the economy. Conspiracists refuse to believe that the virus is actually a danger until it’s too late. And then, as the disease sprays across the country in a gout of viscera, the infected —like MAGA (and not just MAGA) tearing off their masks— deliberately spread the disease.
As in all the best zombie films, the monsters and the humans who face them quickly become indistinguishable. The creatures of the Alvin virus are simply the logical extension of bigotries and hatred that are already prevalent. One businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang) starts creepily harassing Katie before he’s infected; the virus just allows him to fully inhabit his worst entitled misogynist self.
More, as society starts to come apart, humans, even un-Alvinned, start to panic and tear at each other, embracing selfishness, murder, and atrocity. “You’re just like me, violent and depraved!” the businessman tells Katie, almost as happy to have corrupted her as he would have been to kill her.
The movie’s conclusion is if anything even bleaker than the usual apocalypse of Romero films, as the last people standing explain to each other just how they’d love to bathe in each other’s pain, and peel the skin from each other’s skulls. It would seem like too much, perhaps, if we hadn’t lived it—or if, for that matter, we weren’t still living it.
The sadness of the title isn’t the desperation of Jim and Katie as they search for each other through a disintegrating world of despair. It’s not the way that everyone they try to save is horribly tortured and then turns on them. It’s not even the downbeat ending, with the almost sensuous triumph of hatred and death. The true misery is that as utterly ugly and mean-spirited as this film is, our actual reaction to pandemic has been even worse, and incomprehensibly bloodier. Zombies have always been intended to show us our worst selves. Jabbaz knows, though, that in the Covid era, no reflection, no matter how mottled, is going to be as upsetting as the one we see every day out the window and in the mirror.
First published May 2022.
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