Locarno 2021 review: The Sadness (Rob Jabbaz)

Covid-19 is likely to inspire a whole new surge of pandemic horror movies, and Canadian director (working in Taiwan) Rob Jabbaz is among the first to go for it with The Sadness, released in its producing country at the beginning of 2021 and having its international premiere in Locarno. With an efficiency which is always a good thing for a horror story, The Sadness takes less than a quarter of an hour to ignite its massacre; yet in these fifteen minutes it also finds the time to make the explicit link between its fictional virus and world, and our reality. A scientist warns that “to politicize a virus is a terrible mistake“; some conspiracy theory believers ramble about hypothetical government manipulations; and then all hell breaks loose on one ordinary day – which becomes the day the worst-case scenario occurs. The virus mutates into a variant whose effect is the transformation of infected human beings into homicidal and sexual maniacs who savagely assault anyone close by and torture, rape and murder them in the worst way possible.

It is obviously far more cinematic than the consequences (to this day) of Covid-19, and it provides Rob Jabbaz (who also wrote and edited his film) with the material for a gruesome rollercoaster ride, a midnight screening in the truest form. We follow the two main characters, Jim and Kat, a young couple whose desperate efforts to be reunited are a pretext to set in motion a series of massacre scenes, each one gory to an extravagant extent. The first carnage witnessed and narrowly escaped by Jim, in a diner, already seems over the top, but is soon ridiculed by Kat’s own first ordeal which takes place in a subway car, where the outburst of the variant happens between two stations. The locked car turns into the location of an incredibly long scene of raging slaughter, the striking climax of the movie. Remarkably shot and paced, it is full of ideas and details that are so disgusting they become exhilarating, the reason why we enjoy indulging ourselves in the transgressive act of watching taboo-breaking horror movies.

In these two scenes, as in the depiction of the whole city left ravaged by the infected, the director’s influences are as clear as day – Stephen King’s novel The Strain, the films 28 Days Later… and Train to Busan. Yet Rob Jabbaz manages to not be overwhelmed by them, and to have his movie exist on its own, with its own ideas, its own punch, its own wits. He learned and applied another important lesson of horror filmmaking, which is to reduce the middle act to a minimum, as it’s often uneventful and adds little to the ins and outs of the story. The Sadness swiftly moves from its introduction to its outcome, set in a hospital put under lockdown. There, before the final showdown takes place (involving a reunion tinged with irony and an ending with no winners, in perfect horror fashion) we are given the title explanation, which heightens the film’s value. People infected with the virus mutation do not become mere zombies; besides keeping their physical strength (as in the aforementioned 28 Days Later… and Train to Busan) they also still have all their brain functions. This leaves the possibility for them to remain conscious of the vile and barbaric acts that they cannot help performing since the virus overtook their will. The sadness is what possibly lies deep down in their hearts, as they watch themselves become beasts, thus turning the film into a story not of humans overcome by inhuman beings, but of humans self-destroying as a society.

The Sadness (Rob Jabbaz)