It’s been some time since a zombie movie has been this eagerly anticipated, but following a rapturous reception at FrightFest last year The Sadness has been steadily growing a formidable reputation. Canadian writer/ director Rob Jabbaz’s Taiwanese gorefest just about earns it too. Harking back to the g(l)ory days of the Hong Kong Category III films of the late ’80s and ’90s, it’s a relentless and mean-spirited bloodbath that’s on a par with the lunatic offerings from Indonesia, the current hot spot for uncompromising horror.

A young couple, Jim and Kat (Berant Zhu and Regina Lei) find themselves stuck at opposite sides of Taipei as unexpected mutation of a familiar virus causes a sudden eruption of extreme violence. Those infected succumb to their most sadistic impulses and the city is quickly turned into a charnel house as those not killed at the hands of the infected also turn and start to cause carnage of their own.

Jabbaz injects just about enough humanity and pointed social commentary into his script to balance its numerous excesses. He deftly sets up both the central relationship and a prominent antagonist in Tzu-Chiang Wang as a businessman rebuffed by Kat who becomes obsessed with tracking her down when he gets infected. Really though, Jim and Kat’s respective odysseys are a mere framework for escalating set pieces of imaginative brutality, with two early scenes of frantic, disorientating, and expertly-handled terror in a diner and a cramped subway carriage stunning standouts.

The zombie sub-genre often leans into nihilism, but even by such consistently bleak standards, The Sadness tempers its violence with a pervading sense of hopelessness, and a chilling disregard for a society unprepared to take the basic precautions to ensure its own continuity. While it’s possible to enjoy the film as a hugely proficient slab of ultra-violence it requires the brain to be switched firmly into standby mode, as the tone tries to pull the viewer into dispondency like hidden pond weed. Engagement with its barely-sub subtext is easy given our collective experience of the last two years, and this adds a disturbing plausibility not often afforded to such a crazy premise.

Despite its reputation, The Sadness shows restraint where necessary. Though extreme by any normal metric it stops short of the repulsion of A Serbian Film, the crushing emotional intensity of Martyrs, or the almost comic insanity of the likes of Tokyo Gore Police. Jabbaz eschews the graphic depictions of the worst sexual depravity and the violence against children. Some disgusting sound design and a pool of viscera in an empty buggy is enough to send our imaginations hurtling in the worst directions without falling foul of any zealous censors.

Its simple plot may be full of survival horror tropes and stretched as thin as it will go, yet it’s easy to see why The Sadness caused such a stir on the festival circle. It’s 28 Days Later and The Crazies on angel dust; a twisted and dissolute take on a crowded genre, its individuality guaranteed by just how far it’s willing to go. It is a genuinely horrifying piece of work from a talented filmmaker who seems to instinctively know where the boundaries are and how far they can be pushed.

Screening on Shudder from Thu 12 May 2022