The Sadness Wanted To Take The Concept Of Garth Ennis' Crossed Even Further

Rob Jabbaz's 2021 horror film "The Sadness" is one of the most intense, most violent films in recent memory. It follows the pattern of traditional zombie films, in that a viral outbreak turns large portions of the population into mindless monsters, but in the case of "The Sadness," people are turned into homicidal maniacs who become intensely driven by the evilest possible impulses. An infected victim can still speak and plan, but now have no compunctions about killing others, eating their flesh, bathing in blood, having blood orgies in public, and ... well, many other horrifying things that will not be listed here. 

The story is a bare-bones affair. A young couple (Regina Lei and Berant Zhu) are in an awkward place after a bad argument and have each gone out to work. When the "rage" outbreak hits, they must each survive a sudden assault of wrathful, cackling, lustful, bloodthirsty maniacs. Jabbaz's film details their journey back to one another. Nothing goes well for anyone. 

The idea of zombies being quick-moving rage monsters instead of shambling undead cannibals is a notion that was popularized in 2002 with the release of Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later," a film that specifically referred to the zombie catalyst as the Rage virus. Since then, other filmmakers and artists have explored zombie stories as inflected by madness rather than mindlessness. 

Notably, in 2008, comic book writer Garth Ennis created a series called "Crossed," which, very much like "The Sadness," was about an infection that robbed its victims of any impulse rather than their most violent and evil. The title came from a cross-shaped rash that the infected bore on their faces. 

Quick zombies, slow zombies, just give me original zombies

In a 2021 interview with iHorror, Jabbaz was asked about "Crossed," and the basic similarities between the two. It turns out that Jabbaz was intimately familiar with Ennis' comic book, but was actually prominently inspired by the more immediate worldwide lockdowns instigated by COVID-19. One of his producers thought that a Covid-inspired zombie flick would play well. It certainly wouldn't be the first film to mine lockdowns and Covid for horror stories. "Host" is a positive example, while "Songbird" is very much a negative one. 

Jabbaz, making his directorial debut, took the assignment in stride, saying: 

"'Crossed' was a big inspiration. But it didn't start from there. It was more kind of like, the pandemic happened, and then my boss told me that I should write a movie, like, 'I'll finance a movie if you do it right now and we can get it out in like, six months.' And I was like, Okay, what do you want to do? He was like, it has to be about a pandemic, or whatever. A zombie sort of thing is what he wanted. He really was dead set on that."

But Jabbaz wanted to alter the tone so that it didn't feel like just another knockoff. There were already plenty of zombie movies and TV shows in the world, and he wanted to take things to new heights. "Crossed" crossed his mind:

"I wanted something that would take it to the next level. And I started just kind of looking at stuff, and I read 'Crossed' back when it first came out. And I was like, oh, maybe I'll look at 'Crossed' again. So I did. And I thought it was cool. Because it added that sort of extra level of like a threat."

The violence of animals, the malice of man

Jabbaz was fascinated by the concept of rage as he saw in it "Crossed." A zombie, he seems to feel, is a mindless monster that is no longer human. A person influenced by their own gleeful sadism is harder to fathom. Indeed, a smiling, cogent, ultraviolent human will leave a traumatic scar deeper than, say, an attacking animal. 

"[W]hat it actually is, is malice or intentional cruelty, and enjoying hurting people. [...] If you get attacked by an animal and you lose an eye, you can kind of get over that. But if you get jumped in an alley, and some guy is laughing while he carves your face up with a with a box cutter ... when you look in the mirror ... five years from then, it's gonna be a lot harder to kind of deal with, you know. And so that's the difference malice makes, right? So I was like, that's kind of interesting."

Jabbaz went on to point out that "Crossed," while toying with that concept, wasn't quite novel enough for his tastes. Ennis' work, he said, was little more than a zombie narrative, only with the added wrinkle that the zombies are horny and can drive cars. Jabbaz liked Ennis' notion of human beings acting out their darkest impulses, but he became more fixated on the idea that all humans are chillingly capable of acting out their darkest impulses. He concluded that "Crossed," similar to "The Walking Dead," is about becoming a horrible person as a survival trait. In a world gone mad, only the mad will survive. 

Jabbaz wanted a more tragic angle to a mad world, hence the title of his own film. 

The tragedy of wrath

In comics like "Crossed" and shows like "The Walking Dead," Jabbaz seemed to feel that the inner depravity of the characters was kind of taken for granted. For "The Sadness," he seemed to take a more sympathetic view of the zombies. A virus forces one's rage to the surface, but the director found it relatable that there may be deep-seated rage inside all of us, to begin with. The wrath in "The Sadness" came from a deep discontentment with society. As he said:

"What's mine about-with-a-capital-A? And I was like, well, it's going to be about people who don't have lives that they feel happy with. And they feel kind of disconnected and they don't have meaningful relationships, and they're not happy with their jobs and their lives and their decisions. And they don't know how to get any kind of release or escape from that, and every day is just kind of like living this life of fear and anger."

The virus, then, was a catalyst for freedom. Violent rage, in a very dark way, was cathartic. Jabbaz said:

"[O]ne day, there's a virus that just kind of allows that all to kind of be okay and all of a sudden you have purpose in your life. And the purpose is entirely connected to that pent up frustration and rage and, you know, sexual inadequacy and all this kind of stuff. So, I was like, okay, that's cool. Let's do a movie kind of like that."

The title gives away Jabbaz's game, of course. Rage may free us, but it will damage everything and hurt everyone around us. The "zombies" may cackle, but none of this is fun. It's all very, very sad.