Rob Jabbaz’s The Sadness is easily one of the most aggressively violent movies you’re bound to see all year. Teeming with hordes of sadistic murders, and drenched in gallons of blood, The Sadness follows several characters (some of them good, some of them very, very bad) as they make their way through a post-apocalyptic Taiwan that has been overrun with “rage-zombies”.
The movie relishes every opportunity to show off its practical effects, but it also has one hell of a story to tell. Gorehounds especially are going to love this one, but don’t let that put you off. The Sadness is an achievement in extreme violence, but it’s also a brilliant re-imagining of the zombie/virus outbreak subgenre. Click HERE to read our full review of the film.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Rob Jabbaz ahead of The Sadness‘s International Premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival where he was awarded the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature. I had only planned to talk with Rob Jabbaz for 15-20 minutes but we end up spending an hour chatting over zoom. During that time he shared a lot with me about the development process, roadblocks during production, and the mismanagement of his film in Taiwan.
Our conversation was sprawling and as scattered as any hour-long talk usually is, so I’ve condensed a lot of what we discussed into more manageable chunks. I only bring it up so you’re aware that I’ve edited a lot of what we discussed, without littering the transcription with ellipses and notations, except where absolutely necessary.
“it is a gory movie […] but at the same time, it’s really high energy and it’s not boring. The ultimate sin of a movie is for it to be boring.”
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: The Sadness is celebrating its Internationa Premiere in Canada at Fantasia, how was the response in Taiwan?
Rob Jabbaz: The Sadness kind of had a really stupid release because it was released in Taiwan at the end of January. It played in theatres for about a month but not a lot of faith was put into it by the studio and by even by the marketing company was dragging their feet doing the marketing for it because they just didn’t like it, They knew they were going to get paid either way and also they knew that they had other stuff down the line to work on. They did the bare minimum, threw it in theatres, and it just didn’t do very well in Taiwan. Then they tried to dump in on Netflix.
The studio was kind of like, ‘Okay, we have a shit movie here. Let’s just dump it on Netflix and let’s recoup our losses, and I was like, you’re just going to give worldwide [rights] to Netflix, sell it at a loss, and then that’s just it? For the next fifteen years, we just don’t have any right to the movie. Luckily, because of all the violent content- that’s what they said but I have suspicions that it was a bunch of contributing factors- Netlfix passed on it and I said, let me handle it. I ended up cold-calling RJLE and XYZ and Raven Banner, who eventually picked it up.
Raven Banner took it to show to people and to find a buyer but based on the response they were like, I think we have something here that’s a bit bigger than selling something like ‘Sky Sharks’ or ‘Swamp Monster’. It has a bigger feel to it, it has a little bit more of a deeper vibe to it, as opposed to some bullshit movie. They decided that they were going to hang on to it for [a few months] and put it into all of these festivals and try and build a reputation that way. And then, they’re going to start entertaining offers […] but I strongly believe that it will be available to the public before the end of the year.
NOFS: I’m not surprised to hear that you had trouble with it because this is…not an easy movie for the average person to stomach.
RJ: I don’t know. I was on a podcast yesterday and the two women who host the show were full-on the kind of people I expected to get angry at this movie. I went on there prepared to fight with them but they loved it. Even they made the point that although the film does get nasty in places it never crosses the line of being celebratory in a lot of the sexual violence. And I didn’t do that to have mercy on the audience, I did that because I feel like that will always damage a film.
If you cross a line in a film, it’s not like the audience gets shocked and they go online and say, “this movie was too much for me”. People don’t do that. What they do is they just say, ‘fuck this! Oh wow, what an edgelord!” They get cynical about it, so it hurts the film to cross the line. You can be an edgelord all you want, but it’s just going to hurt your film. You have to really identify where that line is and get really close to it, but always make sure to stay on the OK side of it.
“…the film does get nasty in places it never crosses the line of being celebratory in a lot of the sexual violence.“
I know what you mean though, it is a gory movie. It’s a movie that deals with sexual violence as a key theme, and it doesn’t make you feel good. But at the same time, it’s really high energy and it’s not boring. The ultimate sin of a movie is for it to be boring. It’s exciting, and it keeps you interested and I like to think- I mean, I’ve seen the movie probably 200 times so far and I made the thing and I know everyone who was involved so it’s hard for me to get a good read on it- but when I watch people watch it, they’re very engaged the whole time, It’s a real pulse-pounder.
I feel like this turned out just about as good as I could have hoped. You know you go in, you try to do the best you can- and I had never made a feature film before- and when I saw it working it was just *sigh* just such a relief. It’s like an affirmation of what you suspect your abilities are. Like, oh I can do that. Good. It worked. So, it’s more relief than anything else.
NOFS: I’m so glad to hear that man! Did you find that confidence in your abilities on Day 1 or did take a little while for it to sink in?
RJ: Being a director, I found, is just a lot of people coming up to you and asking a question, and you just have to be able to have a very confident, direct, immediate answer. I storyboarded the whole movie myself and I had a really good sense of how I wanted it to look and there were only a couple of times where I didn’t know how I wanted to shoot something and I had to rely on my cinematographer Jie-Li Bai. I think that I’ll probably work with him every time I do a film because he just got it.
There were three other people in the film who I felt really understood [what I was going]. Jie-Li Bai, Tzu-Chiang Wang who played The Business Man, and also the composer Ming, from Tzechar. That was sort of the creative core who read the script and knew exactly what it was going for. They had enough of a background in Exploitation cinema where they were like, ‘I know what this is supposed to be, I know what this fucking guy is trying to do’.
A lot of people read the script and they thought it was supposed to be funny, like a Zombieland tone. I think that actually helped in a way because when we started to move forward with the film, I started to get a lot of pushback. I don’t really want to get into me blaming [anybody] for stuff because I don’t have anything to blame anyone for because I love my film. The point is, everyone thought they were making something else but towards the end when it started to get really dark, they were already in it.
“I storyboarded the whole movie myself and I had a really good sense of how I wanted it to look…”
NOFS: The thing that hooked me really early on in The Sadness is just how sadistic your villains are. They’re almost like rage zombies, but they can talk, and they taunt people. Where did that idea come from?
RJ: It’s pretty clear, if you read comics, that Crossed by Garth Ennis was a big influence. And the way I see it- it’s just like a sentence of how you would describe a premise. It’s like: One day, all of a sudden, everyone goes crazy and all they want to do is the most terrible thing that they can think of. It’s basically as baseline as saying: One day, all dead people get up and they want to eat human flesh.
You gotta understand, the difference between a story and a premise is night and day. A premise is nothing. A premise is the shit that you say in an elevator to somebody. A story- like, having it all work and having it function like an engine is way different. So, I take the premise of Crossed and I ask myself, what’s working here and what isn’t working? The thing that is working is that this [premise] is scary again. At the end of the day, it’s malice and intention that makes it scary.
There’s nothing worse than getting beaten up by somebody, and it’s not because it hurts. It’s because you know that they’re getting one over on you. I mean, if you had that exact same beating give to you by a gorilla you wouldn’t feel quite as bad, right? So, I thought, that’s the seed here. That’s what makes this so scary. So then I thought, you know, when you’re getting beaten up and you’re in a headlock, and the dude is in your ear taunting you, it’s like, ‘Fuck! Fuck! Goddmanit!’. It sucks, right? That’s the worst.
So we had to keep them taunting and keep them being vulgar and begin cruel in every way possible. And that all of a sudden, if they’re talking and they’re expressing themselves, then we have an opportunity to make “zombies” into characters, and into villains. We don’t have a whole lot of time, we’re not doing a tv series, we’re doing a movie so let’s focus on one main one and one sort of secondary one. In my mind, I like to think that is [the character] Molly. She’s not really a villain, it’s just sort of a different way of thinking about [the outbreak].
“It’s about people who don’t fit in, finding purpose and finding meaning, but in this extremely darkest of dark places.”
And also, the whole thing is sort of based on people who maybe feel disenfranchised or malcontent, unable to fit in with society and then all-of-a-sudden [they] find this sublime in this ecstasy of murder and carnage. That’s sort of The Businessman. He’s spent his whole life not really connecting. We don’t really know this but we can sense it, that he’s unmarried, he’s not very good at dealing with people, his boss at work is probably twenty years younger than him, he takes the train every day he’s got nothing. He hates his life but he just putts on every day, and inside his mind is just this roiling cauldron of bad thoughts and bad desires and feelings, and then one day he’s just allowed to let it all out.
Molly, in my mind, is the same way but the feminine aspect of that. They both sort of find purpose in this virus, I guess you could say. And that, to me, is really what it’s about. That’s the story, as opposed to the premise. It’s about people who don’t fit in, finding purpose and finding meaning, but in this extremely darkest of dark places.
Rob Jabbaz’s The Sadness celebrated its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Click HERE to follow all of our festival coverage, and be sure to let us know what you would do if everyone in your entire city was suddenly turned into ruthless murderers over on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!