clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In ‘Contagion’ and beyond, movies show us virus attacks both authentic and outlandish

When a bug runs out of control on film, the result can be pain, death or zombies.

The daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and husband (Matt Damon) of a virus casualty search for supplies in “Contagion.”
The daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and husband (Matt Damon) of a virus casualty search for supplies in “Contagion.”
Warner Bros.

A poker player suspected of cheating in a private game has been gunned down in the wharf area of New Orleans.

The man, who arrived in the country just a day earlier, carries no identification. When the coroner examines the body, he becomes alarmed at the presence of a bacteria in the blood.

“Stay away from him!” the coroner exclaims to co-workers.

A Navy doctor determines this man could have been carrying a deadly plague, and anyone who has come into contact with him could be spreading the virus. At a meeting with health and law enforcement officials, the doctor says the virus “can be spread by the common cold, on the breath, through sneezes. … We have 48 hours. Shortly after that, you’ll have the makings of an epidemic.”

This is the setup to a movie from 70 years ago: Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets,” a tightly spun film noir starring Richard Widmark as Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Reed, M.D., Paul Douglas as the police captain who thinks Reed is overreacting, and Jack Palance as Blackie the killer who doesn’t realize he could be carrying a deadly virus.

“Panic in the Streets” is a classic virus movie. We start with a scene involving the carrier (human or otherwise) before we’re introduced to the antihero, who will soon become the leading voice of warning, even as others (usually government or corporate officials) downplay or cover up the outbreak.

Like every other segment of the world, the entertainment industry has been rocked by the coronavirus, from the postponement of the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” and the sequel “A Quiet Place, Part II” to the cancellation of SXSW to the ongoing closure of theaters in China, meaning no showings there of the highly anticipated live-action version of “Mulan.” Wednesday night, Tom Hanks revealed he and Rita Wilson had tested positive for the new coronavirus while in Australia for pre-production on a film.

The one virus movie getting the most play — on streaming services and in the media — is Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011), and that’s understandable, given it’s one of the best movies of its kind and the storyline has eerily prescient parallels to the real-world pandemic.

Of course, “Contagion” is just one of hundreds of films about viruses and pandemics. Over the last many days, I’ve watched dozens of these films. In alphabetical order, these are some of the most impactful, culturally relevant and/or popular. (Spoilers ahead.)

‘12 Monkeys’ (1995)

Bruce Willis plays a time traveler in “12 Monkeys.”
Universal Studios

Terry Gilliam’s remake of the 1962 French short “La Jetee” stars Bruce Willis as Cole, who in the year 2035 is sent back in time to the 1990s to find the source of a virus that has wiped out most of the world’s population. (The title comes from the “Army of the 12 Monkeys,” a radical group suspected of having released the virus.)

“12 Monkeys” is a typically trippy Gilliam film, but at heart it’s a medical sci-fi mystery with warnings about humankind’s ongoing destruction of the environment.

‘28 Days Later’ (2002)

Cillian Murphy in “28 Days Later.”
Fox Searchlight

Danny Boyle’s electric, post-apocalyptic British horror film re-introduced the concept of zombie-type creatures that move quickly as opposed to the usual lumbering walk — but it begins with newsreel-style footage of fires, rioting, mass panic in the streets, all of which came about as the result of a pandemic.

It all starts when a group of activists at the Cambridge Primate Research Centre frees apes that are being used for experiments.

A staffer tries to stop them, crying out: “The chimps are infected!”

Infected with what?

“Rage.”

‘And the Band Played On” (1993)

Roger Spottiswoode’s 1993 television film was based on the seminal nonfiction book of the same name by Randy Shilts and covers the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Matthew Modine stars as the real-life epidemiologist Don Francis, one of the first scientific experts to alert the world the AIDS was caused by an infectious agent.

‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1971)

A scientist (James Olson) watches as a nurse (Paula Kelly) feeds an infant survivor in “The Andromeda Strain.”
Universal Pictures

In this Robert Wise adaptation of a 1969 novel by Michael Crichton (“Westworld,” “Jurassic Park”), a satellite crashes to Earth near a small rural town — and when the local doctor opens the satellite, his blood crystallizes into powder.

“The Andromeda Strain” makes great use of early generation special effects and split-screen montages as we see what the green-colored life form code-named “Andromeda” can do to the populace.

But whereas the real-world COVID-19 is most dangerous to older persons (especially if they have pre-existing health problems), Andromeda has no effect on an older man and a baby — the older man because he was an alcoholic who had resorted to drinking Sterno and his blood was acidic, and the baby because its constant crying had created an alkaline buildup in its bloodstream.

‘Blindness’ (2008)

A disturbingly effective if at times opaque story about a most unusual and terrifying strain of virus: one that makes you instantly go blind, with zero warning.

Mark Ruffalo is the doctor who examines the first patient who has suddenly gone blind. Julianne Moore is Ruffalo’s wife, who is immune to the virus. As “Blindness” takes on a “Lord of the Flies” element, with the quarantined blind turning to horrific violence to survive, one feels a sense of visual claustrophobia, if that can be a thing, every time the screen goes white to illustrate the P.O.V. of one of the victims.

‘Contagion’ (2011)

Matt Damon delivers one of the best performances of his career as Mitch Emhoff, a Minneapolis family man whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong — and two days later has a seizure and dies. Kate Winslet is equally brilliant as the epidemic intelligence officer who is among the first to recognize an outbreak is spreading through the world at lightning speed.

The final sequence, a flashback showing exactly how Paltrow’s Beth became patient zero, is one of the most brilliantly executed pandemic scenes in film history.

‘Containment’ (2015)

In this British gem, a guy wakes up in his flat in a residential tower block in Southampton one morning and finds the windows and doors have been sealed shut, as everyone in the building is under enforced quarantine due to a pandemic. “Containment” effectively conveys the unnerving isolation one feels in quarantine.

‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978)

The shopping mall as a sanctuary — and then bloody battlefield, as flesh-eating zombies storm the gates. George Romero’s sequel to “Night of the Living Dead” is a truly frightening zombie pandemic movie and a sly commentary on consumerism. Roger Ebert gave “Dawn of the Dead” four stars and ranked it among the best horror films of all time.

‘Flu’ (2013)

In this South Korean chiller, a deadly strain of the H5N1 virus has struck a district of some 500,000 people, causing mass panic and chaos.

‘The Happening” (2008)

Zooey DeSchanel and Mark Wahlberg in “The Happening.”
Twentieth Century Fox

M. Night Shyamalan’s eco-pandemic thriller was ripped by most critics — and it does have its share of loony, unintentionally chuckle-inducing moments — but, upon further viewing, there are some effectively delivered shocks (mass suicides in the northeastern United States), not to mention that wacky but undeniably different reveal that the suicide virus could be the doings of plant life that has developed a way of fighting back against man.

‘The Host’ (2006)

Many a virus movie begins with someone doing something really stupid and selfish and potentially harmful — followed by a flash forward to present day, when the bleep hits the fan. In “The Host,” from “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, an American military pathologist dumps 200 bottles of formaldehyde down a drain leading into the Han River in South Korea in the year 2000.

A half-dozen years later, a giant creature emerges from the river. He’s the host of a deadly virus, and he’s hungry.

‘The Omega Man’ (1971)

This is the second entry in an unofficial trilogy of sci-fi films starring Charlton Heston as the voice of warning.

In “The Planet of the Apes” (1968), Heston cries: “You finally really did it, you maniacs. You blew it up!”

In “Soylent Green” (1973), Heston laments, “The ocean is dying, plankton is dying…Soylent Green is made out of people!”

In between, in “The Omega Man,” Heston tells us: “I was a very peculiar doctor … trying to find treatments for diseases that hadn’t existed … now, I’m the only game in town.”

This is a film very much of its time. A former anchorman (Anthony Zerbe) becomes the leader of the cult-like community of victims who don’t want to be cured — they believe the plague is a necessary evil to wipe out the establishment and bring about the dawn of a new era.

‘Outbreak’ (1995)

Cuba Gooding Jr. (left) and Dustin Hoffman in “Outbreak.”
Warner Bros.

Wolfgang Peterson shot this big-budget, star-studded virus epic in the mid-1990s style of a major action movie, with Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman as generals covering up the source of a virus that has re-emerged in Africa, and Dustin Hoffman leading the charge as the military doctor screaming at anyone who will listen that America is on the verge of a pandemic.

A young Patrick Dempsey stars as Jimbo, an idiot who smuggles a monkey out of Africa intending to sell it for a pretty penny to a pet shop owner. By the time Jimbo arrives in Boston and kisses his poor girlfriend, he looks like death warmed over, and they’ll both be goners within days.

‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

Seminal film starring Tom Hanks as Andew Beckett, a young lawyer with HIV who sues his employers after he’s dismissed, and Denzel Washington as Joe Miller, the ambulance-chasing, homophobic attorney who takes the case. In a telling moment illustrating how ignorant many were about AIDS, after meeting with Andrew, Joe visits his doctor to make sure he hasn’t caught the disease.

‘The Plague of Florence’ (1919)

Fritz Lang wrote the screenplay for this German silent film, which is based on the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Masque of the Red Death.” It’s a tragic romance set in Florence in 1348, just before the outbreak of the Black Death.

‘The Stand’ (1994)

Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald in “The Stand.”
ABC

This TV miniseries based on a Stephen King novel stars Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Ossie Davis, Molly Ringwald and Ed Harris in another story of a top-secret experiment gone horribly wrong. In this case, a weaponized version of influenza is accidentally released into the world, and within two weeks, more than 99% of the population is dead.

‘World War Z’ (2013)

Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, an investigator traveling the world trying to find the host of a zombie pandemic. Director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball”) delivers a successful, mainstream thriller (with grosses of more than a half-billion dollars worldwide) that also works as a character study about an everyman hero who rises to the occasion and never gives up on himself or humanity.

Here’s rooting for all the real-life versions of the virus-fighting characters played by the Brad Pitts and Dustin Hoffmans and Richard Widmarks and Cuba Gooding Jr.s and Kate Winslets of the movie world.