The best films about epidemics

James Oliver

Oh great. Just as we were hoping things were getting back to normal after all that Biblical weather, along comes a global pandemic of Coronavirus to remind us that there's no such thing as “normal” anymore. Sigh

Still, let's look at the upside. All this talk of self-isolating means that there's lots more time to watch movies. (That's what “working-from-home” means, right?) And we have some selections for you... 

There's been a resurgence of interest in epidemic-themed entertainment—you'll have seen how Albert Camus highbrow The Plague is rising up the best-seller lists—so we thought we'd offer a short guide to some of the very best films about infections. 

So grab your hand sanitiser, strap on a face mask and set yourself up for quarantine in style. 

 

Yellow Jack 

You don't hear too much about Yellow Fever these days. In fact, most of us don't know what it is. Shall we take a look at Wikipedia to help us out? 

“A viral disease of typically short duration.” That doesn't sound too bad. “Nausea, muscle pains particularly in the back, and headache.” Oh. Actually, that's—“Liver damage begins causing yellow skin.” Urgh! “Death.” Run for the hills! 

We should all be thoroughly grateful for the efforts to extirpate the disease, some of which are dramatised in this 1938 film: US army medical officer Walter Reed (Lewis Stone), helped by an aww-shucks sergeant (Robert Montgomery) deals with an eruption of Yellow Fever on Cuba and gets things safely under control. 

Except, according to Wikipedia, “yellow jack” is spreading again these days, and it's getting stronger. Eek! 

 

Panic in the Streets 

Disease was a popular topic in early movies but until Panic in the Streets, most movie outbreaks were set in the past, which offers an immediate reassurance. But Elia Kazan's film brought things right up to date (well, 1950). A seaman with a nasty cough disembarks in New Orleans. The next morning, the authorities find his body and discover he died of (highly contagious) Pneumonic plague. And they don't know how many people are infected. Luckily, Richard Widmark is on the case.  

You wouldn't fancy the chances of any microbe against Richard Widmark, would you? Too bad he isn't around now. 

 

The Seventh Seal/The Navigator  

No matter how bad Covid-19 turns out to be, we can at least seek some consolation that it isn't as bad as the Black Death. Bubonic plague did a right number on Europe in the Middle Ages, scything its way through vast sections of the population. 

The most famous movie manifestation is The Seventh Seal, wherein Death walks the land and challenges a knight—played by the late Max von Sydow—to a game of chess. Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece was a decisive influence on another plague pic, The Navigator: in the Middle Ages, residents of a Cumbrian village burrow through the ground to escape their visitation and arrive in 1980s New Zealand. It touches on another, more recent, epidemic (the AIDS crisis) but mainly it's just magnificently weird. 

 

80,000 Suspects 

We've all wondered it, haven't we? What would Panic in the Streets be like if they'd set it in Somerset rather than Louisiana? Thankfully, 80,000 Suspects exists to let us know. 

It takes place in Bath and deals with Smallpox but there's the same interest in finding Patient Zero and containing the infection. And it's very nearly as thrilling too, good enough to make us wish that more films were relocated to the West Country. 

 

The Crazies 

Real life diseases, thankfully, are characterised by conventional symptoms (usually involving snot). But things often get even messier in movies. The Crazies shows the after effect of a biological weapon getting loose, one that makes ordinary respectable folk—well, crazy. They're not actually zombies but they act a lot like the ghouls in director George Romero's earlier film Night of the Living Dead. There's more emphasis in this film, though, on the official response to the outbreak. A response that's somewhat heavy-handed and panicked. Which is cheerful, isn't it? 

 

The Andromeda Strain 

A bit of a cheat, this, since the “strain” of the title doesn't actually originate on earth. But since this is, give or take, the best movie about disease control, it's easy enough to let that slide. 

It's directed by veteran ace Robert Wise, a cinematic equivalent to the crack team of medics who are assembled in the film, who have to find out how to overcome the virus that arrived on earth glued to the side of a satellite and which is killing almost everyone it comes into contact with. Wise keeps the tension levels set to “high” throughout, building to a climax which involves laser beams being fired all over the place.  

This was the first movie adapted from a novel by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Rising Sun). It's still probably the best. 

 

Outbreak 

Although Covid-19 has our attention right now, it's worth remembering there are many other infections festering around the world. Shamefully, though, we tend to ignore them until they might pose a threat to our comfortable lives. 

Outbreak starts in Africa, where there is an outbreak (geddit?) of the ole' ebola virus, killing people by the dozen. Then it spreads to small-town America (by way of a most unlikely Typhoid Mary, a cute little monkey). The film illustrates the double standards that divide the developed and developing worlds and suggests we ought to take a bit more interest in what's going on overseas... 

 

Contagion 

Now this is scary. Contagion was made in 2011, and the filmmakers based it on the SARS outbreak and the bird flu business. But nine years later it seems scarily prophetic: it features a respiratory illness that leaps from animals to humans in China and then spreads far and wide, causing widespread global panic.  

It's microscopically researched and was only too believable even before it came true. If this doesn't get you washing your hands for at least 20 seconds at a time then nothing will. 

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