The Center for Disease Control announced on Tuesday that they have diagnosed the first ever case of Ebola in the US. The case in question was detected in Dallas when a man who had traveled to the US from Libera came down with severe flu-like symptoms and sought medical help. While officials say it’s pretty unlikely there will be an Ebola outbreak in the US, the scenario does bring to mind the various hypochondria inducing plots from any number of epidemic movies. These are movies that make you suddenly germaphobic, cringing at any sneeze or cough from a stranger, and turn you into a compulsive hand washer (although the last one is another good way to get sick). So here’s a look at some of the best, most frightening outbreak movies to help us conquer our fears through film.
6. Outbreak (1995)
Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo play epidemiologists on the case to find a cure for a fast spreading, Ebola-like virus that is fast taking down the small town of Cedar Creek. Russo falls ill with the disease, giving Hoffman a personal stake in finding the cure. The origin of the disease, of course, is an African monkey. The movie is partly inspired by a real life Ebola scare at a Reston research facility just outside DC. Scientists discovered that their test monkeys were contracting a frightening hemorrhagic fever. Luckily, what came to be known as Ebola Reston didn’t affect humans, even though the antibodies could be found in their blood after being exposed. Outbreak is what could have happened if Reston were contagious to humans.
5. And the Band Played On (1993)
This is the movie that my Infectious Disease professor would keep referencing during discussions of the spread of AIDS and how it became an epidemic – which I suppose says something about the film’s authenticity. When the movie was made it was an extremely controversial project about a disease that was still fairly taboo for discussion. Richard Gere took a small role, at great risk to his career, and created an uproar within the Hollywood community. The movie shows the progress from identifying a possible contagion to narrowing down its causes and origin, and designing a treatment. Many things stood in the way of getting this job done, from the distrust of the gay community, to pharmaceutical companies refusing to help for cost effectiveness and profitability reasons. It is distressing to know that so many lives could have been saved if only a few small, petty men with big jobs hadn’t hampered progress, or if the gay community hadn’t been made so mistrustful because of their general mistreatment.
4. The Mad Death (1983)
This is a little known, hard to find, three part mini-series produced by BBC Scotland about a fictional rabies outbreak. It is known particularly for being especially bleak. The series begins by tracking the multiple points of origin for the outbreak and the various vectors by which the disease is allowed to spread throughout the country, showing us how worryingly simple it is to kick off an epidemic – and also how stupid people can be. I mean, who picks up a sickly fox by the side of the road, cuts their finger while making cocktails, and then sticks the cut finger in the fox’s foamy mouth while patting it? People who watched this as children often cite the offending fox as the focus of nightmares to come. The fox, usually such a handsome animal, is pretty creepy, whether wildly rabid or lethargically sick.
3. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
This is a really cool movie, both a classic of cinema and sci-fi. It’s about an alien virus that causes massive blood clots and causes instant death when the victim’s blood turns to sand. Some scientists go to investigate this epidemic in a small desert town, strewn with bodies and wind swept by sand. It is probably one of the coolest sequences in the movie, partly because it’s creepy as hell, but also because it shows how compelling a non-action scene can be. The film itself is light on action and focuses more on “science,” but it is still compelling, suspenseful, thoughtful, darkly funny, and wickedly smart.
2. Shivers (1975)
Anyone who reads this column with any regularity knows I love David Cronenberg. While his films are visceral and disturbing, even his earlier movies have a touch of intelligence, humor, and an intuitive understanding of inherent human fears regarding certain quirks of biology. “Body horror” is a common phrase used to describe the themes of his earlier work, and what could be more fitting than a film about a parasitic infection? In this movie, a scientist believes that the human race has lost touch with their bodies and sexuality, so he creates a parasite that causes uncontrollable sexual impulses in its host and spreads itself as a venereal disease. The scientist, horrified by his creation, attempts to destroy it and kills himself. However, the parasite begins to spread itself at a rapid pace among the tenants of a high tech high rise apartment complex. What results is a complex full of sex zombies and a man trying to contain the infection.
1. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Most people might think of this as more of a time travel movie, which it most definitely is. However, this is also a movie about trying to stop a deadly epidemic in the past from a more knowledgeable future. This Terry Gilliam movie, based on the French short film by Chris Marker called La Jeté, is about as strange as you could expect a Gilliam movie to be, and with some of the all-time best performances by both Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Not only does the film have a fantastic, circular twist, but the depiction of a desolate and abandoned civilization is strikingly chilling, the prospect of which is terrifying to imagine. What must the peoples of that society have gone through in the throes of the epidemic that would inevitably wipe them out? Whatever it was that killed them, the littered streets are left as if no one had time to contemplate anything else other than survival or death. What is perhaps more frightening is the helpless inevitability of its happening, despite foreknowledge and time travel.