If there were a stockmarket for movies the smart money would be on Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), which has become one of the most searched and downloaded titles on the web, even though it’s not available on Netflix or most of the other the major streaming services.
With the news cycle so completely dominated by one topic it may be only natural that our movie preferences turn in that direction as well. Contagion is fascinating for what Soderbergh and his scriptwriter, Scott Z. Burns, got right in their picture of a world shut down by a pandemic: the calls for social distancing and hand-washing, the race to produce a vaccine, the panic buying, the deserted airports and closed borders, the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. There’s also an autopsy scene in which doctors take a look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s brain and find it’s in a state of advanced disintegration.
These things are now familiar to us, but there are other aspects of Contagion that are deeply disturbing. Soderbergh’s pandemic generates widespread social unrest, as panic buying gives way to riots, looting, home invasions and kidnappings. Uncollected garbage piles up on the streets while sporting venues are turned into makeshift hospitals with thousands of sufferers lined up in camp beds. This inevitably gives way to mass graves in which the dead are arrayed in neat rows and covered with quicklime. Some viewers may see this as a dark prediction as to where we are headed next, but given the deadly severity of the virus in Contagion and the comparative mildness of COVID-19, that doesn’t seem likely.
The cinematic imagination invariably views an epidemic in the most drastic terms. It’s always the plague, or some variant on Ebola, rather than the flu. As I write, Australia has 2,043 reported cases with 8 fatalities. Such a scenario isn’t dramatic enough for an episode of Home and Away, let alone a feature film. “In today’s episode Jill finds the hair-dresser is closed and Jack struggles to buy a roll of toilet paper…”
The unspoken model for most films about epidemics is Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague (1947). The connection is slyly acknowledged by Elia Kazan in his 1950 film noir, Panic in the Streets, in which Richard Widmark plays a crusading doctor in New Orleans who has 48 hours to find a group of criminals that are unwittingly spreading the infection. The first victim is a stowaway from the Algerian city of Oran, the setting for Camus’s story.
Camus uses the plague as a way of exploring the way people react to extreme situations, and the book owes a debt to the experiences of the Second World War. The illness is a lot more serious than COVID-19, calling for more serious measures. But even with the death toll steadily mounting Camus reveals one of the fundamental truths of all epidemics: “…nothing is less sensational than pestilence and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monontonous.”
Soderbergh strives to get around this problem by alternating between characters and locations, turning the monolithic fact of the pandemic into a series of discontinuous, individual short stories. We watch the movie in a state of heightened attention – or is it semi-distraction? – as the director keeps switching channels.
In The Andromeda Strain (1970), in which a group of scientists investigate a deadly organism from space, Robert Wise is even more methodical. The movie is a scientific procedural in which we are introduced to every detail of an ultra-modern secret laboratory buried in the desert, and closely follow the experiments required to unlock the mysteries of the extra-terrestial menace.
Other directors have adopted more bombastic methods, notably Wolfgang Petersen in Outbreak (1995), another movie that has undergone a new surge of popularity online. This time the virus is an imaginary cousin of Ebola, called Motaba. It comes out of Zaire, causes flu-like symptoms followed by bloody lesions and death. The story is riddled with cliches and painfully obvious scenarios intended to ratchet up the tension, as when a little boy comes close to eating a biscuit left by an infected person. The soundtrack is so heavy-handed even mildly dramatic moments are signified by a symphonic blast that would make Wagner blush.
Petersen’s clumsy attempt to force an action movie out of an epidemic makes one appreciate the subtlety of Elia Kazan in using a plague outbreak as the key element in a crime thriller.
In most movies the epidemic acts as the catalyst for grand, metaphysical refections on life and death. This is certainly the case in the medieval world of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), in which Max von Sydow’s knight sits down to play chess with Death, while the plague rages. It’s also the way Visconti uses cholera in Death in Venice(1971), in which the steadily increasing danger of infection matches von Aschenbach’s growing obsession with the boy, Tadzio – with equally lethal results.
The idea of the epidemic is the driving force behind almost every zombie or vampire film. When the vampire sucks his victim’s blood he creates another vampire, spreading infection with each new attack. In George A. Romero’s classic zombie movies, beginning with Night of the Living Dead (1968), when someone dies from a zombie bite they rise up and join the ranks of the walking dead. In the sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero places the action in a shopping mall, spoofing America as a nation of zombie consumers. By the time of the third film, Day of the Dead (1985), the zombies have become a full-scale pandemic. Yet another Romero feature, The Crazies (1973), looks at a town infected by a virus that either kills its victims or turns them into homocidal maniacs. The theme of a spreading infection allows Romero to increase the suspense, as the odds against the heroes keep escalating.
In Richard Matheson’s science-fiction horror story of 1954, I Am Legend, the planet has been ravaged by an apocalypse that has wiped out most of humanity and turned the remainder into blood-sucking zombies. Only one man remains alive, and we watch him fighting a constant battle against the slow-moving creatures that come searching for him every night.
Aside from providing inspration for Night of the Living Dead, the book has been filmed three times, as The Last Man on Earth (1964), with Vincent Price in the lead role; The Omega Man (1971), starring Charlton Heston; and I Am Legend (2007), with Will Smith. This is, perhaps, the ultimate epidemic story, as it shows a world in which the virus has triumphed, having eliminated humanity almost in its entirety.
It’s also a kind of end game for the epidemic movie. The sole survivor’s only job is to stay alive. He can take his pick of anything he finds in the abandoned stores and supermarkets, and will never run short of petrol. It may be a lonely life, but when every other person in the street is determined to suck your blood, social distancing is no hardship.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 March, 2020