If there is one thing that people all over the world have in common is our innate need to indulge in things that scare us. Vampires tap into our fear of our own self indulgence and eroticism. Zombies play into our fear of death itself, losing our individuality and an unending hunger that can never be satisfied. From Frankenstein to the darkest demon from hell, external monsters lie in fears that we can see.
What terrifies us more than those external nightmares are ones that we can’t see coming and are all around us; infection and disease. With recent biological events sweeping the headlines and our natural human response to them, cinema has tried to tap into those unknown fears in different ways. With those fears and the movies attempts to entertain us collectively with them, I wanted to go through some of my favorite movies that tap into the fear of the microscopic terrors that Hollywood wants us to be afraid of.
(FYI: I’m purposely keeping zombie infection films like 28 Days Later off the list because I want to focus on films where the infection itself is the villain, not the catalyst.)
#5 (12 Monkeys)
Terry Gilliam’s 1995 sci-fi film focuses on a world in the aftermath of a global contagion. With most of the population dead from a deadly viral infection, the survivors are forced underground. In the year 2035, a group of scientists send a prisoner back in time to discover the source of the infection so that they might find a cure or prevent it from happening. While we never get to see the actual infection at work, the dystopian future it creates and the desperation to stop it are palpable and the twist involving the virus’ origin is entertaining and scary at the same time.
#4 (The Andromeda Strain)
The 1971 science fiction thriller written by Jurassic Park and Westworld scribe Michael Crichton finds a US government satellite returning to Earth and crashing near a small town in rural New Mexico. The unknown organism on board, code named Andromeda, kills all biological life in the area with the exception of an old man and a baby. A team of scientists is dispatched to study the organism and find a way to neutralize it. Their efforts are hampered by the organisms attempts to survive through mutation. While the film is definitely a product of its time, the themes of an unknown infection and an unprepared government facing an unknown pathogen with the potential of global destruction are timeless.
#3 (Cabin Fever)
This 2002 release from Eli Roth takes the infection/contagion horror and isolates it to a group of friends who rent a cabin in the woods to hang out in. When the students begin to show signs of a flesh eating virus, they turn on each other and attempt to isolate the infected while looking for help. Unfortunately, they find that they might already be too late as others around them become infected as well and the source of the infection is the one thing they never expected. What makes Cabin Fever so compelling besides the intense visuals and horror effects is the psychological aspects at play when the students and others give in to the fear of both being infected as well as their infected friends.
Wolfgang Peterson’s 1995 film takes the infection/contagion drama and turns it into an action adventure as a fictional virus called Motaba makes its way to the United States and infects a small California town. A team of virologists is dispatched to track down both the source of the now airborne infection, but also a cure for the residents. To complicate matters, the virus is connected to government agents who will do anything up to and including murder to protect their involvement. Taking the action elements out of the equation, Outbreak has some truly disturbing and prescient scenes that show the virus being transmitted to others including a truly disturbing scene in a movie theater that shows the virus being transmitted via a sneeze.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller is in my opinion one of the more realistic portrayals of a viral outbreak that has been put on film. After a woman traveling abroad returns from a layover in Chicago, she dies of an unknown virus. When virus spreads around the world, scientists and governments get involved in not only the investigation of the outbreak and the hunt for a cure, but also in the inevitable social ramifications of the epidemic including fake cures, riots and the kidnapping of a scientist working on the virus. The film is a brilliant look at the psychology of a global infection and ends with the origins of the original infection laid out from moment to moment.
Those are my top five films that play into our fear of viral infections and contagions. Let me know what films in this genre scare or intrigue you in the comments below.