It might seem a little perverse to pen a column about pandemic films at this point but, truth be told, I find it a little comforting. It’s about confronting your fears through representation and recognising that they are not as bad as you think. Or maybe, they are as bad as you think. Either way, let’s have a look at what’s on offer. If you’re of a nervous disposition, this is your warning to look away now.
The most realistic of all the available films on offer is definitely Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion. It’s a multi-strand narrative with a hat full of A-list stars including Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Laurence Fishburne. It maps out the effects of the spread of a coronavirus (the disease is actually a large family of viruses) transmitted by respiratory droplets and caused by an animal to human transfer in China. It follows public health officials and medical researchers as they try to contain, suppress and cure the outbreak. It even has social distancing. It all sounds too familiar, but at least it doesn’t include a President urging the population to drink disinfectant, or a Prime Minister talking about our “apparent success” as we top the European mortality rate. The film ends with Cotillard accidentally discovering a vaccine by testing it on herself. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the SARS virus of 2002 and 2004 on which Soderbergh’s film is based doesn’t yet have a vaccine.
If your appetite has been whetted, you might like to try Outbreak. It was directed by Wolfgang Petersen in 1995 and stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr and Donald Sutherland. It’s based on the Ebola virus and is a good film until the story is hijacked by Sutherland’s attempt to weaponise the virus and the film is reduced to a series of helicopter chases. Far better is Herman Yau’s 1996 Ebola Syndrome. It stars the great Anthony Wong as a serial rapist who catches the virus in South Africa and spreads it to Hong Kong. Not for the faint-hearted, it is full of Yau’s signature horror and gore.
If it’s realism you want look no further than Netflix’s six-part documentary Pandemic. Made in 2018, it follows the real public health officials, doctors and medical researchers as they try to keep a lid on various viruses that might gain pandemic status, such as Ebola, SARS and the common flu. The scary part is that it was made before COVID-19.
But if you can’t handle the truth, to quote Jack Nicholson, I recently came across a British romantic comedy made in 1962 called Twice Round the Daffodils which follows the recovery of a group of patients suffering from tuberculosis, itself a viral respiratory illness first discovered in the remains of bison from 17,000 years ago. Another animal-to-human leap for a virus that killed millions, it was all but wiped out by vaccines and antibiotics until recently when a mutation infected 10 million worldwide and killed 1.5 million in 2018. As for the film, it includes many well-known British favourites such as Kenneth Williams, Donald Sinden, Nanette Newman, Juliet Mills and Lance Percival, and it was made by the Carry On production team. I renamed it TB or not TB.
Anyway, my list would be a lot longer if I counted all the zombies (a kind of virus in itself). The best of the recent pandemic zombie movies would be World War Z starring Brad Pitt, 28 Days Later by Danny Boyle, or the fantastic South Korean zombies-on-a-train Train to Busan directed by Yeon Sang-ho in 2016. Outer space pandemics are another kind of virus sub-genre. Of these, I would have to mention the anti-communist Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The War of the Worlds based on the book by H.G. Wells. Of the various versions of this, I would recommend the 1953 Gene Barry. Without doubt it is the best, though recently the BBC did have a good go.
Finally, no round-up of pandemic movies would be complete without a mention of The Day of the Triffids. From the book by John Wyndham, it was filmed in 1962 and starred the fabulous Howard Keel as Bill Masen, a man made for a pandemic if ever there was one. I watched it twice last week and I found it oddly comforting. And now I’m working on an updated Northern lockdown version called The Day of the Traffords.