Time Out Adelaide

Don’t panic. Wash your hands. Try not to bite your neighbours

Here are some of cinema’s worst epidemics to make you itchy all over.

Outbreak (1995)

Inspired by the best-selling Ebola novel The Hot Zone, Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak featured an all-star cast fighting a deadly airborne virus. It was the go-to example of pop culture contagion for years. Even its matter-of-fact tagline, “Try to Remain Calm”, is echoed in Contagion’s (2011) “Don’t Talk to Anyone. Don’t Touch Anyone”. Outbreak inspired an endless stream of mid-'90s monkeypox jokes from David Letterman and infected every medical and crime drama on TV with its virus-floating-through-the-air camerawork.



I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend isn’t the first time Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic novel has been adapted for the screen: Vincent Price played the lead in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and Charlton Heston in 1971’s The Omega Man. One thing Will Smith’s version gets right, however, is the thrill of having an entire city to yourself. Its depiction of New York – left empty after a cure for cancer becomes a deadly plague – is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the second half of the film is so terrible you’ll only remember its crappy CGI monsters.



Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Zombies are the undead most closely associated with spreading disease. (It’s probably because they just keep biting until everything’s either eaten or infected.) But what about vampires? The wildly entertaining Blade movies and the wildly disappointing Underworld films, for example, say vampirism is a virus, too. And the misshapen star of Werner Hertzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre travels with a plague of rats – the perfect cover for why an entire town’s population might suddenly begin to die. Let’s just pray there’s a cure out there for vampires sparkling during the day.



28 Days Later... (2002)

In 28 Days Later, a ‘rage virus’ is accidentally released by animal activists and turns London into a terrifying war zone. One of the symptoms of exposure to the movie is a need to viciously argue over whether or not these individuals are technically zombies. They’re not dead – fine – but this still counts as a zombie movie, damn it! While it nods to George Romero’s The Crazies (1973), it also fulfils the logic of his classic Night of the Living Dead (1968): true horror only arrives with other uninfected humans.



REC (2007)

One of the most effective ‘found footage’ films, the Spanish horror REC follows a TV reporter and a night shift of firemen to rescue an old lady. She turns out to be a little more, uh, bitey than expected. Soon the entire building has been quarantined by the military and those left inside are fighting for their lives. (The almost identical English-language remake is, in fact, called Quarantine.) The sequel, REC 2, confuses matters by mixing science with religion and infection with demonic possession.



Perfect Sense (2011)

When filmmakers don’t provide even a cursory scientific explanation for whatever’s spreading like wildfire, it’s often because they want to treat it as a morality tale. In Blindness (2008) a “white sickness” forces the newly sightless into prisons, perfect for a poetic exploration of human suffering. But last year’s Perfect Sense goes further and posits a mysterious condition that takes the world’s senses one by one. Society crumbles – no surprises there – but the movie’s more interested in its ‘seize the day’ love story between a chef and a scientist.



Pontypool (2008)

Sex, blood, pus, air: these are all the usual things to avoid if you want to stay healthy. (Air, admittedly, is a little trickier than the others.) Pontypool suggests that certain words can become infected, especially “terms of endearment”. With an approach inspired by Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, it’s the story of a shock jock holed up in a radio station as this semiotic disease spreads outside. Pontypool’s director Bruce McDonald once said these infected men and women are not zombies. They’re “conversationalists”.



War of the Worlds (1953 & 2005)

Before you feel like you’re about to start bleeding from the eyes, remember that we all have ten times more bacteria than we do actual human cells. Not many movies sing the praises of bacteria, but both adaptations of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds use them for deus ex machina endings. Alien invaders inevitably fall when exposed to humanity’s microscopic allies. When Independence Day (1996) updated this ending, and its heroes injected a computer virus into an alien mothership, it almost seemed clever... until you thought about it.



Carriers (2009)

Not all movie viruses have zany side effects like rage or cannibalism. Some just kill you. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) plays the rotting bodies of its teenage stars for laughs – who can forget the poor girl unwittingly shaving skin from her leg in the bath? If that still sounds like too much fun, Carriers (2009) features four friends trying to stay disease-free as they travel across America. What do you do when your family show signs of infection? A zombie attack would actually help lighten the mood.



The Matrix (1999)

Let’s leave the final revelation about humankind to the long-suffering Agent Smith from The Matrix: “You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” You’ve got to admit he has a point.

First published on . Updated on .

By Martyn Pedler   |