Pre-COVID, a zombie flick or “disease of the week” movie was all kicks and giggles and seemed far-fetched. Looking back, through the lens of ‘Rona and two years of lockdown, this genre was eerily accurate. In this genre, Ebola, monkeypox, SARS, swine flu, AIDS, all come down to monkeys, bats, and pigs, oh my! Somehow, humans are infected by contaminated food, water, or the nefarious biological warfare (domestic, terrorist, or alien). Once the virus becomes airborne, it spreads like wildfire, and no one has a solution. The fear, distrust, and misinformation feed the myriad conspiracy theories. Just because you’re paranoid, does not mean they aren’t after you.
What is chilling and even more horrifying, in light of these prescient films, is the response to COVID by the government in real time. Everyone knows from the outset that time is of the essence, but the bureaucracy and red tape stalling a proper response, which lead to many deaths, was unconscionable. Was no one paying attention in real life or to the movies?
Here are five movies that are a frightening dose of reality.
- Contagion (2011) This blockbuster has a narrative closest to our recent pandemic experience. It shows how quickly a lethal virus with origins in Hong Kong spreads around the globe.
- Outbreak (1995) An involuntary eye-roll may occur when the film opens in an African village. Through a series of unfortunate events, the virus makes its way to a small California town. Killing everyone in the vicinity is part of the strategy to stop the spread throughout the country.
- 28 Days Later (2002) /World War Z (2013) A mysterious virus creates fast-moving zombies. Something like bath salts, remember that?
- Andromeda Strain (1971) based on a novel by Michael Crichton featuring the late great Paula Kelly, centered around a virus of unknown origin that decimates a town. More recently, this was also a 2008 miniseries starring Viola Davis and Andre Braugher.
- Miss Evers’ Boys (1997) showed the real-life horror of the Tuskegee Experiment in which the U.S. government sponsored a program from 1932-1972 in which poor Black men in Alabama with syphilis were promised free medical care, but were given placebos instead of treatment, even after penicillin became a readily available cure. For this and many other equally disturbing abuses in history, Black people are reluctant to trust the veracity of public health officials.
Although this is not a movie, honorable mention to The Walking Dead—aside from the obvious zombie apocalypse, in 2013-14, Season 4 featured a storyline of a strange virus spreading through a prison where dozens sought refuge. The approach to staving off the illness? Masks, gloves and quarantining the sick.