Gesundheit. With Steven Soderbergh’s brilliantly clinical, scarily plausible all-star disaster movie Contagion hitting screens, here’s a few notable films which also explore the fertile topic of quarantines and near-invisible invaders. Does … does anybody else feel warm?
Panic in the Streets (1950) Q: What’s scarier than having an unknowing carrier of bubonic plague on the loose in New Orleans? A: When said carrier is played by a huffing, puffing Jack Palance. Elia Kazan’s heavily expressionistic film noir (which features Richard Widmark in a too-rare heroic role) piles on the paranoia, especially when zooming in on the increasingly manic Palance, spreading potential death with every musk-ox exhalation.
Shivers (1976) There’s a fear of infection at work in most horror stories (Vampires, check; Werewolves, check; Zombies, big time check). While George A. Romero’s Dead saga, the 28 Days Later series, and The Stand all have their considerable virtues, no filmmaker has ever played with the idea as boldly as David Cronenberg, whose first two movies are brilliantly grody metaphors about catching a bug. Shot entirely in a claustrophobic high rise, Shivers follows the outbreak of a group of horrid slug-things whose bite releases the inner deviant in their victims. Working on an extremely low budget, Cronenberg takes the concept of viral horror and absolutely runs with it, leaving no queasy stone unturned. (To quote Stephen King from his awed appreciation in Danse Macabre, “[the film] is about sexual promiscuity on one level; on another level it’s asking you how you’d like to have a leech jump out of a letter slot and latch itself onto your face. These are not the same levels of unease at all.”) Nowhere is the film more effective than in its bizarre finale, which somehow plays as both worst case scenario and happy ending. 1977’s follow-up Rabid, in which Marilyn Chambers develops a communicable hankering for human blood following an experimental surgery, is a slightly more conventional movie, although the director still goes to degrees where few others dare to tread. After watching a surgeon start foaming at the mouth in mid-operation, never leaving the house again feels like a valid option.
Carriers (2009) A small group of survivors attempt to outdrive a widening plague zone, in this surprisingly vital, unstintingly tough-minded end of the world virus movie, with a pre-Trek Chris Pine unafraid to ugly it up in the lead role. The lack of funds occasionally shows, but in its unpretentious B-movie miserablism, it works like gangbusters.
Black Death (2011) In which a bunch of church-commissioned Medieval witch hunters (led by Sean Bean) stumble across a community mysteriously free of the plague. A cult movie in the making, director Christopher Smith’s fantastically atmospheric film explores the horrors of unexplained sickness, as well as the extreme steps taken by some to escape the taint.
Outbreak (1995) Released during the height of Ebola fears, Wolfgang Petersen’s mild yet effective monkey virus thriller manages to hit some of the same nerves that Contagion pings so expertly. The novelty of Dustin Hoffman as an action hero aside, this makes the list mainly for the awesomely overt scene where the plague is first spread … in a movie theater. William Castle would have given a high-five.
So, what movies make you reach for the Purell? --Andrew Wright