Epidemics and disease have long been the stuff of nightmares. Germs, viruses, epidemics, and plagues find their way into our apocalyptic films. They have shaped human history from leprosy to HIV. It isn’t terribly surprising that disease finds its way into our horror and science fiction films. Especially in an age where Western civilization has tricked itself into believing it is safe from plague. But the truth is, the newest disease is likely just around the corner. So grab your antibacterial wipes (though really, you’re just making those bastards stronger), your face mask and let’s dive into some plague films.
10. The Happening (2008)What the disease is: Unnamed plant-based disease.What the disease does: It causes people to commit suicide.Is it real? No. Unless this film is talking about hay-fever. The bees are disappearing so the plants have decided to…take revenge? Even though we never really find out exactly why the bees are disappearing. And how exactly have the plants decided to wipe out humanity? By making people commit suicide in absurd and violent manners. Coming from the Mother Nature that brought us leprosy, Ebola, and syphilis this just seems like laziness. This film came out at a time when people were very concerned about the disappearance of the bees. In fact, some people were experiencing bee hysteria. And although scientists are still very concerned about colony collapse disorder, we know more about it. This film also emerged two years after the release of An Inconvenient Truth when environmentalism (though mostly of the symbolic green washed variety). And this is a film that tries far too hard to warn us about Mother Nature’s wrath. It makes the list simply because of its unique plant-based plague qualities. 9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)What the disease is: Unnamed.What the disease does: Brings the dead back to life to feast on the flesh of the living.Is it real? NO. And it never will be, dammit! This was the film that kick started the zombie-plague apocalypse genre. There is something terrifying about this slow moving, human flesh devouring creatures that has found its way into our cultural imaginations. And they are a terrifying and personal form of plague. Either you die (through any means) and end up a zombie or the zombie virus is passed to you via a bite. In many ways, zombies represent our modern fear of disease. Zombie based plagues are terrifying because we are so susceptible. Your loved ones become nothing more than carriers of disease and you are forced to go into hiding from other humans. And even then you may not be safe. But is the zombie plague, as represented in Night of the Living Dead, realistic? There is a Cracked article regarding why a zombie plague wouldn’t spread terribly far. First of all, we are talking about dead bodies. They are in the process of bloating and rotting. They have no ability to heal even a slightly torn muscle. And the ones in Night of the Living Dead have their intestines hanging out. They’re probably not going to last long and will likely just stink up the neighborhood.
8. The Crazies (1973)What the disease is: Trixie.What the disease does: Kills outright or causes homicidal madness.Is it real? No. This film focuses on a government-created biological weapon that accidentally crash lands in a small town’s water supply. Oh, and the weapon hasn’t been tested so the government can’t really be sure what is going to happen. It contaminates the entire town causing some people to go into homicidal rages. And yet it is the government’s response that is the most horrifying part of the film. They immediately attempt to cover the story up and quarantine the entire town. When their attempts to stop the spread begin to fail they start casually discussing nuking the entire town. Who is the enemy? The people who are sick or the government that created the illness? In terms of realism, this film does hit on some scary possibilities. The idea of quarantine is terrifying to most people but one would definitely be in place if something like this occurred. Then there is also the idea that the government would nuke a small town in order to stop the spread of an illness. Would they? Maybe. It would be difficult to speculate on that but we sure hope it doesn’t come to that.
7. 28 Days Later (2002)What the disease is: Rage VirusWhat the disease does: Causes people to attack one another, spreading the virus via bitesIs it real? No. The Rage virus acts very similar to an incredibly fast-acting form of rabies. It is spread through saliva and other bodily fluids and causes the victim to become incredibly aggressive. When the victim attacks another person the virus continues to spread. Unlike rabies, however, fast-acting means less than twenty seconds. This makes the spread incredibly rapid and terrifying. And, similar to a zombie outbreak, the virus has the ability to change the character of the people you love, turning them into the enemy. But could it be possible? One of the things about 28 Days Later that makes it spread so quickly is that it is on an island. This seclusion makes it possible that something like this could spread rapidly. However, these people are clearly ill and acting in an erratic manner. It would be very difficult for the Rage Virus to spread via planes or ships simply because of the quickness of infection. Who would allow such a person onto a plane? If the disease spread quickly enough the plane would quickly crash straight into the Atlantic Ocean. However, if this took place in a landlocked country it could probably spread pretty far before it was stopped.
6. Right at Your Door (2006)What the disease is: Unknown virus.What the disease does: Affects the respiratory system.Is it real? Unknown. Unlike the other films that fester on our list, Right at Your Door features disease as an act of terrorism. The virus featured in this film is released over Los Angeles via a dirty bomb. We have limited information about the virus because the film is told from the singular perspective of a man who was home at the time of the explosion. The information we do receive is from radio broadcasts and sick wife who is trapped outside of their home. This film borrows a great deal of its plot devices from post-9/11 paranoia. The idea of taping up windows and doors with plastic was popularized in post-9/11 conversations about dirty bombs and other forms of biological terrorism. This film also does a fantastic job of highlighting the dehumanization of disease victims. Of course the film features a great twist of fate revealing that our paranoia may be doing us far more harm than good.What the disease is: Unknown.What the disease does: Causes the victim to become blind.Is it real? Blindness exists, but not in this contagious form. Blindness follows an unknown contagious disease that causes people to go blind. Victims see nothing but a white light. As the disease spreads around the world, it becomes more and more debilitating. People are quarantined under horrendous prison-like conditions. Under these conditions kindness, hygiene and order disappears. Eventually the disease diminishes and the blind are able to see. While it is realistic in the sense that epidemic blindness would cause a great deal of chaos, it is hard to assess beyond that. The film is done in such a way that it (brilliantly) creates confusion about the passage of time. However, as many blind advocacy groups point out, people don’t lose their humanity when they lose their sight. Would things be more difficult? Absolutely. But would people eventually adapt and create new lives for themselves? Yes. People with visual impairments are often able to adapt and live out normal lives.
5. Blindness (2008)
4. Children of Men (2006)What the disease is: UnknownWhat the disease does: Causes infertility in humansIs it real? Infertility exists but not to such a wide scale. Children of Men imagines, perhaps, one of the most horrific plagues in film. No one is maimed, the dead don’t rise to attack the living, and we aren’t left with a band of clever survivors. Instead, it is a slow march towards annihilation. The world has become infertile and the playgrounds slowly turn silent. And children represent hope. They are the reason people want to make the world a better place. We want to pass down our culture, our wisdom, and our values. And without the ability to reproduce, humans are slowly dying off. The world is thrown into despair and civilizations crumble. Children of Men is realistic in its consequences. If the world were to suddenly become infertile the government would have to start dealing with nations that have no hope. The effects of widespread despair could be devastating. And of course, as more and more people die, the effects would only continue to escalate. The idea of government sponsored suicide medications, inhumane immigration policies, and strict government control don’t seem to be a huge leap. But, of course, most of our current conversations aren’t concerned with under-population but overpopulation. Environmentalists are concerned about running out of resources on Earth to sustain all of the people living here. However, recent conversations looking at European and Eastern Asian nations have begun to focus their attention on raising their populations…
3. The Stand (1994)What the disease is: Captain Tripps, an influenza virusWhat the disease does: Kills over 99% of the populationIs it real? No. The Stand follows a super-flu as it wipes out nearly 99% of the population in the United States. This highly contagious deadly form of the flu is nicknamed Captain Tripps and was accidentally released from a military compound. Captain Tripps ravages most of society and causes an apocalypse of Biblical proportions. Is it realistic? Well, some of the more supernatural elements of the story aren’t based in science. But influenza certainly has a deadly reputation. We need only look back to the Spanish Flu of 1918 to see how high of a death toll influenza can have. A quarter of the United States population came down with the flu. Millions of people died and young adults were particularly susceptible. According to Stanford University, the Spanish Flu killed more people in a year that the Bubonic Plague did. Another very realistic aspect of this film is the diversity of the survivors. Survivors of the plague come from all ages, backgrounds, areas of the country. Some are good, some are bad, and most are somewhere in between. So could a devastating influenza strain kill 99% of the population? Unlikely. But could it more than disrupt society? Absolutely. So…go wash your hands. Right now.
2. Outbreak (1995)What the disease is: Matoba VirusWhat the disease does: Causes fever, bleeding, and deathIs it real? The Matoba Virus is based on the very real Ebola Virus. Unlike many of the diseases on our list, this one is terrifying because it IS realistic. Many things about Outbreak are based on the Ebola Virus; the Ebola Virus is another viral hemorrhagic fever. However, unlike the Ebola Virus, Matoba eventually mutates and starts spreading in a manner similar to the flu. But with all of the deadly consequences. And it is spread to the United States via the illegal transportation of a monkey. The monkey ends up biting a pet shop owner starting the spread and eventual mutation. Is it realistic? Absolutely. But don’t let the Ebola Virus let you lose sleep. When outbreaks occur (which they do occasionally in Zaire, The Republic of Congo, and Gabon) they tend to infect around 50-100 people. According to the CDC it is usually spread between close family members or friends who care for the sick victim. Or it is spread in hospital settings where gloves, masks, and other forms of sanitation aren’t available.
1. Contagion (2011)What the disease is: Meningoencephalitis Virus One (MEV-1)What the disease does: Attacks the central nervous systemIs it real? No. MEV-1 is a highly contagious virus that passes from person to person via contact or contact with an item the sick person has touched. The film watches the epidemic spread around the world while governments scramble to come up with a cause and a solution. Meanwhile, society begins to fall apart and vultures show up to prey on the desperate. As we have seen, most films of this genre rely a great deal on junk science, special effects, and a suspense of disbelief. Not Contagion. The CDC has said the film, while not perfect, is highly accurate. Its contagious nature and its leap from animals to people is realistic. It is also realistic that such a disease could easily pass between countries because of air travel. However, there are flaws in the film just as any other. But when the CDC nods in approval you may want to just be careful.