While the COVID-19 pandemic is something the world has only been dealing with since the start of 2020, the history of viruses in the world of film goes back much further. For decades, the “virus movie” was a popular type of disaster film, as it works well as a good antagonist, of sorts. At least in fiction, everyone can agree that a deadly virus is a bad thing, and therefore, it is a way to get characters to team up to fight against such an unambiguously deadly threat.
Even the more plausible virus movies do tend to have exaggerated threats and danger, of course. COVID-19 was and is bad, but perhaps not deadly to the extent of most Hollywood viruses. And then the less plausible virus movies often trend towards being horror films, rather than disaster films, as many zombie films begin with a viral outbreak. A film about a virus may be a morbid thing to watch post-2020, of course, with COVID potentially destroying most filmgoers’ urge to watch a fictional virus movie anytime soon. Still, it’s interesting to see what filmmakers did with the premise in a pre-COVID world, and the following eight films are among the best virus-related movies made before 2020.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Contagion was perhaps the last major virus movie made before 2020, or at least one of the last semi-realistic, non-zombie ones. This is because, for a star-studded, mid-to-high budget Hollywood film, Contagion is quite realistic, with its somber tone and focus on dialogue and tension over action, adventure, and spectacle.
Contagion is concerned with showing how a virus can spread, and what should and should not be done to ensure it keeps from spreading further. It focuses mostly on the scientists and doctors struggling to calm the public whilst working on combating a new disease, and it’s possible now that because of its tone and (mostly successful) attempts to be realistic, it’s a very difficult watch, post-2020. Still, it is undoubtedly a well-made movie, and one of thebest disaster movies of the past 20 years.
’12 Monkeys’ (1995)
12 Monkeys is more of a time travel film than a virus film specifically, but a viral outbreak that decimates much of the world’s population is central to the core plot. It takes influence from the iconic French short film, La Jetée, though while that film involved going back in time after a deadly nuclear war, 12 Monkeys involves going back in time to investigate the virus that impacted humanity.
The emphasis on time travel becomes apparent when Bruce Willis’s character is sent to the wrong point in time; multiple years before the virus. It then becomes a movie about him trying to convince an uncaring world that he’s not crazy, and the psychological thriller-related twists and turns that play out as a result. It uses the virus premise to explore unexpected science-fiction areas but remains a compelling watch all the same. It’s also notable for having one of Brad Pitt’s most unusual (and one of his best) performances.
’28 Days Later ‘(2002) & ’28 Weeks Later’ (2007)
28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later can be grouped together as two great virus movies that are about a more extreme, fantastical virus … namely, a zombie one. Both films see two different groups of survivors trying to survive and evade those in the population who are infected, as being bitten by one of these people turns said bitten person into a zombie. Well, they’re technically zombies. They’re mindless, violent, and terrifying, sure, though they can run a good deal faster than your average zombie movie, and act more like rabid animals than humanoid creatures who moan about eating brains.
The first of these films is more grounded and intense, with a smaller scale and a focus on survival over action. It might be the more critically praised and memorable of the two, but its follow-up is still a very good virus / zombie movie in its own right. It ramps up the action, which may make it feel less scary or believable, but it does make for a decently exciting film that still packs a punch as a horror movie, as it still retains the original’s tension whilst perhaps being even bleaker and more harrowing. in its conclusion. For a good virus movie double feature, you can not do much better than 28 Days Later followed by 28 Weeks Later.
Outbreak is essentially Contagion made for a 1990s audience. It has a similarly star-studded cast, and some attempts to depict the early stages of a virus spreading realistically … but coming out at a time when over-the-top disaster movies were popular, it does feel a bit too extreme to take serious, watching it after 2020.
That does not make it a bad watch, though, especially for viewers who can accept something that does not feel so grounded or plausible anymore. There are elements of a real-life virus outbreak that it captures well, though, like the inherent panic after it’s first reported, and the way that diseases such as the film’s fictional virus can spread shockingly fast, making them hard to stop once they get going. As such, while it’s nowhere near the most realistic virus movie, Outbreak can also claim to avoid being one of the least realistic ones, too.
REC follows a news reporter and cameraman accompanying a group of firefighters into a building after receiving an emergency call, only for the building to be locked down once they’re inside. It plays out like a found footage horror movie, with all the footage captured by the reporter’s cameraman being shown to the viewer. It soon becomes clear to all that a terrifying infection has broken out inside, and is the reason that the building’s been quarantined.
REC ends up being something of a zombie film, thereby becoming a less realistic virus movie. But if it does count as a zombie movie, these are comparable to the fast, ravenous foes found in both 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. It’s a dark and claustrophobic movie about being confined in a small location with an unknown, terrifying threat, and may hit harder for anyone who had to deal with long, uncertain periods of quarantine during COVID-19’s early stages.
‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1971)
The Andromeda Strain stands out among virus movies for having stronger science-fiction elements than most comparable virus-related films. It centers on a group of scientists that investigate a deadly virus that’s decimated the population of a small US town, only to soon find out that the virus may have extraterrestrial origins.
That’s probably going to be something of an obstacle for those who like their virus movies as realistic as possible, but much of the film does cover the same kind of ground that other movies about a deadly illness of unknown origin do. It can even emphasize how eerie and mysterious real-life viruses can be at first, and if all else fails, at least it can make viewers appreciate that all the viruses the human race has encountered originate from Earth … so far, at least …
‘Virus: The End’ (1980)
Virus: The End is certainly a strange movie. It can not be faulted for its ambition at least, as it’s a large-scale Japanese film with a cast featuring both Japanese and American actors, and depicts a global virus pandemic that’s so deadly, the only chance of survival for those left is to live in isolation, in Antarctica.
There are great elements within Virus: The End, but ultimately its inconsistency and ambition bring it down a little, as it feels torn between being an over-the-top, entertaining American adventure / disaster film, and a more grounded, realistic, and bleak Japanese drama / horror movie. Still, at its best, it is a powerful and unnerving look at what a deadly virus could do to the human race, and so it does rightfully earn its place among the most essential virus movies made before COVID-19 changed everything in the real world. .
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