Five Cinematic Plagues and the Degrees to Which They Should Terrify Us

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In honor of Contagion, we get real scientists to watch Outbreak, Twelve Monkeys, and more.

Steven Soderbergh's new plague movie, Contagion, has garnered some buzz over its scientific accuracy — Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, worked as a consultant on the film to ensure the utmost scientific accuracy in the depiction of Gwyneth Paltrow's horrible death. In tribute, we've rounded up some of our favorite movies about horrible, terrifying epidemics, and we're reviewing them on terms of plausibility, with real science-types weighing in. Hooray, science!


1. Panic in the Streets (1950)

Elia Kazan's thriller is an early frontrunner of the plague-film genre, concerning the efforts of dashing Public Health Service worker Richard Widmark to contain an outbreak of pneumonic plague. The disease is real — it's essentially a pulmonary version of the Black Death. But according to Dr. Philip Alcabes of Hunter College's Public Health Department, the film's notable less for its medical accuracy than for its xenophobic undertones: "The enemy is allegedly the plague, but obviously it's really the bad guys, who are foreign." (The first person infected in the film is of Slavic descent). Panic in the Streets illustrates one of the non-biological effects of public-health scares: society's propensity to immediately turn on the nearest available scapegoat and vilify or ostracize them. That, in the end, is scarier than the plague itself.

Plausibility: 6.5


2. The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Adapted from a pulpy bestseller by Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain concerns an alien virus and its potentially devastating effect on the world's population. While it's a slow movie by today's standards, it does feature one of the era's great "We're so fucked" twist endings. But what of the terrifying possibility that space-borne viruses might be descending on us as we speak? Well, that might have already happened. There's a theory that the SARS virus might have come to Earth on an asteroid, though many people have already screamed "Bunk!" at the guy who proposed it. More terrifying than that, though, is the recent discovery that normal Earth-bound bacteria become more deadly after experiencing space travel. Just imagine what'll happen if that drug-resistant gonorrhea they found a while back ever makes it into orbit.

Plausibility: 6


3. 12 Monkeys (1995)

The scariest thing about 12 Monkeys is probably Brad Pitt's hairpiece, or the fact that he got an Oscar nomination for his ridiculous performance; the deadly virus in the film (said to have killed more than ninety-nine percent of humanity) functions more as an establishing point for the larger themes of time travel and Bruce Willis's possible insanity. Some of the details mentioned about the virus (such as its one-week incubation period and its rapid, airborne spread) are just specific enough to lend it an air of credibility, but we've got to dock plausibility points for the whole plotline about humanity moving underground to survive. (Wouldn't it be easier to install quarantine zones, gas masks, etc.?)

Plausibility: 4.5


4. Outbreak (1995)

The ne plus ultra of plague movies, based on a novel by Robin Cook (who's more or less the James Patterson of biological thrillers), Outbreak taught all of us to hate and fear monkeys and the oddly culinary-sounding Motaba virus. According to Dr. Carol Shoshkes Reiss, a biologist at NYU, Outbreak was "a breakthrough film, in which the scientists were not the enemy but the saviors, and the army was not the paragon of virtue but working against the greater good." But Reiss does object that "the speed of generating a vaccine" depicted in the film was a little implausible, which seems fair — Outbreak does boil epidemiological work and vaccine creation down to a little shake n' bake high-school chemistry. Also, fuck Kiefer Sutherland. He was such a dick in that movie.

Plausibility: 9


5. 28 Days Later (2002)

We've ignored zombie films, but 28 Days Later bears mentioning because a) it's fucking terrifying, and b) its zombie outbreak is more realistically grounded than other movies', which generally blame their undead on space gas/radiation/voodoo. The human-designed virus in 28 Days Later starts in an animal-testing facility, and it's released by a bunch of animal activists who unwittingly become the first human subjects. This has become a relatively common trope in films (12 Monkeys is another example), despite the fact that most "animal release" activism involves releasing a lot of mink from fur farms. But leaving the animal-rights angle out of it, the epidemiology is frighteningly plausible. According to Dr. Donna Fox, Director of Advanced Biomedical Sciences at George Mason University, "the sources of most emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — borne from animals. So whenever you see a new disease in the human population, chances are it's jumped from a animal. If diseases can make that transition, they can become very deadly." Scary. That said, the rapid rate of infection depicted in 28 Days Later — it takes less than a minute for the virus to completely infect a person — has little to do with real science, leaving a pretty gaping flaw in the movie's logic. (Thank God!)

Plausibility: 8