In movies like ‘Contagion,’ viruses are the new bad guys


A new villain has taken over movies, but this one doesn’t have razor-sharp fangs and didn’t arrive in a spaceship. It can, however, reproduce at astronomical rates and loves to mutate.

Viruses are the hottest bad guys on the big and small screens, multiplying with abandon in films such as “Contagion” (opening Friday), this summer’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and any recent zombie-centric movie or TV show like AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” They’re an excellent cinematic expression of evil--invisible to the naked eye, they kill scores with no remorse. And they’re always very, very contagious.

So why the current spate of virus films, and why now? “When people are really fearful about the future these kinds of films tend to come to the fore and speak to people’s fears,” says Rick Jewell, professor of film history at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles. “Whether they’re necessarily worried about germs and things like that is beside the point--what they’re more worried about is what does the future look like, and right now there’s good reason to be concerned about the future from a lot of different angles.”


So we use killer virus movies to channel our worries about jobs, gas prices and the economy. But we’ve had some recent up close and personal brushes with pandemics--sure, they haven’t annihilated humanity, but people have died. That, says Jewell, makes it all the more real to moviegoers.

“Recently there have been some viruses and other health situations that have been pretty scary,” he says, “and that factors right into the fears we have about terrorism, the economy getting worse and more people losing their jobs. I see these films as apocalyptic visions of the future.”

Our post-9/11 world is fraught with uncertainties, says Joe Pichirallo, chairman of the undergraduate film and television program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “We have never felt quite as safe as we did before that event,” he says, “and stories that play off seemingly normal things that could end up being monsters tend to fit in with the zeitgeist.”

Viruses may be big at the cineplex now, but they’ve had starring roles in films before; 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain” featured a deadly virus brought back from space, and “Outbreak” in 1995 featured an Ebola-like virus that killed scores of people.

They were eventually eclipsed by terrorists, ghosts and vampires until returning to claim the throne once again. “What is going to scare people and feel fresh and new?” says Pichirallo. “I would imagine one reason viruses and zombies are coming back is because they haven’t been exhausted.”

Today’s young filmmakers and screenwriters have also grown up in the era of AIDs and HIV, bird flu, foot and mouth disease and the H1N1 virus, factors that may have influenced their choice of subject matter. “Everyone was vulnerable to (AIDS), and this bred a generation of people who realized something like that could happen,” says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. “The creative community was decimated by it.”

There may even be a parallel, he adds, between our fear of viruses and our trepidation about terrorism: “Back in World War II you knew who you were attacking, and someone was going to win or lose,” Thompson says. But terrorists, like viruses, are more amorphous and mysterious--you can send armies into countries but you may not completely root out the enemy.

The good news, cinematically anyway, is that an antidote for the disease is usually found at the 11th hour and the human race survives. “We can’t get away from the fact that people go to the movies to be entertained,” says Jewell. “They don’t go with the hope that they’re going to feel worse than they did when they walked into the theater. That’s not something people want to pay for.”

Real life isn’t always guaranteed a happy ending, though, and who knows what will happen to the population if a particularly virulent bug comes along. If it does, movies about killer viruses may be the last thing we want to see.