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When the fear on the screen is infectious

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A new villain has taken over at the multiplex. It doesn’t wear a trench coat and speak with a menacing-sounding foreign accent. Nor does it have razor-sharp fangs or a home address in outer space. It can, however, lurk in the shadows, reproduce at astronomical rates — and it loves to mutate.

Microscopic viruses are the biggest bad guys in Hollywood, multiplying with abandon in films such as “Contagion” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” as well as factoring in AMC’s zombie-centric TV show “The Walking Dead.” These infectious agents are an excellent cinematic expression of evil — invisible to the naked eye, they spread with abandon and kill scores with no remorse.

“When people are really fearful about the future, these kinds of films tend to come to the fore,” says Rick Jewell, a professor of film history at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “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.”

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So we embrace killer virus movies to channel our worries about unemployment, upside-down mortgages, global warming and the war in Afghanistan. But we’ve had some close encounters with pandemic viruses in the not-too-distant past. Sure, they haven’t annihilated humanity, but thousands of people have died.

That, says Jewell, makes it all the more real to moviegoers.

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

Indeed, our post-Sept. 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.”

Microorganisms have had starring roles in films before — 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain” featured a deadly one brought back from space, and the plot of “Outbreak” in 1995 centered on an Ebola-like virus that killed scores of people, to name just two examples.

Viral villains have had competition from Soviets, drug lords, terrorists, ghosts and vampires, but they seem to be making a comeback. “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 HIV/AIDS, bird flu, foot and mouth disease and the H1N1 “swine flu,” 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, a 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 germs 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 to the disease is usually found at the 11th hour and the human race survives.

“People go to the movies to be entertained,” Jewell says. “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.”

Happy endings aren’t guaranteed in real life, though, and it’s always possible that another virus like the 1918 Spanish flu — which is believed to have killed at least 50 million people worldwide — could come along. If it does, movies about killer viruses may be the last thing we’d want to see.

jeannine.stein@latimes.com


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