Before 'Contagion,' Catch Up With the Spotty History of Disease Cinema

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Invisible, infectious killers have proved to be problematic villains for filmmakers

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Multiplexes get hit with a new deadly virus on Friday: MEV-1, the fictional bug at the heart of Contagion, an all-star thriller from the maybe-soon-to-retire Steven Soderbergh. In a New York Times feature on the film published late last month, critic Dennis Lim writes that it "revisits a conundrum that has bedeviled many filmmakers over the years: how do you make a movie about a virus, a villain that isn't even visible?" He also notes that most "epidemic movies have sidestepped the problem by focusing on the aftermath of a deadly plague" or inventing "a disease with outlandish symptoms."

The notion that we are ravaging ourselves faster than any disease could hangs over most contemporary pestilence sagas.

As Lim suggests, the disease-outbreak drama is more "conundrum" than rich tradition—and somewhat difficult to classify, given that movies concerning public-health crises often keep them largely off-screen, or use them as a shortcut to zombie gore. Contagion, though, might still inspire some constructively infectious home viewing in the genre.

A discussion of on-screen pandemic containment might well begin with The Andromeda Strain (1971), an adaptation of the 1969 Michael Crichton novel directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music). The film, available to stream "instantly" on Netflix, imagines a red-alert scenario, touched off when an Army satellite crash-lands in a remote New Mexico town, almost instantly wiping out its population of 68. "Boy, that's some dead burg," says a grunt observing the town from night-vision binoculars. Soon, a motley crew of doctors and scientists get dispatched to a labyrinthine underground laboratory to determine the nature and origin (extraterrestrial!) of the deadly microorganism, which causes earthlings' blood to clot instantly. (In the most cringe-inducing shot, a doctor slices across a corpse's wrist, and a sandy substance pours out.)

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The movie spends a fatal amount of time describing the Wildfire facility, both its layout and the advanced technology employed there. But its attempts to extract suspense from time-sensitive scientific grunt work are admirable (if not always successful). And with its kaleidoscopic Douglas Trumbull effects and its trippy score by Gil Mellé, not to mention Wise's own stylistic gambits (lots of split screens), The Andromeda Strain takes on an amusing artifact quality. It certainly looks and feels like it was made in the 1970s.

In the years since Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995), a rather unremarkable action-drama—save for that brief scene, potent for obvious reasons, of an infected man hacking away at the movie theater—celluloid viruses haven't been tackled so head-on as an imminent threat. They've either grown more allegory-friendly or abstract (as in Fernando Mereilles's adaptation of the Jose Saramago novel Blindness or M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening) or into some souped-up form of undead rabies (as in 28 Days Later or Omega Man remake Blindness). Somewhat counterintuitively, these latter films have been more consistently thoughtful.

The Spanish horror movie [Rec] (2007), which spawned a sequel and an American shot-for-shot remake (Quarantine), slots rather neatly into the zombie-sick category. However, its first-person perspective—the film consists entirely of the Blair Witch–esque found footage of a television cameraman—gives it the initially realistic charge of an on-the-ground quarantine-panic drama. The film, set in the present day, devotes much of its early scenes to the official confusion surrounding the sealing off of an entire apartment building—policemen, firemen, and hazmat-suit-clad health inspectors cross wires in their (naturally, futile) attempts to get the situation under control. [Rec] gradually strays further into supernatural horror, but it remains most sobering for its portrayal of an infection rapidly spreading in a confined space—and the ineffectiveness of the emergency response.

Somewhat outside the purview of films that depict present and very-near-future epidemics, but nonetheless worthy of an appreciative final word, is the doom-laden 2010 British film Black Death , set in 1348 England and starring Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, and Carice van Houten. The atmospheric drama, about faith in the time of the bubonic plague, opened in stateside theaters this spring to little fanfare; it's now available to rent on a variety of formats. Like countless other disease films, Black Death forebodingly dabbles in the supernatural. It concerns a monk and some brutes traveling through a forest, and then a swamp, to visit a strange pagan settlement unscathed by buboes, allegedly due to witchcraft. The Christians intend to root out any and all sorcery; the sorcerers intend to root out any and all Christianity; all of this does little, in the end, to improve the status of anyone's lymph nodes. Black Death may be set in the remote past, but the notion that we are ravaging ourselves faster than any communicable disease could hangs over all the contemporary pestilence sagas worth their saline.

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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