Face it, some of us are gluttons for punishment. Streaming services are already recommending pandemic themed films we might enjoy? In these desperate times of food lines, “social distancing”, “shelter in place”, and toilet paper hoarding, some are seeking to escape with humor, action/adventure and romance. But, there are still those that want their fill of horror. Going further, movies about epidemics or pandemics are more popular than ever. Go figure.
That being said, I’ll offer my top ten unsettling pandemic/epidemic films. Movies that have the dead rise, turn people crazy, and decrease the population drastically. Some of the finest are from the most creative independents. For me, placing these films in any order is nigh impossible, except for the chosen two…
Night of the Living Dead (’68)/Dawn of the Dead (’78)
Yes, there have been countless reboots, but nothing beats the originals. George A. Romero’s legendary zombie apocalypse films are in a league of their own while breaking many taboos at the time. Romero, the father of the dead, created six in all memorable apocalyptic films. But, his first two stand out among the rest with Night of the Living Dead as a stark and bleak nightmare.
Shot in black & white with a music score that reminds so many of us of the monster movies of yore it is also a milestone of its day having an African American as the protagonist. Romero and his writing partner, John A. Russo, have imbued their film with many thematic layers: racism, cannibalism, matricide, highly charged political views, media and society. Making it even scarier – the use of a documentary style that Romero utilized for maximum fright effect.
The film opens with a fretful radio broadcast that is played intermittently, and later a television broadcast that suggests that the downing of a space probe and the radiation emanating from it has caused a virus to raise the dead. The word zombie is not mentioned once in this Romero classic. All that is known is that the dead have risen with an insatiable appetite for the living. They are nearly indestructible unless their brains are damaged. From there, fear and panic set in as one group of people hole themselves up in a rural farmhouse attempting to survive.
Later, right-wing yahoos are loading up their shotguns and doing what they dream of…going huntin’ for humans – who just happen to already be dead. Pundits argue over how to handle the increasing epidemic on TV. Our survivalists in the farmhouse turn on each other. By the end, mankind feels doomed.
Is this fun? Absolutely not. Romero’s film is the stuff nightmares are made of. Years later, Romero’s films would be the inspiration for the likes of much lighter fare as Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland.
Ten years later, Romero would top himself with the biting satire that would be a gorehound’s dream, Dawn of the Dead. Once again, imbued with a political/social slant, this time Romero had his survivalists converge in a shopping mall while the zombies are drawn to it – because the mall is something that was once important in their lives. How prophetic of Romero.
Make-up and special effects maestro Tom Savini would gets his talents showcased in this zombie holocaust. Only his second outing as a special effects/make-up person, Savini would display such memorable scenes as a head explosion and shoulder/arm ripping in the first ten minutes of the film, a very clever forehead chopping by helicopter, machete through the head and the stomach ripping, intestine eating scene, just to name a few. In fact, Savini’s effects were so outrageous, the censors threatened to give the film an “X” rating if trims were not made.
But, Romero’s Dawn was not just about blood and gore, survivalists and zombies. Romero’s setting, the shopping mall, lent itself to his views on radical corporate mentality, anti-consumerism, and capitalism. Rather than having his protagonists holing themselves up in a small farmhouse, he graduated them to a sprawling mall where they can lead an almost hedonistic lifestyle that is nearly their downfall.
What makes the Romero films stand out like no other is the overall production of these low budget masterpieces. The locations themselves are integral to Romero’s stories. The casting seems to be a nice fit with all the actors. The scores for both films provide a wonderful eerie tone, and the cinematography both black & white and color have now become just as notable as the horror of the films themselves.
The Romero Dead movies are at the top of the heap of pandemic films. They capture the fear, desperation, pandemonium, political hot bed, and social breakdown of the human condition that comes with such a crisis. For those lookie-loos that slow down to observe an accident or for those indiscriminate viewers that just enjoy getting scared no matter the subject matter, the entire series that Romero created is recommended viewing.
The Stand (’94)
Stephen King’s The Stand is not landmark TV. But, as with the TV version of IT, the show does capture the essence one of King’s most famous novels. Writer/director Mick Garris would be the go-to-guy for Stephen King TV adaptations from the early ’90s to 2011, ending with King’s Bag of Bones. He would prove to be far more faithful to King’s work than the features the author was displeased with.
But, in my opinion, Garris’ hand at the author’s famed work felt a bit rote. Although, some would say Garris reached his zenith with The Stand and that it was comparable with the chills brought on by the first version of ‘Salem’s Lot. He was also aided by a very strong cast that included Gary Sinise, Miguel Ferrer, Rob Lowe, Ossie Davis, Molly Ringwald, to name just a few of the 125 speaking roles. It was a monumental task for a mini-series.
Taken from King’s most popular book, The Stand has a top secret government operation in rural California, developing Project Blue, a weaponized version of influenza. Guess what – it’s accidentally released and a guard leaves the facility infecting everyone he comes in contact with. Wow, you think this sounds timely?
The guard crashes his car in a small town in Texas. He warns Gary Sinise’s Stu Redman that he is being chased by the “Dark Man”. Enter the military, that quarantines the town. Fast forward, two weeks later, about 99% of the world’s population is killed by the superflu. Those unfortunate souls left are being called by two forces: kindly mother Abigail and the demonic Randall Flag. Time to take sides and prepare for Armageddon.
As a Stephen King mini-series, The Stand has a great beginning, but becomes a little monotonous in the middle while we go through the wait and see mode. What keeps our engine running is the kick-ass soundtrack and the great cast. It is a hundred times better than King & Garris’ The Shining or the King TV version of the near laughable The Langoliers. The Stand, for some, is a TV landmark of the author’s work turning the pandemic on its ear in biblical proportions. One can only imagine what a theatrical version might have been if Romero and King were given the budget to do the theatrical version they dreamed of.
This 2007 Spanish “found footage” film was unsettling at its introduction. Watching it now is purely unnerving, especially with what is going on around the world, Spain being one of the hardest hit countries. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza directed this taut thriller about a reporter assigned to follow a crew of firemen for an evening only to have them report to a small tenement where a person has taken seriously ill.
No sooner do they get there, they are greeted by a lifeless body falling from up high and within minutes the whole tenement is contained with a giant plastic sheet and an armed military unit standing outside to shoot anybody coming out. If that’s not unsettling enough, we find that those inside are endangered by some form of rabies outbreak that only takes one bite to get people savagely attacking you.
This is one of those rare times when “found footage” actually works. The entire film is unnerving from beginning to end. And, that ending is very unexpected. I actually screamed in my living room at the unveiling of the shocking outcome.
The Crazies (’10)
It’s a rarity when a reboot is better than the original. In this case, director Breck Eisner, writers Scott Kosar and Ray Wright manage to muster up a far superior small town epidemic than what George Romero created in 1973. It also helps that they were aided with an excellent cast featuring Radha Mitchell, best known for the Silent Hill series, and Timothy Olyphant, the bad-ass gunslinging marshal from Justified and Deadwood.
This time, a questionable plane crash lets loose a military toxic virus that methodically turns people into crazed killers. The towns residents slowly start falling apart and the military moves in to quarantine, only making matters worse when there is a breach. This leaves the few survivors to fight them off and get out of Dodge.
Director Eisner lends a slow burn effect from the start, keeping us on edge to the very end. Olyphant and Mitchell have us fear for their lives, cheering for survival. But, both the writers and director deliver an uneasy feeling that it may not turn into a happy Hollywood ending.
What if? That’s the eternal question being asked in Terry Gilliam’s plague-filled 12 Monkeys. What if we can see ahead and change the outcome of a horrible pandemic that will level mankind and have them live miles underground. And, who do we send to accomplish such a feat? What about that bare footed guy that single-handedly took down a team of terrorists at the Nakatomi Plaza? But, this time we’ll send him naked into the past to change our future only to have him committed to an insane asylum because who’s going to believe a guy that claims he’s from the future with a warning to the human race?
This complicated yarn is designed by the man who gave us the savage dystopian society of Brazil that made some laugh, cry and drop their jaws in awe while others screamed out for their two hours plus back. This film may not be as divisive, but it can be frustrating and confusing to viewers with a low attention span. Then there will be the lovers of good science fiction that will sing its praises.
In 1996 (the film was released in 1995), the human race is exposed to a lethal virus that wipes out most of mankind. Those that are left retreat underground. Fast forward to 2035, and the hopes of changing the past lies in the survival of a prisoner, James Cole, who is subjected to time travel to seek out the group suspected of releasing the virus…the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Scientists are placing their faith in Cole to find the original virus so they may develop a cure.
But, Cole is not the perfect subject. He keeps having recurring dreams interrupt his journey. Visions of a foot chase and a shooting in an airport disrupt his journey. His bouncing back between dream states and time becomes taxing for him, the scientists, and the future of mankind.
This all makes for a fascinating sci-fi trip through the lens of director Gilliam, whose images never disappoint. The story originated from a French short film, La Jetée by Chris Marker and David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and his wife Janet delivered such a strong adaptation that it was nominated for best adapted screenplay. Unlike all the other pandemic movies, 12 Monkeys is a thought provoking, thinking man’s thriller that can tax the mind.
The Girl With All the Gifts
Although the film has what looks to be fast moving, mindless zombies overrunning the earth, the cause is not viral. it’s actually a fungal infection. This places the film in a unique category of its own. It’s more science fiction than horror yet there is a consistent tension that runs throughout the film as what’s left of humanity struggles to find a cure.
The unique tale is originally from M.R. Carey’s award-winning short story, Iphigenia In Aulis which he later turned into a novel, The Girl With All the Gifts. He also wrote wrote the screenplay about a small group of children born from infected mothers, but even though the children exhibit the hunger for living flesh, they have demonstrated that they can be controlled. They actually can think and learn. Therefore, the military is looking to find a cure through these youngsters.
Unfortunately, the base experiences a breach in their barrier and a horde of zombies converge on the site, leaving only two soldiers, two scientists, and one small child, Melanie, to possibly save the human race. Their trek across the countryside and into London is filled with suspense and anticipation, along with a very unexpected ending.
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan originally marketed the hell out of their vampire plague project as a feature and were turned down by everyone town. Eventually, the duo decided to publish it as a series of books and immediately developed a fan base which lead to a TV series lasting four seasons.
For the most part, this is one of the better plague TV series with exciting special effects, effective acting, produced with a wonderful gothic touch. I do have two personal issues with it, though. #1: the main vampire responsible for the viral strain is terribly designed. With the introduction of all the evil that we see, the main vampire is as big of a let down as Michael Mann’s monster from The Keep. #2: the vampires are mere extensions of another del Toro feature, Blade II. Exact design with the extended octomouth.
It’s a cool look, but I had hoped del Toro would come up with something different. He did the same thing with The Shape of Water. I love that movie, but the design of the creature was nearly a duplicate of Abe Sapien from del Toro’s Hellboy movies.
Okay, I’m getting off track. As far as pandemic shows go, The Strain can be nerve wracking (in a good way). It’s a nightmarish journey played with realistic intent, the lead being the head of a CDC team, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (played with great dramatic effect by Cory Stoll (Ant-Man, Midnight in Paris)). The show is part CSI, part gothic vampire horror, and pandemic themed drama.
The first three seasons of this show are gangbusters with some near apocalyptic visuals. Sadly, season four peters out as if the show’s creators threw up their hands because they did not see the opportunity of being picked up. Still, del Toro and Hogan’s vision of a vampire pandemic has you looking over your shoulder for those things that go bump in the night.
This is basically a road movie with friends and family – the difference being – this is not a rom-com and its four travelers are trekking after the apocalypse of a viral infection. They go on the road to survive and seek refuge in a motel at a beach where they can wait till the pandemic dies off…or that’s what they think.
The film has that being-on-the-post-apocalyptic-road feeling that was also in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the indie fave It Stains the Sands Red which I highly recommend. Two brothers, Brian and Danny, Brian’s girlfriend and Danny’s friend Kate, agree the only way to survive is to play by the rules set up by Brian. Those rules do not stand up well as they hit the road and encounter people and situations they never expected.
There are consequences, and this film turns into more like a fine drama than an action or zombie flick. Chris Pine from Wonder Woman and Star Trek is a stand out amongst the cast. He lends a sincerity and uncertainty throughout the journey. This is not a happy film, but it accomplishes so much more with its modest budget than some more expensive productions like World War Z.
Writer/director David Cronenberg is best known for creating the “body horror” genre. Not the most pleasant thought. He gave us exploding heads in Scanners, merged the DNA of an insect with a human in the successful reboot of The Fly, and had what looked like a small penis coming out of a pornstar’s armpit that feeds on people’s blood and has those infected doing the same. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but Cronenberg’s second film, Rabid might have been the closest thing to capturing the claustrophobic feeling that Romero had in NOTLD.
Marilyn Chambers stars, adult actress best known for the X-rated film Behind the Green Door and for being the model for Ivory soap! She was also an exotic dancer, an author, a stage actress and (believe it or not) a vice-presidential candidate. Also, one of the very few adult stars to successfully break into the entertainment industry as a mainstream actress.
The fascinating fact of how Marilyn received her break is one for the books. Cronenberg originally wanted Sissy Spacek. Back in the early ‘70s, she was more known for her television appearances. But, in ’76 she broke out as the lead in the Stephen King title character Carrie, directed by Brian de Palma. The studio nixed the deal for playing the lead in Rabid because they did not like her accent.
At that point, producer Ivan Reitman stepped in and suggested the pornstar with the thought that the film would be far more marketable. Wait! Ivan Reitman of Ghostbusters?! Yep, that Ivan Reitman produced a movie about a vicious penis popping out of a pornstar’s armpit and attacking people. We all gotta start somewhere.
Okay, so I’ve gotten off track. But, the back story on this film is far too amusing not to relay it. What was not amusing was the way Cronenberg was able to get under our skin and actually make everything believable. The story of an epidemic that could easily become a pandemic, created by a plastic surgeon attempting to save the life of a motorcyclist in an awful accident is truly frightening. Chambers proved to be a hard working and believable actress.
Cronenberg and Chambers’ character, Rose, were able to bring to the screen a scary sensuality to the whole affair as Rose’s malady not only effects the hospital where she resides, but all of Montreal becomes teaming with blood-hungry, zombie-like creatures. Sounds silly, but watching this film in a darkened room late at night will give you chills.
The Andromeda Strain (’71) – Robert Wise directs this techno thriller by Michael Crichton about a team of scientists converging to find out what killed everyone in one small town. Frankly, all one has to do is look up Wise’s credits (The Haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, to name a few) and you can only imagine how well crafted this truly was for its day.
Train to Busan – South Korean zombies! A business man and his young daughter board a train unaware, just as the other passengers, of the soon to be collapse of civilization as a nasty zombie plague breaks out. A thrill a minute. One of the best zombie/action films in a very long time.
28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later – More zombies. But this time it starts in the UK, and these zombies do not lumber around. They are fast moving eating machines. Both films will get your adrenalin pumping.
Mimic – Researcher creates an insect to wipe out cockroaches carrying a fatal disease. But, ends up reproducing something far more frightening from the demented mind of Guillermo del Toro.
Pontypool – Perhaps the most creative of all virus movies and incredibly minimalistic. People held up in a radio station, words (or is it sounds?) are turning people into a bizarre type of zombie.