Screenwriters are not known for being sticklers for facts. And when it comes to disasters, writes University of Texas Professor David A. McEntire, “many of Hollywood’s portrayals are based on myths and exaggerations….” That’s certainly the case when it comes to disease disaster films. Here are 10 “fun” movies that are of no use whatsoever in terms of helping viewers respond wisely to a pandemic.
10. Panic in the Streets (1950)
“Patient Zero” is carrying the pulmonary version of bubonic plague. A public official (played by Richard Widmark) has 48 hours to find him before the disease spreads throughout the city. Director Elia Kazan delivers a moody, atmospheric, underappreciated film. But if this is how the police, public health officials and reporters will really act during a crisis, well, we’re all doomed.
9. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
This film was directed by cinema schlock-meister Roger Corman. ‘Nuff said. In his “Edgar Allen Poe Period,” Corman would take the title of a Poe masterpiece and slap it on a pastiche of disjointed plots. Here, Corman conjures up a tale of an Italian aristocrat who stages a frat party in his castle while the bubonic plague tears through the medieval countryside. Vincent Price’s performance makes the movie fun to watch. In the movie everybody dies. In real life, however, “social distancing” can help prevent the spread of diseases that are transmitted human-to-human.
8. The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Vincent Price is back, in a film based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. The plot may seem familiar. The movie has been remade twice — as The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. A pandemic, the science word for a global plague, wipes out everybody but one man and a handful of people turned into vampires. The disease is spread “on the wind”—over the whole planet? Really? Stupid science, but a haunting, edgy film with another boffo Price performance.
7. The Satan Bug (1965)
Somehow director John Sturges turned an exciting 1962 novel by Alistair MacLean into a so-so film in which Richard Basehart plans to use an engineered bug to wipe out the whole world—except for himself. (He’s immune!) The film is notable for introducing Hollywood to bio-terrorism as a subject for sci-films, a formula copied over and over again in movies like 1995’s Twelve Monkeys with Bruce Willis. The movie makes the common error of conflating pandemics and bio-terrorism. While dealing with these challenges sounds the same, there are significant differences in the spread of naturally occurring diseases and bio-weapons.
6. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, in this film Arthur Hill leads a band of scientists working to stop a plague brought back from outer space. Andromeda never gets bigger than an “outbreak”—i.e., a disease that has spread only within a limited geographical area. Crichton had a well-deserved reputation for turning real science into good fiction. The film follows that tradition. But, honestly, it makes the horror of mass death by disease seem rather boring.
5. The Crazies (1973)
Forget the mediocre 2010 remake, the original George Romero movie follows the formula of his classic Night of the Living Dead (1968): no-name cast, cheap production, big entertainment. Here, as in many disease horror movies, it’s the government’s fault—a military bioweapon obliterates a local town. The inept quarantine procedures in the film are a case study in how quarantines should NOT be done in real life.
4. Outbreak (1995)
Action movies were hot in the mid-1990s. Wolfgang Petersen jumped in with a mindless adventure film that has Dustin Hoffman leading the effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop an Ebola-like outbreak in the United States. The real CDC is central to the U.S. public health response to pandemics and epidemics. Watch the film to learn how the CDC doesn’t work. To learn how it does work, go their web site, www.cdc.gov. To understand Ebola, better to read Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, a 1992 non-fiction book about an Ebola scare in the U.S.. The book concludes with the warning that Ebola will be back.
3. The Stand (1995)
This adaption of the Stephen King novel was released as a TV-mini-series. Gary Sinise leads a handful of survivors after a “super-flu” wipes out the world. Compelling characters and a creepy plot make this fun to watch, but there is more metaphysical mumbo-jumbo than science in the story. God and the devil make guest appearances.
2. 28 Days Later (2002)
This homage to zombie and apocalyptic movie-making has Cillian Murphy trying to survive in a world where the “rage” virus instantly turns citizens into psychopaths. This film may go down in history as an iconic horror film, but if it contains anything resembling real science, I missed it.
1. Quarantine (2008)
An American remake of a Spanish film finds a reporter (played by Jennifer Carpenter) following a late-night emergency call to an apartment building. There, she finds herself sealed in by authorities who are trying to contain a virulent strain of rabies that turns people into crazed killers in minutes. Director John Erick Dowdle delivers a scary movie, but the science of how the disease works kinds of defies modern medical knowledge.