This weekend with “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh becomes the umpteenth director to make a thriller about a deadly virus that takes over the world. There are a whole lot more than 10 “virus” movies out there—I know that the underground horror scene of late has produced many—I just haven’t seen them all. So please weigh in with some of the newer, better virus thrillers that are available to watch now. Recently, our own Abby Olcese has reviewed “Pontypool” and “Black Death,” to name a couple. This summer, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” featured an infection that spread worldwide, even if it did so as a creative end-credit sequence.
Here’s my list of the five best and five worst, the worst culminating with a movie so awful it has to be seen to be believed. Or not. If you have a list you’d like to contribute, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile, enjoy the Top 5 Best /Worst Virus Outbreak Movies.
WORST VIRUS OUTBREAK MOVIES
In “I Am Legend,” based on the 1954 sci-fi novel by Richard Matheson, Will Smith holds our attention by himself for virtually the entire film. The infected CGI creatures roaming virus-ravaged New York are kinda scary I guess, but don’t have the texture and color to feel like they actually occupy the same space as Smith. And since they don’t talk, lots of the sicker mind games that Matheson explored in the book fall by the wayside. Finally, the last 15 minutes fatally trips the film up. It feels like it’s from another movie completely. “I Am Legend” could have and should have been so much more.
Michael Crichton‘s books were always about some technological nightmare coming true—giant “what if” scenarios to scare the whole family. This talky, exposition-filled adaptation directed by Robert Wise features a deadly extraterrestial virus that causes blood clotting that quickly kills its host. I can’t explain what its like watching the film any better than this, so here’s a quote from 1971 New York Times critic Roger Greenspun: “Despite all the drama of the situation (United States threatened with biological destruction from outer space, etc.) nothing very exciting goes on in ‘The Andromeda Strain.’ Since nobody greatly feels or acts, we are left with the drama of people tensely sitting around in chairs, twisting dials and watching TV monitors. From time to time, somebody gets up and paces the room.”
The film on this list that is the most like “Contagion” in structure, Wolfgang Petersen‘s 1995 disaster movie ha government disease control organizations trying to curb the spread of the fictional “Motaba” virus. After Patrick Dempsey (playing a guy named Jimbo) steals a capuchin monkey from a maximum security lockdown facility to sell on the black market, all hell breaks loose. A hellbent Major General played by Donald Sutherland (who we’ll see again on this short list) wants to bomb the entire infected California city, but a little girl is found playing with the monkey in the backyard, so Dustin Hoffman has to convince the pilot to detonate the bomb over water instead of the town. Thank God (or in this case Morgan Freeman) everybody can be easily cured.
Eli Roth directed this dumb-ass movie where a dumb-ass shoots a blood-spitting, diseased drifter for dead in the woods and then doesn’t mention the incident to his fellow cabin-mates. “Cabin Fever” is a masterwork of ineptness that is two parts bad horror movie, one part camp, all done poorly. When it’s supposed to be taken seriously, “Cabin Fever” is an absolute bore. When it goes for absurd laughs, it just tries too hard. Note to director: Having people scream “pancakes” for no apparent reason is indeed absurd, but it’s really not that clever.
I couldn’t resist putting this deceivingly titled piece of schlock on the list, even though it doesn’t really belong anywhere near a list of movies in this genre. It does, however, have dibs because of the title alone. Based on the Dark Horse comic book of the same name, “Virus” features Jamie Lee Curtis and William Baldwin in the main roles as part of a tugboat crew (captained by Donald Sutherland!) that happens upon a mutating alien life form that looks at humans as a virus that needs to be exterminated. Hence the title. The “highly intelligent” alien’s plan? To turn humans into cyborgs and create robot spiders to kill the rest of them. Not kidding. How is it stopped? Easy! They blow the alien up. Jamie Lee Curtis herself said this about the movie: “’Virus’ is so bad that it’s shocking… That would be THE all-time piece of shit…It’s just dreadful.”
BEST VIRUS OUTBREAK MOVIES
5. The Crazies (2010)
This remake of the George Romero 70s cult classic where a small town is infected at an alarming rate raises the stakes a bit by sticking with some of the personal stories of townspeople who have had to deal with their loved ones turning into the evil afflicted. It also has a couple very effective scenes of absolute terror and a great sense of humor. (The car wash attack scene sticks out for sure.) Director Breck Eisner leads Timothy Olyphant, doing a familiar spin on his do-gooder character from FX’s “Justified” and HBO’s “Deadwood,” through a number of tense situations and hints at Romero’s socio-political criticism rather than bludgeoning us over the head with it. The result is an extremely entertaining movie with a healthy distrust of the government and a surprising amount of heart.
Robert Rodriguez won’t win any points for clear plotting and exposition, but he makes up for it in the sheer density of violence and mayhem when a gooey virus takes over and a go-go dancer (Rose McGowan) and her ex (Freddy Rodriguez) try to figure out what happened and how to stop it. The “Planet Terror” strategy is simple. Rip the entrails out of old 70s exploitation films (the entire double feature setup of “Grindhouse” was borrowed from these cult classics), and throw as much gore as you can at the wall to see what sticks. It doesn’t play with the outbreak at all except for using it as a device to get people like Josh Brolin to “turn” and to make the killings more disgusting. This was the first of two full-length movies included in the price of a movie ticket, the second being Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” Rodriguez, known for having a loyal independent production team, pulls off special effects that are way more impressive than any exploitation filmmaker could have afforded, and “Planet Terror” is loads of gory, ridiculous fun.
David Cronenberg was just starting to make a name for himself in the 70s with movies like these two movies, which used horror to explore forbidden topics and express urban society’s alienation. “Shivers” features a teenage girl who spreads a crazed VD/aphrodisiac disease around an apartment building (spoiler: it spreads quickly!) because a doctor believed people had lost touch with their fleshy and sexual instincts. “Rabid” features porn star Marilyn Chambers as a woman who, after a motorcycle accident, gets a transplanted phallic organ in her armpit and uses it to infect others and cause them to foam at the mouth and turn into raving homicidal lunatics. With these two early Cronenberg delights, the director taps into some base human instincts and exploits them to horrifying degrees.
A call from an old tenement building causes a TV reporter and her cameraman to follow local firefighters inside, only to get in on the ground floor of a terrifying and mysterious outbreak. This hugely successful first-person handheld camera-style Spanish horror film did an expert job of creating scares while forwarding the plot and somehow, directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza were able to do that again in the movie’s sequel two years later. Both of these film are stirring modern examples of suspense filmmaking, even though lots of movies since have used the shaky-cam to annoying effect. The infection may be limited to a very small area (so far) in the series and the reason behind it ends up being something altogether different than anything else on this list, but that really just serves to deepen the myth behind the story. In the long run, it could reap greater rewards for the series.
Like “I Am Legend,” Danny Boyle‘s “28 Days Later” explores life after the outbreak rather than concerning itself with the panic and spread. Instead of an empty New York, Cillian Murphy awakens to a creepily still London. Eventually he finds other humans and learns that a “Rage” virus from an infected monkey spread like wildfire, turning decent people into bloodthirsty killers in a matter of moments. “28 Days Later” is at its most effective when it keeps to its simple story and lets the mounting dread sink in, allowing for all kinds of allegorical connections. The last third is bogged down with a heavy-handedness that wasn’t present before, but “28 Days Later” combines the “what-if” survival element with arresting digital cinematography and enough open-ended themes to make the film bigger than the sum of its parts.