If only this crisis were fiction. If only. There have been dozens of fictional films, TV shows and novels devoted to the ravages of deadly viruses. We’ve devoured them with all the gusto of spicy foods. We’ve turned them into zombie cartoons. If only the current terror were a plot for a B(ad) movie. In fact, it reminds me of three pop-cult films that vividly show that writers’ and actors’ imaginations are no match for the unvarnished truth. Actually, to keep your sanity (whatever is left of it), I don’t suggest you watch them because they are prescient in the extreme.
Panic in the Streets, 1951 (directed by Elia Zazan)
This medical horror drama takes place in New Orleans, where a low-life named Kochak (Lewis Charles), who is suffering visibly from a flu-like illness, is killed by five other hoodlums, one named Blackie (Jack Palance) and another named Fitch (Zero Mostel). When the coroner does a postmortem on Kochak, he finds suspicious bacteria present in his blood and calls Lt. Commander Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark), a U.S. Public Health Service doctor, to investigate. It is Reed’s day off with his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and son Tommy (Tommy Rettig, star of “Lassie”). Nonetheless he decides to examine the body, and determines that Kochak had “pneumonic plague,” a form of highly contagious pulmonary bubonic plague.
Without time to waste (or Vice President Pence to consult with), Reed speedily declares that everyone who came into contact with the body must be located and vaccinated. Yet, wait—there is a snag. Reed meets with the mayor, police commissioner and government officials, who initially reject the science and diagnosis. Eventually, he convinces them that they have 48 hours to find the killers who are now carrying the disease and save New Orleans from the plague. Reed must also convince police Captain Warren (crusty old Paul Douglas) that the press must not be notified, because report of a plague would spread mass panic. Jack Palance eludes capture until … well, you can watch the rest yourself.
Contagion, 2011 (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
The plot is, well, enticing, if too-close-for-comfort. Upon returning from a business trip in Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a literal layover in Chicago to have sex with a former lover. Two days later, in her family home in suburban Minneapolis, she collapses with seizures. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), rushes her to the hospital, but she dies of an unknown cause. Mitch returns home and finds that his stepson Clark has died from a similar disease. Mitch is then put in isolation but is found to be immune, and is released.
In Atlanta, representatives of Homeland Security meet with Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control, who speculates the disease is a weapon intended to cause terror over the Thanksgiving weekend. Cheever dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an EiS (Epidemic Intelligence Service) officer, to Minneapolis to investigate. Mears traces the outbreak back to Beth … but becomes infected and dies. As the virus spreads, Chicago is under quarantine with predictable looting and mayhem as a result.
Back at the CDC, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) determines the virus is a mix of genetic material from pig and bat viruses. Work on a cure stalls because scientists cannot discover a cell culture to grow an antidote; then Professor Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) identifies a usable MEV-1 cell culture using bat cells. Hextall uses the breakthrough to work on a vaccine. Other scientists determine the virus is spread by anything exposed to it and determine that one in 12 of the world population will be infected, and 30% of them will die.
Hextall identifies a possible vaccine and determines it is a success. The CDC awards vaccinations by lottery based on birthdate.
Meanwhile, back in China (yes, China), World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marie Cotillard) is kidnapped by a government official who uses her as leverage to obtain vaccine doses for his suffering village. WHO officials provide them with vaccines and Orantes is released, however she learns the vaccines given to the village were placebos, and tries to warn them.
In a flashback, days before Beth Emhoff is infected in China, a bulldozer knocks down a tree, disturbing some bats. One flies over a pig sty and drops a piece of banana, which is eaten by a swine. The pigs are slaughtered and prepared by a chef who shakes hands with Beth in the casino, transferring the virus to her. I fell asleep before the end, but assume there was a happy ending … if you accept that millions of deaths is better than billions.
Outbreak, 1995 (directed by Wolfgang Peterson)
A deadly virus called Motaba is discovered in a remote African jungle. The U.S. Army decides to keep the virus a secret and obliterates the base where soldiers were infected. Twenty-eight years later, Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), a virologist, is sent to investigate an outbreak in Zaire. His staff finds that Betsy, a capuchin monkey and host to the virus, is smuggled into the U.S. to be used for testing. After Alverez (Daniel Chodos), a California pet store owner, releases the monkey in the woods outside of the nearby community of Palisades, he develops symptoms on a flight to Boston and infects his girlfriend, Alice. Their illness is investigated by Dr. Roberta Keough (Rene Russo), a CDC scientist and Daniels’ ex-wife. People start contracting the virus and die.
A hospital technician in Cedar Creek is infected when he accidentally breaks a vial of tainted blood. The virus quickly mutates into a strain capable of spreading like flu, becoming airborne and causing a number of people to be infected in a movie theater (just like the one I was sitting in when I saw the film). Daniels flies to Cedar Creek against General Billy Ford’s (Morgan Freeman) orders, joining Keough’s team. The Army quarantines the town under martial law. Lt. Col. Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey) is infected when his suit tears, and Keough accidentally sticks herself with a contaminated needle while treating him. Eeeeek.
Daniels learns about Operation Clean Sweep, a plan for the military to contain the virus by bombing Cedar Creek, incinerating the town and its residents, ostensibly to prevent Motaba’s expansion to pandemic proportions. But the Army has plans to use the operation to conceal the virus’s existence so it can be preserved for use as a biological weapon. And as Kurt Vonnegut said in Slaughterhouse Five: “So it goes.”
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-
chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →