A Brief History of Pandemic Films

Plagues, zombies, viruses ... what a dangerous world we live in.


Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak turns 20 this month, so we decided to pay tribute not only to the film, but its pandemic theme. Pandemics have been plaguing movies for decades, so we decided to take 10 of the strongest outbreak movies and break them down. Some of these pandemics are born out of science, others are biblical, and many are caused by the undead. Read on as we discuss the different types of pandemics, the seriousness of the threats, and, of course, the overall health of the movies themselves. Hazmat suits on!

–Justin Gerber
Film Editor

The Ten Commandments (1956)


Pandemic: God
Threat Level: Contained
Time Frame: Before, during, and after the pandemic.

When people say they’re “going to go all Old Testament on your ass,” the actions God takes in The Ten Commandments is what they’re talking about. In the 1956 film (and allegedly thousands of years ago in real life), God creates a variety of plagues and spreads them across Egypt. Had Ramses (Yul Brynner) just listened to Moses (Charlton Heston) and let the slaves go free, all of what follows could have been avoided. Unfortunately for the people of Egypt, their pharaoh was stubborn. God turns the River Nile red, makes it hail, and most devastatingly of all kills all of Egypt’s firstborn, including the kids!

Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of his own 1923 film holds up despite its unintentional cheese (“Oh, Moses. Moses!”) and miscasting (Edward G. Robinson as an Egyptian opportunist). Everyone acts their ass off, the special effects are groundbreaking (most notably during Moses’ parting of the Red Sea), and Brynner as Ramses is nothing short of “Look at me, I’m the best actor in this damn thing!” The movie’s a classic, and you’ll still find it playing on ABC every year on the night before Easter, just as you’ll find It’s a Wonderful Life playing on NBC during the week of Christmas. –Justin Gerber

The Seventh Seal (1957)

the seventh seal

Pandemic: The Black Death
Threat Level: Regional
Time Frame: During the pandemic

After surviving the Crusades, a brave knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns to Sweden only to find it ravaged by the plague. Talk about bad timing. In order to buy more time, Antonius decides to challenge Death (personified by Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess. From there The Seventh Seal unfolds as most Ingmar Bergman films do, with an onslaught of beautifully photographed close-ups and quiet pontifications about the nature of existence.

While most films on this list use death as a plot device, The Seventh Seal is more interested in examining it from a philosophical perspective. Bergman treats death as an unavoidable bogeyman that’s always lurking in the shadows, not as something that can be overcome in the third act with an experimental vaccine or military action. Everyone in The Seventh Seal is doomed, and they know it. Hope stripped away, some give into their basest urges, while others, like our hero, use it to inspire one last act of bravery. —Adriane Neuenschwander

Romero’s Living Dead series (1968 – 2009)

night of the living dead poster A Brief History of Pandemic Films

Pandemic: Zombies!!!!!!!
Threat Level: Worldwide
Time Frame: The outbreak, the panic, and the continuation

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was an attempt to make I Am Legend without having to worry about pesky copyrights. Replacing the vampires with zombies changed Romero’s life, as well as the lives of aspiring makeup artists. The plague of the dead carried over into the equally masterful Dawn of the Dead and its satirical roots, and entered the post-apocalyptic Day of the Dead, which is not so masterful (last 10 minutes are great, though). We don’t learn exactly how this all started, but it did.

That’s the beauty of these movies. We don’t need a prequel telling us why this is all happening. It’s a disease that is spreading, and the only way to survive it is to stay away from the relentless undead that are all around you. No big deal! The only thing more horrifying is having to sit through Romero’s zombie films post-Land of the Dead (which is actually quite decent). Still not even Diary of the Dead (Romero’s foray into the world of found-footage) and Survival of the Dead (zombies on horseback) can lessen the impact of Romero’s original trilogy. “We got this thing by the ass!” –Justin Gerber

The Omega Man (1971)

omega man A Brief History of Pandemic Films
Pandemic: Unnamed germ warfare; insta-kills most, turns a small faction into mean albinos
Threat Level: Worldwide
Time Frame: 1977, six years after the outbreak, in groovy LA

Charlton Heston has interracial sex, mows down legions of albinos, and growls “bastards” more times than I can count in the bewilderingly weird The Omega Man. You know the story all too well, either through Richard Matheson’s original short story, 1954’s less groovy The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, or the ho-hum Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. But they don’t make ‘em like The Omega Man anymore, for reasons both great and groan-worthy. Russia and China get the credit for this biological warfare pandemic, which wipes out just about all of humanity except for Heston (a scientist who took the only vaccine that works), a gang of ruthless hooded albinos (they hate the last man on earth as much as they hate technology; that’s why the idiots attack Mr. Machine Gun with trebuchets), and a few dirty fucking hippies who haven’t succumbed to the plague just yet. It’s a ball watching Heston cruise around a deserted LA by day, miming Country Joe and the Fish while he watches Woodstock in an abandoned theater, and then shootin’ albinos at night from the window of his fancy fortress. But the fun can’t last forever, as he ends up meeting those stupid surviving hippies and tries to save ‘em from goin’ ‘bino. But it’s all worth watching for Heston’s chest — a tundra of hair and fuscles (those weird things that look like fatty muscles) — and the fact that the MPAA used to give PGs to flicks with blood and boobies. –Roy Ivy

Outbreak (1995)

Pandemic: Motaba, a super-duper superflu
Threat Level: Contained, but mutating and bound to take everyone’s ass out
Time Frame: Before the outbreak, and during the outbreak. Pretty accurate title.

You’re tempted to blame the adorable monkey for this titular outbreak of Motaba, a virus that makes Ebola look like the Clap. You’ll also wanna blame Army bigwigs Donald Sutherland (va-va-voom) and Morgan Freeman for keeping Motaba under wraps (they know a badass biological warfare weapon when they see one). But the real reason hundreds upon hundreds of extras wind up in body bags with blood dripping out of their eyes: fuckin’ McDreamy. Yeah, Mr. Can’t Buy My Love, But I Sure Make Moms Wet is the asshole (dude wears a Motörhead shirt and a kilt) who smuggles the infected monkey from a bio-test facility to sell to one very lousy pet store owner. Oh, they get theirs, as their faces turn into the world’s bloodiest Pro-Active “before” pics, and the whole US is next in this ridiculously enjoyable disaster pic. Directed with a sweet sense of stakes and attention to tension by the almost always great Wolfgang Peterson (who could teach Roland Emmerich a thing or two), Outbreak is fun and funny, especially with Dustin Hoffman firing on all Hoffmans in the lead as the good guy scientist trying to save the day and his ex-wife. Oh, the way he repeats the words “we’re in deep fucking shit.” Movies where the shady government is all too willing to bomb an entire town of John Mellencamp stock characters to contain a virus shouldn’t be this witty, and I’d watch an entire movie of Hoffman and young and skinny Kevin Spacey trading quips. So what if it ends with a silly helicopter standoff; it’s still one of the most entertaining (and sometimes chillingly realistic) takes on the Great Big Germ genre. –Roy Ivy

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

twelve monkeys photos 9 A Brief History of Pandemic Films
Pandemic: Unnamed, nasty plague unleashed by some obnoxious radicals who aren’t monkeys
Threat Level: Worldwide. 5 billion dead. Animals have claimed the surface. 1% of surviving humanity forced to live underground and be filmed at nauseating angles
Time Frame: In post-pandemic Philly of 2027, pre-pre-pandemic Baltimore of 1990, the pandemic dawn of 1996, World War I, maybe all in Bruce Willis’ head.

I’m not gonna try to describe the labyrinthine, time-travel paradox-packed plot of Terry Gilliam’s last profitable (and arguably last enjoyable) film. The simplest description: Bruce Willis is a prison inmate sent back through time from nasty 2027 to nasty 1996 to gather info on the virus before it starts, but he winds up sent to nasty 1990 instead. And then it just gets loopier and loopier. It’s not really a disaster picture, so we don’t get the joy of seeing 5 billion people die. And it’s not the typical time-travel picture … because you could argue it’s all a hallucination and probably be right. It’s just a pure Terry Gilliam joint from head to flat-angle-lensed toe. It doggedly keeps you scratching your head, but intrigued enough to keep scratching. Gilliam hasn’t had that effect on me since (now he just wears me out). Come to think of it, he hasn’t made a profitable movie since this either. He creates a world that only he could, and it sure is ugly. It’s a hazy Brazil by way of a snowy, leaky, cobwebbed, and washed-out Philly where lions and bears roam downtown. It’s a swirling toilet insane asylum filmed in that Gilliam way that makes your eyes feel like they’ve got bedbugs, but then it’s suddenly Vertigo. Does Willis actually save the day in the end? Yes. No. I dunno. Who really cares? Twelve Monkeys is still maddeningly fun and a great time in history when studios still gave Gilliam money, there was a very good actor named Bruce Willis who actually gave a shit, and Brad Pitt was annoying. –Roy Ivy

28 Days Later (2002)

 A Brief History of Pandemic Films
Pandemic: Rage virus
Threat Level: Worldwide
Time Frame: 28 days after the pandemic began.

In case you don’t already know it, 28 Days Later is what our zombie apocalypse will look like. I am thoroughly convinced. Sometime in the near to distant future when we’re struggling for survival, we’ll clutch our 28 Days DVDs to our chests like bibles and praise Danny Boyle for getting it right.

As far as virus-centric horror movies go, this Cillian Murphy-starring flick has secured itself as one of the coolest and most innovative of its genre, due in no small part to the debut of its terrifyingly fast zombies. The zombies, or the “infected,” are plagued by the Rage Virus, which extends throughout London after a group of animal liberation activists free a lab of captive chimpanzees hosting the deadly contagion. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma to an empty hospital and complete destruction, unaware of what happened and why. It’s not long before he finds out.

What sets 28 Days Later apart from your run-of-the-mill zombie movie is its depiction of societal breakdown, how fragile yet twisted human nature can be. The portrayal of humanity’s tenuous balance is what ultimately makes this film so bone-chillingly great. –Rebecca Bulnes

Children of Men (2006)

children of men A Brief History of Pandemic Films
Pandemic: Infertility
Threat Level: Worldwide
Time Frame: During the pandemic

It’s 2027, and nearly two decades of widespread infertility have left mankind on the brink of extinction. It’s a world without crying babies, without screaming toddlers, and without back-talking teens. In other words, it’s my idea of utopia. Yet director Alfonso Cuarón manages to paint a surprisingly bleak vision of this childless wonderland, one where most of the world’s governments collapse, and those that weather the storm — namely the United Kingdom — devolve into police states.

Clive Owen stars as Theo, an activist who’s tasked with smuggling a pregnant refugee out of the chaos so she can help with an experimental infertility cure. Even though Children of Men is heavy on the plot and politics, it’s never boring. There are shootouts and explosions, sure, but nothing’s more exhilarating than watching Cuarón’s signature long takes play out — especially a jaw-dropping, four-minute-long ambush on a country road. It’s the kind of tracking shot that will have film students drooling for decades to come. —Adriane Neuenschwander

Pontypool (2008)

pontypool photos 4 A Brief History of Pandemic Films
Pandemic: Virus by way of the English language, terms of endearment
Threat Level: Contained
Time Frame: Beginning of contamination

“Something’s going to happen. Something big. But then, something’s always about to happen,” growls Grant Mazzy’s gravelly voice in the opening of Pontypool, the 2008 adaptation of the Tony Burgess novel, directed by Bruce McDonald. This low-budget Canadian film tells the story of Pontypool, Ontario, where indeed, something big is happening. Grant Mazzy (played by Stephen McHattie) is a former shock jock, working for a radio station operating out of the basement of a local church. Mazzy, his producer Sydney Briar, and technician Laurel Anne begin receiving calls about brewing chaos in the town, and from then on, an Orson Welles-inspired War of the Worlds-like production is born.

A disease is spreading, and it is changing people, scrambling their words and driving them insane. This isn’t your typical get bit on the arm and turn into a zombie sort of deal, oh no. This virus is transmitted through the English language.

Pontypool thrives because of this original and intelligent concept, finding itself in a pocket of filmmaking that is intriguing without being pretentious. It revels in its atmosphere, claustrophobic and uneasy. For a film as small as it is, it has a great handle on itself — balancing the gore with the brains, the humor with the dismal. It’s a zombie B-movie that actually makes you think, which feels like a treasure in itself. –Rebecca Bulnes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn of the planet of the apes charge poster A Brief History of Pandemic Films
Pandemic: Simian Flu
Threat Level: Contained
Time Frame: One decade after the pandemic

With 90% of the human race dead and buried, a group of hyperintelligent apes rule what’s left of the world from their shadowy outpost in Muir Woods. Of course, the few people who remain don’t take too kindly to this, and an all-out war between species ensues. The apes try reasoning with the humans, but that works about as well as you’d expect. Aren’t people the absolute worst?

But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more than just a post-apocalyptic popcorn movie. As with most of the films in the Apes series, it works as a nifty allegory, an entertaining way to shine light on the darker side of human nature, including its obsession with power and its fear of anyone or anything that’s different. The film also contains some of the best visual effects seen in recent years, as well as a jaw-droppingly good motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar. —Adriane Neuenschwander