Outbreak Movies, Explained - Processing Our Fears

Can we learn anything from movies about pandemics? What are the best outbreak films to hunker down with? How can they help us deal with the anxiety of living in one?


As the worldwide outbreak of Coronavirus began to dominate the news, some people stocked up on hand sanitizer or face masks, some people bought up all the toilet paper in their grocery stores and some people… rented a movie.

Contagion, a 2011 Steven Soderbergh film about the outbreak of a deadly virus, has climbed the streaming rental charts. This is a particularly direct example of something that’s been true for decades: movies about deadly viruses and disease outbreaks can tell us a lot about our real-life fears, and maybe help us process the growing panic and confusion we all face. At the same time, when do pop-culture depictions stoke mass hysteria, rather than easing it or adding anything productive? If we look at a variety of these movies together, we can track phases of movie outbreaks which exist on a continuum, examining our fears with different levels of urgency, realism, and horror. Here’s our take on what we can learn about pandemics from the movies, and how they can help us deal with the anxiety.

Phase One: Fighting the Disease

Just as viruses themselves can mutate into different forms, viral outbreak movies have different levels of severity, ranging from realistic to fully apocalyptic. Contagion, everyone’s go-to reference point for the Coronavirus outbreak, is the most prominent recent movie that operates in the first phase: movies that are mainly about the containment phase of fighting a pandemic. Other movies in the category include 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and the 1995 hit Outbreak. These movies all follow various professionals as they rush to contain or halt the spread of a scary new disease. These films contain plenty of horrific moments that drive home just how easily this new virus spreads from person to person. But, by playing out these nightmarish scenarios with a semi-realistic tone and a logical overview of the situation, pandemic movies in this category offer a form of catharsis.

When a real outbreak like Coronavirus occurs, we’re often left refreshing our news feeds for updates that trickle in about the number of cases, fatality rates, and the development of vaccines. Even though some virus movies include the points of view of victims or their families, like the Matt Damon character in Contagion, they also offer a detailed look at what scientists and other officials are doing in the middle of the action.

Dr. Ellis Cheever: “What’s your single overriding communications objective?”

Dr. Erin Mears: “We’re isolating the sick and quarantining those who we believe were exposed.” - Contagion

Whether the events are fully realistic or not, these narratives allow viewers to experience the spread of a pandemic like a test case, with a far more omniscient point of view than we get on the news. And there’s a form of comfort in seeing the movies’ competent or heroic professionals tackling the problem head-on, rather than issuing misinformation, being caught without a plan, or not taking bold actions to prioritize public health.

Donald Trump: “It’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

Look at the newly re-popularized Contagion, a relatively bleak and realistic version of this story. But because director Steven Soderbergh takes his trademark brainy, sometimes clinical approach, the panicky scenes are portrayed matter-of-factly and the hopeful scenes where scientists work on a solution feel more authentic. The story even continues well after the development of a vaccine for its fictional virus, exploring the logistics of how the cure would be distributed to such an enormous population.

Haggerty: “We shall now begin the drawing. The first MEV-1 vaccination are those people born on March tenth.” - Contagion

By rationally working through what seems like a worst-case scenario, these movies are often able to devise a plausible best-case scenario where, at least, total catastrophe is averted. We’re reassured by our ability to carry on.

Phase Two: Changing Humanity

In movies like Contagion or Outbreak, the sickness looks relatively familiar. It may be far more contagious or deadly than what many of us are used to, but imagining extreme versions of a very bad fever or flu gives us a starting reference point. Pandemic stories of the second level go further with the diseases themselves. These viruses can rob people of their senses, like in Blindness, or Perfect Sense, a movie where everyone on Earth simultaneously loses their senses one by one. Or they can rob people of their mental acuity, causing violent, maniacal, self-destructive outbursts as seen in The Crazies or The Happening. The changing physiologies of these Phase Two virus movies represent a major shift in what it means to be a so-called normal human.

“That chick’s crazy, man, she’s got the bug.” - The Crazies

These viruses complicate the relative simplicity of Phase One infections, which usually involve getting sick or not, and then getting better or not. Phase Two infections are likewise destructive and potentially irreversible, but they also go beyond the boundaries of traditional sickness to change the fabric of humanity whether through altering the physical or mental makeup of human beings or through reshaping society and the unwritten rules for how human beings live and behave.

Meanwhile, unlike Phase One infections whose means of spreading at least have a familiar logic, many Phase Two pandemics spread even faster because the symptoms aren’t tied to traditional sickness, and the means of infection might not be anything we’ve ever seen before.

In George Romero’s The Crazies, much of the movie is spent in confusion over who might be infected and who’s just reacting to the panic and madness around them.

“The whole thing’s insane! How can you tell who’s infected and who isn’t?” - The Crazies

This isn’t just civilian panic, either. The doctors, scientists, and soldiers are just as loud, angry, and disgruntled. Even when the experts do have insights that could help, their voices are drowned out in the chaos. Gone is the comforting, competent expertise of the professionals of Phase One. A basic shared understanding of humanity is erased.

Phase Three: Undead Humanity

Enter the Zombie movie. In Phase Three, instead of losing a part of their humanity, victims lose all of it, becoming undead monsters who cannot be cured, unless a bullet to the head counts as a cure. The original version of The Crazies in 1973 was directed by George Romero, who defined the modern zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead and several sequels. Though the Night of the Living Dead series doesn’t portray zombieism as originating as a virus, other movies since have cross-bred Romero’s zombies with his The Crazies style epidemic. Movies like 28 Days Later, Planet Terror, and World War Z explicitly make zombie-ism the result of a communicable plague.

“Meanwhile, the zombie plague keeps spreading, and we do what we can.” - World War Z

Early in the TV series The Walking Dead, there’s hope that the characters might find a zombie cure which underlines how ultimately the Walkers are victims overtaken by a terrifying disease.

Like the stories in Phase Two, these narratives emphasize our fears about the unforeseeable, potentially catastrophic effects of a mysterious new illness, and how it might permanently alter our collective humanity. The death-or-survival binary of Phase One is further erased, because death is everywhere. In zombie-related narratives, you’re lucky if death is painful but swift.

More of the time it’s agonizingly inevitable, and crucially, death is no longer the worst thing imaginable - it may be a salvation from a far more horrendous fate. In Romero’s zombie sequel Dawn of the Dead, the zombies lurch around a suburban mall, performing a bizarre pantomime of their living routines. These days, images like these read as eerie portraits of society transformed by illness - nightmare versions of a post-quarantine society, where the sick are destructively wandering through familiar environments, forever altered by their illness.

With zombie-related pandemics, the worst of humanity is empowered to emerge.

Phase Four: Eliminating Humanity

Early in 28 Days Later, the protagonist wakes up in a hospital to find what looks like an empty, deserted London. He eventually finds both survivors and hordes of marauding zombies infected with a so-called rage virus, but for a little while, he seems like the last man on Earth. The natural result of a world ravaged by a virus and overrun with zombies is a world that eventually isn’t overrun at all. Phase Four virus movies focus on smaller and smaller groups of survivors. Sometimes it’s just one survivor, singular, as with the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, which has been made into three movies, with three different survivors who think they’re the last man on Earth: The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price, The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend with Will Smith. Like in many Phase Three stories, the pandemic in Matheson’s tale has resulted in both global deaths and victims who have transformed into non-human creatures (in this case, both vampires and modern zombies). But the different versions of I Am Legend emphasize solitude more than other zombie movies. Other humanity-eliminating disease stories don’t even leave zombies in their wake. 12 Monkeys takes place partially in a future where mankind has been decimated by a devastating virus and the last survivors are driven underground. It Comes at Night is about a family living in paranoid seclusion after a similar global pandemic.

Stephen King’s novel The Stand, later made into a TV miniseries, catches the virus earlier, chronicling the breakdown of society and extinction of around 99% of the world population. Though the hero of I Am Legend does hope to find a cure, some other Phase Four movies treat containment or cure as fantastical matters. In 12 Monkeys, world leaders have resorted to time travel as the only viable method for stopping the virus. In Phase Four, the threat of characters catching the disease is usually past. As with Phase Three virus movies, they more often invoke a fear that we won’t be able to band together as a society, and that disease will bring out the worst in people. But the problem is now bigger than that: What if there isn’t any society left at all? Phase Four pandemic stories explore our deepest fears of loneliness and forced self-reliance.

“What’s really important is that we can’t all live together and be happy, that you have to be afraid to walk out in the street.” - Omega Man

If there’s anything scarier than needing to rely on the kindness of strangers for survival, it’s the idea that there will be no one left to even talk to, let alone help.

Phase Five: Altering the Landscape

The abandoned environments of I Am Legend or 12 Monkeys may not have many people, but they look something like the world we recognize. In the final phase of virus movies, these illnesses create different worlds entirely, whether because of species replacement or conversion to a pitiless post-apocalyptic battlescape. In these movies, the virus is more of a backstory. Though the first Resident Evil zombie outbreak is a virus, antidotes are constantly elusive or malfunctioning mentioned in between shoot-outs and chases.

Slater: “How much of this have you used?”

Dr. Isaacs: “The blood increased the creature’s power. It also increased the strength of the infection.” - Resident Evil: Extinction

The story skips ahead to more feverish visions of a pandemic’s endgame. In a strange way,

these stories are more hopeful, because they don’t really ask audiences to imagine themselves or their loved ones experiencing the horrific and apocalyptic changes to their world, or at least not for very long. Alice from Resident Evil just wakes up in a changed world.

The audience identification asks us to focus on what we might do if we were among some of the only “normal” survivors. Or it encourages us to transcend human identification entirely, aligning us with superhumans or with another species. In the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy where a virus that makes apes more intelligent also kills humans, we may start out identifying with the human characters. But by the time the third movie, War for the Planet of the Apes, rolls around, the only real good guys are the apes. We’re not rooting for the humans to take back the Earth. We’re rooting for the apes to live in peace. Maybe that’s the most revealing progression of all. So many of these stories about deadly viruses, infections, and plagues turn into tales of mobs, zombies, or apocalypses. One way or another, the virus goes away, but it just might take our culture, our humanity, or our species along with it.

Dr. Robert Neville: “Every single person that you or I has ever known is dead! Dead! There is no God.” - I Am Legend

Right now, a global pandemic leaves many of us uneasy and uncertain. The collective anxiety the world is feeling stems from not knowing what’s going to happen and how bad things could get before they get better.

Dr. Alice Krippin: “If you can imagine your body as a highway, and you picture the virus as a very fast car being driven by a very bad man, imagine the damage that car could cause.” - I Am Legend

Turning to the intense, frightening scenarios of movies and TV might fuel our alarm, or take us down rabbit holes of extreme, apocalyptic outcomes that are wildly unlikely to come to pass anytime soon. But ultimately this exercise of vicariously experiencing the worst can also give us closure, by allowing us to process the overwhelming feelings we struggle to make sense of and showing us all of the possibilities of what could happen next.