“What we do know, is that in order to become sick you have to first come in contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is to come in contact with a rumor, or the television or the internet.”
Sound familiar? No, it’s not a ripped-from-the-headlines excerpt from a CDC speech. It’s a quote from “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 all-star “Towering Inferno” of germ movies.
If “Jaws” kept people out of the water “Contagion” should have kept them from touching their faces. The average person touches their face upwards of 3,000 times a day, and in the world of “Contagion” everything that comes in contact with your skin — an elevator button, a glass at an airport, a handrail on a ferry — could be fatal. In our world of big diseases with little names like COVID-19, SARS and H1N1, germs are the new Frankensteins.
The movies have used microscopic germs and viruses as bogeymen for years, leaving us with a plethora of topical films to stream during quarantine and self-isolation.
“28 Days Later” begins with a great horror movie premise. A group of British activists free infected animals from their cages, unleashing a deadly “rage” virus on the human population. It is a full-blown Halloween flick, complete with drooling angry zombies, (although most of the horror here is psychological) but at its core it is also a compelling study of human nature and the will to survive.
“The Crazies,” a remake of a 1973 George A. Romero film, is the story of a virus that turns the inhabitants of a sleepy Norman Rockwell town into koo-koo bananas killers. It’s a classic tale of “us” versus “them”, with an extra “them” thrown in for good measure.
“Pontypool” is about a disease that turns regular people into flesh eating creeps, but it’s more about how they became that way than the eerie aftereffects of the sickness. Set entirely inside a small radio station in the basement of a church, the story focuses on announcer Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and call screener Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) who use eye witness accounts to slowly piece together the horrible story that is happening outside their doors. When the reports turn ominous Mazzy realizes he is at the center of a big story and keeps broadcasting. What he doesn’t realize is that, perhaps, he is helping to spread the disease.
“Pontypool” is a movie set in a radio station that plays like a radio show. By and large the action is described and for once the old cliché that what you can’t see is more terrifying that what you can actually see rings true. Couple that with a mounting sense of doom and you have an edge of your seat thriller.
“Outbreak” features germs of a less speculative type. Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman star in this 1995 film about an outbreak of a fictional Ebola virus called Motaba spread in the States by a white-headed capuchin monkey. If the contagious simian looks familiar, no wonder. It’s Betsy who also appeared as Ross’s pet Marcel on “Friends.” The sitcom spoofed Betsy’s work in the disaster flick by showing the monkey on a poster for a fictional film called “Outbreak 2: The Virus Takes Manhattan.”
Michael Crichton dreamt up the idea for “The Andromeda Strain” when he was still a medical student. The story of a deadly alien virus was inspired by a conversation with one of his teachers about the concept of crystal-based life-forms. His novel was a bestseller and the author — who would later go on to write the sci-fi classics “Westworld” and “Jurassic Park” — actually makes a cameo appearance in the hit 1971 film of the same name. He can be seen in the scene where the star of the movie, Dr. Hall (James Olson), is told to report to the government’s secret underground research facility to study an outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Arizona.
More down to earth is “The Cassandra Crossing,” a big budget disease-on-a-train flick. This time it’s not an extra-terrestrial virus, but a plague contaminated terrorist starting all the trouble. Structured like a “Love Boat” episode, with an all-star cast that mixes and matches Sophia Loren with O.J. Simpson, it has none of “Andromeda’s” serious edge, but for sheer cheesy fun it can’t be beat.
Medical mayhem rules in “Warning Sign,” where an experimental virus turns people (including “Law and Order’s” Sam Waterston) into rage filled maniacs, a plot echoed in “Resident Evil” when a virus gets loose in a secret facility. “The T-virus is protean,” says the Red Queen, “changing from liquid to airborne to blood transmission, depending on its environment. It is almost impossible to kill.” “The Thaw” sees Val Kilmer unleash a prehistoric plague when he discovers a diseased Woolly Mammoth carcass. Eli Roth gave new meaning to the term cabin fever in his virus movie of the same name and the film “Doomsday” sees most of Scotland devastated by a deadly germ.
Predating all of them was “Panic in the Streets,” a low-budget film noir set in 1950s New Orleans. In it, a doctor and policeman (Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas) have just 48 hours to track down an illegal immigrant infected with pneumonic plague and stop a possible eruption of Black Death. Made during the Cold War, the rapid spread of the infection plays like a paranoid metaphor for the proliferation of Communist ideology. Despite this subtext, director Elia Kazan said: “This isn’t very deep. It has other virtues. It has lightness of foot, it has surprise, it has suspense, it’s engaging.”
These days watching the news can feel as though we’re watching a scene from one of these fictional bacteriological horror movies come to life. As alarmist as the films may be, they occasionally offer up some good, simple advice in the face of a pandemic: “Stop touching your face, Dave,” says Dr. Erin Mears in “Contagion.”
Welcome to the House of Crouse. World War Z, Zombie Women of Satan and The Walking Dead owe a debt of gratitude to Night of the Living Dead. In 1968, the story of story of people trapped in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse trying to survive an attack by reanimated ghouls dragged a bloody new horror genre into the marketplace. The film was directed by George A. Romero, man a kind and gentle man who became known as the King of the Zombies. He passed away this weekend at the too young age of 77. The House of Crouse pays tribute to the great man.
Welcome to Ogden Marsh, Iowa, population 1260, the friendliest place on earth. Friendliest place, that is, until a mysterious virus rips through town turning the quaint townsfolk into homicidal maniacs. A remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 movie of the same name, “The Crazies” is a classic tale of “us” versus “them”, with an extra “them” thrown in for good measure.
The town is picture perfect, the kind of Norman Rockwell community where the first baseball game of the year is a big event that attracts everyone in town. The season opener, however, turns into a nightmare when Rory, a local farmer, wanders onto the field with a shotgun, a blank expression and bad intentions. Gunned down by town sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) Rory is just the first victim of the upcoming hillbilly holocaust caused by a government biochemical weapon in the town’s water supply. Soon, after several strange murders and a block on all landlines, internet and cell phones in town Dutton uses his Holmesian powers of deduction to determine that “something’s really wrong.” Think of it as “28 Days Later” without the English accents.
“The Crazies” is a dark little movie, and I don’t just mean subject wise. It’s dark as though it was shot through a long sooty chimney. The murky darkness is meant to build atmosphere, and by and large it works. Director Breck Eisner creates tension, using darkness and shadows, only occasionally showing the gory stuff and even when the screen does go red, the chills are low-fi. Probably just as well, I don’t think we need close-ups of Ben, the former high school principal, now a thoroughly koo-koo bananas crazy killer repeatedly stabbing people with a pitchfork. Blood drips and there are lotsa squibs but this is more about tension and Romero’s original intention—setting up a comparison between the mania created by the virus and the martial law actions of the government when they try to contain the outbreak. It’s Dutton versus the crazies and the government versus everybody and that dynamic is the most interesting part of the movie.
The horror doesn’t hold up particularly well. This is one of those “everyone we know is dead” movies. A story where the hero husband says to his wife, “You wait here and don’t go anywhere,” while proceeding to leave her vulnerable and open to attack. She, of course responds, “Stop pretending everything is going to be OK!” It’s the clichéd dialogue of every couples-in-peril movie and could use a facelift.
“The Crazies” isn’t as off-the-wall crazy as the title would suggest. It gets the tone right—the atmosphere and tension are well done—but could have used a script that expanded on the government’s role in the epidemic and went a little lighter on some of the clichés and added some depth to the theme of the collapse of social order.
This weekend’s The Crazies, a remake of a 1973 George A. Romero film, is one of those “everyone we know is dead” movies. It’s the story of a virus that turns the inhabitants of a sleepy Norman Rockwell town into koo-koo bananas killers. In this age of big diseases with little names—AIDS, SARS—and deadly airborne germs like swine flu, bacteriological horror movies have some resonance, but they’re nothing new.
In recent years, 28 Days Later—which is kind of like The Crazies with English accents—and the Ebola-esque Outbreak have used contagious illness as a starting point for their medical mayhem, but without The Andromeda Strain, The Cassandra Crossing or the intense vision of Panic in the Streets, those movies may not have existed.
Written by Michael Crichton when he was still a medical student, The Andromeda Strain sees an outer space biotoxin destroy a small town in New Mexico. Directed by Robert Wise—also at the helm of The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music—the movie mixes standard sci-fi with credible medical theory and contains eerie lines like, “Most of them died instantly. A few had time to go quietly nuts.”
More down to earth is The Cassandra Crossing, a big budget disease- on-a-train flick. This time it’s not an extra-terrestrial virus, but a plague contaminated terrorist starting all the trouble. Structured like a Love Boat episode, with an all-star cast that mixes and matches Sophia Loren with O.J. Simpson, it has none of Andromeda’s serious edge, but for sheer cheesy fun it can’t be beat.
Predating all of them was Panic in the Streets, a low-budget film noir set in 1950s New Orleans. In it, a doctor and policeman (Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas) have just 48 hours to track down an illegal immigrant infected with pneumonic plague and stop a possible eruption of Black Death. Made during the Cold War, the rapid spread of the infection plays like a paranoid metaphor for the proliferation of Communist ideology. Despite this subtext, director Elia Kazan said: “This isn’t very deep. It has other virtues. It has lightness of foot, it has surprise, it has suspense, it’s engaging.”
Next to jump on the bio-thriller bandwagon will be Steven Soderbergh who is set to team with Matt Damon and Kate Winslet in Contagion, a thriller focused on the threat posed by a deadly disease.