Pandemics and Popcorn: 15 movies about deadly viruses and population-ending plagues to watch while you shelter in place and hope for a happy ending.
“Don’t wake me for the end of the world unless it has very good special effects.” – Roger Zelazny, Prince of Chaos
Intro by Richard Tanner
Imagine waking up with a slight cough and a fever. You crawl out of bed, drag yourself to the car and drive to the nearest store. There is nothing to worry about, right? Until you get to the wasteland that is store parking lot. Fights are breaking out, the shelves inside are all empty, and you sneeze! Everyone panics and all eyes are on you… you are the infected. You are the monster!
Sadly, that isn’t a movie premise anymore.
That is the evening news right now. We are living in a world held captive by COVID-19. The Cornavirus! Hell, it even sounds like a cheesy SyFy movie of the week: filled with celebrity cameos of those already infected (Hello, Mr. Hanks), over zealous extras (bye bye, toilet paper), and the buzz word that sends everyone into a panic (PANDEMIC).
COVID-19 is new; it can kill you and already has obliterated the kill count of all your favorite slashers combined. Whether or not you think the end is near or that is all just media hyped hysteria… you have to admit that it certainly has taken a hold of our daily lives.
Join us as we try to survive being shut off from humanity by reviewing our favorite DEADLY VIRUS films while we try desperately to tell ourselves, “It’s only a movie…”
THE STAND (1994)
Recommended by Richard Tanner
“That wasn’t any act of God. That was an act of pure human fuckery.”
The Stand was a 1994 mini series based on the Stephen King novel of the same name that premiered on ABC and scared the living hell out of me. My mother was always a huge King fan; his books practically littered my house growing up. It was no shock that we sat around the TV to watch this film as a family. But 5 minutes in, as we see this long tracking shot of the dead in wake of a military mess up, my father announces (with a mouth full of lo mien), “The scary part is that this really could happen.”
I sat in front of that TV for the next four nights and watched what I could only describe as a documentary at that point. I was convinced the world was ending and that it wouldn’t be an asteroid like the dinosaurs or some extra dimensional being… it was going to be a sneeze that did us in. Thanks, pops!
The mini series was so well set up that I couldn’t turn away. Each night focused on an ever-evolving story that seemed just as reasonable as my father’s statement. A virus comes, eradicates most of the world, and then survivors start sharing dreams. Some of them dream of an old black lady named Mother Abigail, while some dream of Randall Flagg.
It’s at this point that I realize the true fear isn’t the sickness; it’s the evil that is within us all.
This Armageddon story is a very Christian-based one about the fight between God and the devil and the plight of their pawns. But it finds this universal voice in community. To quote Rick Grimes: “We can all live together or die alone.”
While the Corona Virus doesn’t seem like it’s going to hit as hard as Captain Trips — and I’m positive that we aren’t all going to dream of Mother Abigail and The Dark Man — I think The Stand is the perfect film to mirror current events. Go watch it now!
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
Recommended by Syd Richardson
“Chuck, I never did like you. Oh, but God, hold me tight.”
There’s no other disease more lethal than the one in the 1985 film Return of the Living Dead. In it, two warehouse workers, Freddy (Thom Mathews) and Burt (Clu Gulager),inadvertently unleash a dangerous chemical manufactured by the United States government, otherwise known as Trioxin. Although the movie is a horror comedy, it’s the nature of the Trioxin that adds another layer of interest to the film and makes the idea of these specific zombies pretty scary.
Trioxin re-animates all dead bodies, even bodies that have been bisected or embalmed. The corpses retain a fairly high amount of their intelligence; for example, in the infamous scene where a reanimated body fools police dispatch into sending more paramedics. Infection is not limited to dead flesh alone, and can spread to even healthy, living tissue, turning normally healthy human beings into flesh-hungry zombies.
And, on top of all this, there’s no easy way to kill the zombies produced by Trioxin.
Headshots only work in the movies. The most effective way to get rid of these zombies are complete and total incineration. And when you do that, the Trioxin could potentially disperse into the air and infect those in the vicinity. In fact, that’s how the film ends; the trioxin released by the explosion of the quarantined area evaporates and intermingles with an oncoming storm, creating infected rain.
To reiterate: if you or someone you love has come into contact with Trioxin, stay calm. Do not burn infected bodies in open areas, and, as a precaution, do not open any mysterious vessels addressed to the United States government. Do, however, watch Return of the Living Dead while quarantine measures are in place. It’s a completely underrated outbreak movie with a great cast and even better zombies, and it’s streaming free on Tubi right now.
Recommended by Jason McFiggins
“Quarantine rules apply to everybody, Wade.”
Maggie (Abigail Breslin) is a teenage girl living in the Midwest who becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. The onset of the disease and transformation from human to zombie is not an instant or quick process. It takes 6-8 weeks to fully infect and take over. It’s during this 6-8 week period where the film takes place, focusing on the ending relationship between Maggie and her father Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who vows to stay by his daughter’s side as long as possible.
Henry Hobson’s 2015 directorial debut is extraordinarily well realized. Maggie isn’t a savage tale of the blood-thirsty undead. It’s a dark, dreary, beautiful, and real portrayal of a heartbreaking, and painfully slow, draining of a young life. With plenty of blood, chills, and thrills along the way, Wade tries to protect and connect with his daughter the best he can with the little time he has left with her, while also trying to figure out what he hell he’s going to do when the time is up.
To add a sense of urgency and emotional punch, there is a constant underlying pulse to this movie; throbbing low, gritty beats and sorrowful music.
Schwarzenegger as the father is not the unfaltering hero here. He is broken and terribly distraught while blindly searching to be a hero only for his daughter as she suffers through the transformation. He’s very still, very quiet. He lets his weathered statuesque features display the coldness and emptiness he feels inside, while showing great emotional depth with his eyes in a very touching and grounded performance — one of the best of his career.
But it’s Abigail Breslin as Maggie who gives an outright remarkable performance, one that truly showcases her deep talents. Breslin is so natural that she gives off a documentary-like feel instead of a character in a film. There is one very bloody scene where Maggie first experiences the growing effects of her zombie sickness, and her scared, mad, and confused hysteria was simply riveting to watch.
MAGGIE is a powerful and emotionally exhausting film, but one so carefully done that it will touch your heart with its extraordinary performances and heart-wrenching story between a father losing his daughter as she turns into a monster, and a young girl who will never realize the life she was just starting to experience.
RESIDENT EVIL (2002)
Recommended by Ethan Robles
“I’m not sure I want to remember what went on down here.”
Before the film series went off the rails, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil was a thrilling take on the zombie genre that stayed true to the survival horror video games while still managing to take creative chances.
Not unlike the Resident Evil 1 (1996) game, the film focuses on an elite military unit is sent to contain a virus that has escaped and infected an under-ground laboratory named “The Hive.” As they travel through the labyrinthian facility they discover a woman with no memories, zombies, mutants, and an artificial intelligence that is hell bent on preventing the infection from spreading. The team must stop the computer, contain the infected, and get out alive.
Resident Evil continues to hold up as one of the best zombie films to come out of the early 2000s.
With Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriquez as badass female leads, the film was always going to be fun. But there are some terribly creepy moments that make this one memorable. The introduction of the zombies is one of the most subtle and terrifying moments, rivaled only by Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004). From the Red Queen to The Hive’s traps, there is a lot to love about the film that started a franchise.
Despite the many successes, Resident Evil has its share of issues. The zombie design is great, but the use of CGI does not hold up. But the effects are a minor issue overall. The plot, at times, can be over complicated and convoluted. The video game series would eventually get nearly as complicated as the films, but both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 (1998) were amazingly subtle and still terrifying games because they focused less on plot and more on horror.
Overall, Resident Evil is worth revisiting. It may begin as a locked room horror, but it spirals out into global pandemic by the end. And since we’re all in locked rooms these days, it is damn good pandemic viewing.
THE CRAZIES (2010)
Recommended by Jay Krieger
“I hope you’re right chief. I’m no world leader, but I had plans.”
Remakes of classic films remain a taboo subject within the horror community. While some wish for classics to remain untouched, others, like myself, are in favor of new directors retelling these tales of terror in unique ways. Breck Eisner’s modern updating on George A. Romero’s 1973 viral horror classic The Crazies, serves as a strong example of remakes done right.
What separates The Crazies from the hordes of zombie films is how it highlights the government’s response to a viral outbreak. After a military plane carrying a biological agent crashes into the town of Odgen Marsh’s water supply, those who drink their tap water become infected. The infection causes the host to exhibit insanity and unhinged violence towards those who themselves are not infected.
And for all of the film’s bloody and brutal moments of zombie-like carnage, it isn’t the crazies themselves who scare me; it’s our government.
Unfolding over three days, seeing this remote Midwestern town descend into chaos and quarantine is genuinely chilling. The quarantine begins subtly enough. A strange vehicle shows up in the mostly deserted town. The phones and internet suddenly stop working. And then the soldiers appear.
Without warning, citizens are shuffled into makeshift quarantine camps. Soldiers brandishing assault rifles offer no answers, only orders. Temperatures are taken, those displaying signs of fever are stripped from their families and detained — seemingly indefinitely.
Watching the cold but calculated response to a viral outbreak unfold is haunting. Citizens who test positive aren’t viewed as human anymore.
It’s a terrifying dilemma more disturbing than any zombie horde. You aren’t a citizen anymore; you are infected.
As sudden and shocking as the military’s response is to quarantine, it just as quickly falls apart when containment is breached. We see citizens rise against their captors, further pushing the town to the brink of no return. As the makeshift containment fails, and citizens flee, the military resorts to mass executions and eventually cleansing the entire town.
Eisner’s addresses the morality of the lengths the government will go to slow the infection for the “greater good” of the whole country. They are showing how drastic measures change everyone involved, on both sides of the containment fence.
The audience is left to decide for themselves whether the means justify the ends.
IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017)
Recommended by Adela Karmen
“You can’t trust anyone but family.”
Horror films often use the subject of terror in their stories to symbolize deeper, more complex realities — often confronting the limits of human empathy in the mists of survival. The choice of giving into fear can spiral into disturbing actions that, no matter how horrifying, carries an unsettling sense of rationality in the name of survival.
When viewing films such as these, we often wonder how we would react in a world quickly descending into an abyss of chaos and what balance we would have between the desire to help others and the need to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
This question is beautifully examined and challenged in director Trey Edward Shults post-apocalyptic film It Comes at Night.
It Comes at Night puts fear under a microscope through a distinctive dystopia being the aftermath of a presumed contagion.
The society we witness in panic consists of two families. One living in an isolated rural house controlled by a patriarchal father (Paul), in which the family abide by the rules of his paranoiac domain, and another being a young, loving couple with their baby, who are reluctantly welcomed to seek refuge.
The growing companionship between these two families is not without the underlying tension of Paul’s strict rules and the understanding that any breach of trust will turn deadly. When interfamilial tension and mistrust ensue as a result of the accusation of an infected family member, Paul’s paranoia and fear takes complete control and spirals into a devastating, yet inevitable, end for all.
The fear at the heart of It Comes at Night is never fully explained or conceptualized.
But the question of whether the source of the fear is real is not the focus of this tale.
This story unfolds a societal collapse through fear itself. Through fear, we watch the steady decay of family bonds and companionship; as the moral structures once used to construct these relationships eventually hold no power and ropes them into behavior one would otherwise think irrational.
IT COMES AT NIGHT is a pandemic psychological thriller that speaks to our paranoid age. It is a strong message that fear has the power to spread faster than a virus and can be just as deadly.
12 MONKEYS (1995)
Recommended by Bud Fugate
“You know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules. Take germs, for example.”
When it comes to virus and outbreak movies to parallel what’s going on in our modern world, the first film that comes to mind is 12 Monkeys. And it’s not because COVID-19 is going to be some world-ending disease like the one in 12 Monkeys, although the social distancing measures so far feel like we’re underground in those little cages like Bruce Willis. Where COVID parallels 12 Monkeys is all the misinformation.
COVID is happening in real time with a wealth of information literally at our fingertips, but we have as much of a clear picture as underground scientists 40 years in the future, trying to piece everything together by listening to decades old voicemails. A few months into this thing, and I have all sorts of misinformation — like bat soup and people eating koala bears to COVID-19 being a bioengineered chemical weapon.
There have been “news” stories about governments welding their citizens into housing complexes, heads of state have dismissed it as a hoax, renowned scientists compared it to a common flu, and other sources have treated this thing like it’s the beginning of the Book of Revelations with Gabriel blowing his trumpet to signal the end of humanity.
What’s real information? What’s not? What are the relevant facts? No one knows!
Just like in 12 Monkeys, everyone is clueless. The entire film is dedicated to hunting down a very bat shit crazy Brad Pitt as the leader of the 12 Monkeys terrorist group who supposedly released the virus. The reality is it’s not him at all, they simply let some lions out of the zoo. The brightest minds in charge of hunting down the pandemic wasted time and energy on a dead end based on poor information. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Less of an example of what a disease pandemic looks like and more of an example of what the pandemic of fear and misinformation looks like, 12 Monkeys is a cinema classic that is even more important considering our modern times. Give this thing another viewing while you’re locked up in self isolation, and please, don’t sit in Brad Pitt’s chair.
CABIN FEVER (2002)
Recommended by Danni Darko
“Wherever you are, don’t drink the water!”
In 2002, filmmaker Eli Roth auspiciously introduced himself to the world with his bloody biohazard in the woods, Cabin Fever. With a budget of 1.5 million and an FX team consisting of Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, the young and hungry Roth was eager to make the most of his first feature.
Using his time abroad in Switzerland on a horse farm — where he actually caught a wicked ringworm infection that began to eat away at his skin — as the real life horror cornerstone for Cabin Fever, Roth delivered an exciting entry into American horror with a film rife with laughs, but also one that gave audiences a hefty dose of gore.
Cabin Fever follows five rather unlikeable college students who are celebrating a break from school. They make their way to a secluded cabin nestled deep in the woods, near a lake. Unfortunately, they seem to have landed at ground zero for one nasty flesh-eating disease. After one of the group encounters a local hermit in the woods, certain doom is brought upon all of them.
However, in an all too relatable premise, their demise comes not directly from the aggressive viral outbreak but rather from the panic, isolation, and irrational decisions born out of the fear of the virus. And that is what’s most frightening of all about this film.
28 DAYS LATER (2002)
Recommended by Kelly Gredner (Spinsters of Horror)
“It started as rioting. But right from the beginning you knew this was different.”
Imagine waking up from a coma and the world is in chaos; you’re all alone without any knowledge of what has happened. You seek refuge in a church, trying desperately to find a single person that could possibly inform you. But instead all you find is death, destruction and a rabid priest who wants to eat your face. This is the reality for Jim (Cillian Murphy), our protagonist in the incredible apocalyptic film 28 Days Later (2002).
28 Days Later blends a viral outbreak and the horrors and consequences of animal experimentation resulting in ravenous, horrifying, fast-moving zombies into a frenetic, well-paced film not only about the end of the world but the beginning. Some of the best zombie, or apocalypse, films are truly about people.
The horrors surrounding them are secondary to the other emotions they experience — hopelessness, isolation, loneliness, and the will to survive.
The cinematography immediately draws you in combined with a score (by John Murphy) that makes your heart race. The acting is superb, and 28 Days Later contains a severely underrated, updated, Final Girl in Selena played by Naomie Harris. She is pragmatic, resourceful, intelligent, and her drive for self-preservation is unprecedented. Selena not only has to fight against “Rage” infected people, sickness, and starvation but of a military brigade hell-bent on repopulating the world, starting with her and a young girl, Hannah.
28 Days Later is not only a story about individual people and what they experience in the apocalypse, but about humanity: the goodness and lack thereof. The “Rage” virus turns humans into more vicious animals than they already were and removes all traces of remorse and inhibition. But it also tells us that in our patriarchal society, for the survival of mankind, women must endure rape.
Recommended by Kourtnea Hogan
“Jesus, lady, help can’t even help us!”
You might not get what you’re expecting from this creature feature, in the best way possible.
The beginning kind of goes through the motions and almost reads like an action movie. A couple goes camping and is confronted by a couple of drug addicts on the run from the law. But the movie takes a wild turn when the couples make it to a gas station and are attacked by someone who has been infected by the splinter parasite.
This movie came out in 2008, and it definitely looks like it in terms of color correcting and presentation. But pushing through will reward you with one of the best body horror movies, period.
There are, admittedly, a few CGI parts involving a disembodied hand that didn’t age too well, but outside of that this movie is all practical effects. In fact, Olympic gymnast Jamie Henderson donned the splinter suit, which is why the movements are so haunting.
If you’re a fan of The Thing, you’ve got to check out Splinter.
We might be worried about scary viral outbreaks right now. But this body horror film about a nightmare parasite is a good reminder that it can always be much, much worse. And honestly, that’s strangely comforting.
Recommended by Vicki Woods
“Basically, human dignity takes a sick leave.”
The Covid-19 virus has everyone on edge, washing their hands constantly and buying up things as if this was a zombie virus outbreak. Just the word pandemic has people stockpiling water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper in mass quantities. Not to take any seriousness away from this scary reality, but I am here to talk about another not-so-real virus; a very dangerous and violent one called ID-7, in the hysterical horror comedy Mayhem.
As a zombie fan, I have always been a lover of apocalyptic kind of films. But what if the virus in question doesn’t kill you, but instead causes you to act on your most carnal impulses? Mayhem takes the hostile work environment scenario to another level.
So, picture this: You get up, brush your teeth and are off to work. On the way, you pick up a cup of coffee and a little ID-7 virus dubbed “Red Eye.” Once the infection sets in, you staple your least favorite co-worker’s tongue to his desk and tell your boss to f**off. Then you slaughter the owner of the company with his golf trophy and have sex with the janitor. Eight hours later it’s all over, and legally you can’t be prosecuted because you were sick.
All in a day’s work, right? Well that’s Mayhem in a nutshell!
We meet attorney Derek Cho (Steven Yeun), who is having a really bad day. Derek went into corporate law, believing he could change the world, but he ends up hating the toxic environment he works in. He discovers he has been framed by a co-worker, has been wrongfully fired and is pissed off. He also finds out his office has been infected by the dangerous ID-7 virus. After a recent outbreak, Cho and colleagues established a precedent that made it impossible to prosecute violent crimes committed under the virus’ influence. Now he and his co-workers all have ID-7 and are trapped in the quarantined building together.
Chaos erupts throughout the office as the victims of the disease begin doing whatever the deepest darkest recess of their brain tells them to do.
Joining forces with former client Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), who has a grudge of her own, Derek savagely fights tooth and nail (and nail gun) to get to the executives on the top floor and settle the score once and for all.
What I love so much about Mayhem is that it never lets up.
It is relentless, dark and amazingly funny — and one of the craziest gore fests I’ve ever seen. There is something going on every second, and I had to watch it a second time just to catch the amazing vignettes of the background characters. Directed by Joe Lynch, this film is like The Office if you mashed it up with The Purge.
But as funny and fun as this film is, there’s a terrifying bit of horror at its core. When we peel away the thin veneer of civilization that keeps the darkest parts of our human nature hidden, what it reveals is definitely not pretty.
Recommended by Jamie Marino
“There are incredible security measures in place. We know nothing. They haven’t told us a thing. We saw special forces, health inspectors wearing suits and masks, and it’s not very comforting.”
REC exists in its own little corner of the overcrowded horror genre house party. When people come near it and offer it a drink, or a plate of spaghetti, it growls and tells them to leave it the fuck alone. Is it a found footage movie? Yes. Is it a “faux documentary”? Yes, it’s that too. Is it a zombie outbreak movie? Sure. But specifically, it’s a nightmarishly realistic portrait of what one might look like if it happened during late night television.
It’s perfectly effective in its breakneck sloppiness and exhilarating bedlam.
In REC, we are presented with an episode of the Spanish late-night documentary show While You’re Sleeping. In the episode, enthusiastic and wide-eyed reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) takes us to a Barcelona firehouse in the middle of the night to show us how firefighters spend their time in the firehouse during the graveyard shift. Her interactions with the firefighters are good-humored, relaxed, and genuine.
During these opening calm-before-the-storm moments, the film has a cheerful tone. Angela is shown the routine of a firefighter, from homemade meals in the mess hall, to slipping into the gear, to sliding down the beloved pole. She absorbs all of this with childlike glee. Of course, what she wants is to go out with them on a call. She gets her wish when they are called to a large apartment building to assist an old woman who is locked in her apartment and behaving strangely.
The less you know about what comes next, the better.
I’m going to sneak around the biggest shocks, scares, and carnage. But I’ll tell you this much: what they encounter has a razor-sharp pace and doesn’t pull punches when it comes to throat-biting and blood-spraying.
The minor call to help an old lady turns out to be just the beginning of a virus-like outbreak. At this point, the film falls back on some of the comfortable trappings of the zombie movie. But it features enough new and unique ideas to keep it from being a formulaic genre snore.
The source of the virus is a very welcome and chilling surprise, which is explored further in REC 2 (better than this one, twice as creepy and gory). While you will definitely get a hot bucket full of horror satisfaction with REC, REC 2 takes the story to an interesting new place and even throws in some mind-bending supernatural set pieces as well.
REC‘s single camera never blinks or looks away, and all the madness and panic that explodes is both over-the-top and oddly realistic.
Lately, we have been feeling the same kind of panic and claustrophobia; don’t let anybody touch you, your friends and family may kill you. REC will kick your ass because you will not only enjoy it, you will relate to it.
The characters in the film are confined to the building under penalty of immediate execution, so the place that feels like home has suddenly become their tomb. I don’t know about any of you, but being in my house has caused me to look at it like some kind of tomb with running water and nachos. Be safe, and revel in the heart-stopping adrenaline infection that is REC.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)
Recommended by Joy Robinson
“Another day to live through. Better get started.”
If all this social distancing has you feeling a little lonely, let Vincent Price keep you company in The Last Man on Earth. If nothing else, it’ll remind you that things could always be worse.
Price plays Robert Morgan, a former scientist once tasked with finding a vaccine for the previously unknown, highly contagious virus that would eventually take out the rest of the human race. What began in Europe quickly spread to the rest of the world, resulting in mass deaths and a highly militarized state charged with rooting out those infected and disposing of the bodies of the “plague” victims in a giant fire pit. But rumors began circulating that those who managed to escape the pit, whose loved ones found a way to give them a proper burial, weren’t staying dead.
The Last Man on Earth could technically be classified as a vampire movie, but it’s not about vampires. The undead that gather outside Morgan’s home every night are more closely related to George A. Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead — which wouldn’t be released until four years later — than traditional vampires.
What the film is really about is the individual’s capacity for survival.
Morgan has been alone for three years, save for the vampires that he hunts down day after day while they cower from the sunlight. His routine is efficient; on the surface he’s hardened and practical, and he seems to have adapted well to his isolation.
But the cracks in Morgan’s armor quickly begin to show. He’s consumed with grief and loneliness. The most heartbreaking moment comes when he finds a stray dog — the only sign of life he has encountered in three years — and tries desperately to have hope, comforting the frightened animal and telling it that everything will be alright. “We’re going to have lots of happy times together,” he says, even though it’s obvious he doesn’t really believe it. (Spoiler: this is a horror movie, so yeah, the dog dies.)
The Last Man on Earth isn’t exactly optimistic in its portrayal of humanity as a group and our ability to rebuild after a crisis. Its portrait of a post-apocalyptic world places more hope in the resilience of the individual than society as a whole. But Vincent Price shines in the bleak landscape that surrounds him, and the film’s message will definitely give you something to chew on while you’re quarantined.
Recommended by Jessica Parant (Spinsters of Horror)
“Reports of the attacks have been termed irresponsible and hysterical, by a Montreal city police spokesman. Stay tuned on further details, on Media Scope news at 6.”
As the world population continues to grow, the news of a disease outbreak happens yearly (based on World Health Organization statistics), and humans are fascinated with it. We write movies, books, television series and graphic novels all depicting the chaos that ensues when an outbreak occurs, and often the results are a world completely changed. Interestingly, the origin of these viral outbreaks comes from the very sources that are meant to keep the human population healthy and safe, our doctors and scientists.
David Cronenberg’s 1975 film Shivers (aka They Came from Within), was his first feature-length film that shocked audiences with his exploration into unethical scientific experimentation and venereal horror.
The film follows the tenants in an isolated luxury high-rise called the Starliner being terrorized by slimy phallic-shaped parasites that enter into human hosts and turn them into crazed sex fiends. They were originally created as an alternative to organ transplants but were altered by Dr. Hobbes, our mad scientist, to be half-aphrodisiac and half-venereal disease, because he felt that “man is an animal” and needed to return to their primal instincts.
Upon Shivers’ initial release, Cronenberg underwent heavy criticism by the Canadian cultural elite and politicians.
They were angry at him for having used taxpayer funds from Cinepix and the Canadian Film Development Corporation to create a shocking, trashy, exploitation film. However, it was one the of few films from the funding that actually turned a profit and has since then become a Cronenberg horror classic.
It is low-budget with that 70s horror exploitation style intermixed with a very Canadian feel. The gore and practical effects are minimal but still make you squirm when you watch one of those slimy parasites making its way into one of the few open orifices of the human body. The parasite knows no bounds as both men, women and children of all ages are infected, and societal taboos are engaged in with incest, rape, orgies, and (at the time) homosexuality.
Shivers also enhances the fear of an outbreak because while the parasite is a visual depiction of disease, at the end of the film we see the infected looking normal as they all casually leave their secluded island and drive into the city to continue the spread of the contagion.
Cronenberg’s films often exhibit what happens when a virus is unable to be contained and leads to societal breakdown and disorder.
The pristine, harmonious, apartment building is an embodiment of the human body and what happens when a disease is introduced and festers from within; the panic that ensues comes when people try to avoid becoming infected and ultimately fail. But in a way, they are actually liberated by the societal pressures and norms to conform because the parasite allows for the carriers to follow their baser instincts and carnal desires, thus breaking free of the soul-crushing day to day of normalcy.
However, it still places upon the audience the fear of what can happen when people run wild sexually and allow for the spread of STIs. Shivers has been called prophetic in its foreshadowing of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. While Shivers may not show the complete chaos and panic created from a viral outbreak like his later film Rabid (1977), it is a commentary on what happens when people in our scientific communities with questionable ethics go unmonitored and how sometimes unequipped our healthcare system is at handling outbreaks.
Recommended by The Angry Princess
“It’s not the end of the world, it’s just the end of the day.”
Pontypool is based on Tony Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything. Burgess adapted the material for the screen himself, inspired by Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast The War of the Worlds.
Stephen McHattie plays Grant, a shock jock radio DJ who loves to stir the pot. Having been booted out of yet another major market for refusing to play by the rules, he finds himself stuck in the small Ontario town of Pontypool. As he continually irritates his producer and bemoans his frustation, he suddenly finds himself at the center of a national news story unfolding right outside the station doors.
Reports flood into the station of people rioting in the streets of Pontypool, babbling incoherently. Some sort of virus is spreading rapidly through the town, and the source of the infection appears to be language itself.
While Grant wants to help spread information so people can protect themselves, he fears that just by talking about the problem on the air, he may be making the situation worse. So, if you find yourself currently wondering what’s worse, the pandemic or the panic, you may find a lot to love in this film.
With only a single set and three main characters, director Bruce McDonald manages to build and maintain a gripping level of suspense. What’s most chilling about the film, however, is not the virus that turns loved ones against each other. It’s the layers of terrifying subtext.
Pontypool is about the power of words.
It imagines a world where the things you say could literally cause irreparable harm, turning someone from friend to deadly foe in an instant.
It’s a film that makes us question the truth of what we hear, or what we think we know. There’s an underlying theme about how we take so much of what the media offers us at face value. And we stop questioning, stop thinking critically, stop trying to make sense of what’s real or not – to the point that all the information becomes a garbled mess of fear, panic, and conflict.
You’re likely to be reminded of the typical 24 hours news response when a crisis happens. Grant and the crew are ill-prepared for what’s happening, and, in the absence of real facts, they fill the airwaves with guesswork and speculation in a desperate need to just keep talking — until the words themselves become the greatest danger.
Pontypool may not be as viscerally satisfying as some of the films on this list. But it’s incredibly smart, compelling, and telling in a way that might leave you at a loss for words.