Probably the most re-watched post-COVID 19 movie of all (it has now been tagged “virus porn”), Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 drama thriller is not just horribly prescient, but also utterly compelling. The film stitches up a fascinating mosaic of diverse characters, and runs through how they are affected by a new, deadly virus that is quickly and horrifyingly killing off large slabs of the world’s population. There are the scientists trying to stop it (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard), the everyday people trying to process their grief (Matt Damon), and those using the crisis to their own ambiguous ends (Jude Law). Key point: after much horror, the film has a happy ending (spoiler: Jennifer Ehle finds a cure!), and hopefully we will too.
THE OMEGA MAN (1971)
Adapted from the seminal novel by sci-fi master Richard Matheson, 1971’s The Omega Man is a bleak, terrifying vision of a future ripped apart by a plague virus that has turned the world’s populace into albino night dwelling vampires. Charlton Heston is the eponymous sole human survivor (or is he?), a somewhat arrogant scientist struggling to find a cure for the virus while also battling against his former fellow US citizens turned night creatures, who all want him dead. Though totally of its early-1970s time, The Omega Man (which forms an absolutely masterful ersatz post-apocalyptic trilogy for Charlton Heston, alongside Soylent Green and Planet Of The Apes) still packs a major punch, especially in today’s climate. And yes, the book was filmed again under its original title as the far inferior I Am Legend, starring Will Smith.
THE WALKING DEAD: SEASON 4
Though amusingly credited with predicting the practice of toilet paper hoarding, the long running zombie TV series also had its own virus story arc, with symptoms several jumps worse than COVID-19. As the fourth season begins, former deputy Rick Grimes and his family of fellow zombie apocalypse survivors have made a home of a grey, foreboding prison, using its fields to plant seeds and its cell blocks to engineer some semblance of a normal existence. But almost immediately, everything starts to flare and burn as a brutal respiratory virus (yes, a respiratory virus!) rips through the facility, toppling a number of newly introduced characters in one fell swoop. Rick and his crew grapple with the contagion for the entire first half of the season, struggling to breathe and scavenge for medication, while also fighting off the relentless hordes of the undead.
THE CHAIN REACTION (1980)
In this little seen Aussie sci-fi actioner, an earthquake in rural Australia causes a dangerous leak at a nuclear waste storage facility. An engineer at the plant, Heinrich Schmidt (Ross Thompson), knows that the leak will poison the surrounding groundwater and kill thousands of people, and goes on the run to warn the public. His bosses, however, have other ideas, and send their goons to knock him off. The injured Schmidt is eventually rescued by Larry (a just-post-Mad Max Steve Bisley), a rev-head auto mechanic and master wheel-man on vacation with his wife, Carmel (Arna-Maria Winchester). Mad Max meets The China Syndrome in this tight, exciting, sci-fi-tinged collision of cars and nuclear meltdown, but the film’s images of an Australia on the brink of shut-down, its intense air of paranoia, and conspiracy-driven narrative make it the perfect scare-yourself-stupid Coronavirus shut-in movie for Aussie viewers.
Considering its plot, this 1995 thriller from German émigré Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In The Line Of Fire, Troy) should have just as much re-watch punch as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, but it doesn’t…for one very simple reason: it’s crap. Prepare, however, to inhale sharply once you’ve read the synopsis: a group of military and medical types (divorcees Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, along with Kevin Spacey, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland) generally flounder around while struggling to find a cure for a deadly virus spreading throughout California courtesy of an illegally imported African monkey. The film is poorly staged, tonally adrift, badly characterised, and ploddingly paced, but a scene in which Petersen shows the virus spreading quickly, person-by-person, through an unaware America will send chills hurtling up and down your spine.
THE CRAZIES (2010)
A remake of George Romero’s 1973 film, The Crazies follows the population of a small Iowa town whose behaviour is becoming increasingly aberrant, from aggressive twitches through to wholesale murder. As the violent madness spreads, local sheriff, David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant), discovers that something is being covered up by the authorities, before the town, now populated by largely crazed inhabitants, is quarantined by the US military. The brooding atmosphere of insanity and danger that flows throughout the film, alongside the growing sense of terror and contamination, and the response of the authorities, should be familiar to fans of the disease outbreak horror film. There are many once entertaining set pieces (a suitably unpleasant morgue scene, a temporary hospital filled with helpless patients tied to beds, and a menacing attack at a car-wash) that will now cut pretty close to the bone for many viewers. Certainly no masterpiece, the film focuses primarily on the town folk, rather than the world at large, and The Crazies ultimately becomes a mere chase/survival movie. Jack Sargeant
AND THE BAND PLAYED ON (1993)
An extraordinary piece of television filmmaking, 1993’s And The Played On was made by the pioneering HBO network (and was actually given a theatrical release in Australia), and still remains one of the finest and most informative films ever made about AIDS, the last terrifying contagion to truly grip the world and capture the public consciousness. Based on the book by groundbreaking journalist Randy Shilts (The Mayor Of Castro Street), and directed with brisk but sensitive assurance by accomplished craftsman Roger Spottiswoode, And The Played On plays out like a complex detective story, as a group of committed but underfunded scientists (led by Matthew Modine’s saintly Dr. Don Francis) discover and then try to isolate the AIDS virus. Once tracked to the gay community, a political can of worms is opened, as suggestions are made about the curbing of certain lifestyle choices to stave off the spread of the virus. The gay community, oppressed and marginalised for so long, justifiably responds with outrage. Moving at a hectic pace, and filled with moments of genuine heartbreak, And The Band Played On is as moving and unforgettable as it is important.
A virus film like no other, the Canadian horror indie Pontypool plays on an overwhelming sense of slowly building dread and claustrophobic dislocation rather than on shocks and gore…although it has those too. Pontypool reverses the generic virus apocalypse device of having survivors holed up and hearing increasingly desperate and faint news reports, instead locating its action in a small town radio station. The trio producing the early morning show find residents calling in, telling stories about various events which hint at an outbreak of mass violence. Gossip and rumour turn to terror, as the horrifying truth slowly emerges. Director Bruce McDonald (Hardcore Logo, The Tracey Fragments) has his camera relentlessly prowl around the small radio station, tightly focused on the increasing fear on the faces of the protagonists. Exploring the breakdown of order, the function of media, and the very nature of communication, Pontypool offers an unexpected twist on a now strangely ripped-from-the-headlines genre. Jack Sargeant
CAST AWAY (2000)
At this difficult time of self-isolation and social distancing, it’s strangely fitting that the first celebrity to be struck down with Coronavirus – the one and only Tom Hanks, who (along with wife, Rita Wilson) now says that he is thankfully on the mend, and appears to be close to recovery – starred in a film in which he was totally alone (apart, of course, from his volleyball buddy, Wilson) for the bulk of the movie’s running time. While some self-isolators will likely feel like they are stuck on a deserted island all on their lonesome, many others will probably wish that’s where they were…far away from the madness and fear. Whack Cast Away on, and you might actually get some novel ideas on how to entertain yourself while temporarily flying solo. Hopefully, you don’t have to perform any self-dentistry with an ice skate though…
PACIFIC RIM (2013)
From visionary director, Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape Of Water), 2013’s Pacific Rim now plays like a whacked out analogy for what’s happening at this very moment. Or maybe we’re just getting a little feverish because the film features none other than Brit legend Idris Elba, who – along with the aforementioned Tom Hanks – was one of the first celebs to contract COVID-19. When legions of monstrous creatures, known as Kaiju, start rising from the sea, a war begins that will take millions of lives, and consume humanity’s resources for years on end (no mention of toilet paper though). To combat the giant Kaiju, a special type of weapon is devised: massive robots, called Jaegers, which are controlled simultaneously by two pilots whose minds are locked in a neural bridge. Thankfully, the good guys win, and hopefully we will too, with a vaccine our version of a giant robot that can lay the smack down on the Kaiju that is the Coronavirus.
And if you’re already missing the Coronavirus-bounced NRL, why not check out our feature on rugby league films.