Netflix reports an uptick of interest in plague movies. You might find that odd. Amid rapidly rising concern about the health and economic fallout from COVID-19, who wants to turn to a flick about rampaging illness for their evening’s entertainment?
And surely they’re not looking to Hollywood for guidance. Every pandemic movie ever made has precisely zero educational value. Virtually every medical fact presented on the silver screen falls somewhere in the range from “ridiculous” to “irresponsible.”
Take the film Outbreak (1995), for example. In preparing for the shoot, the studio toured the real Center for Disease Control. Their verdict: “We can’t film here. No one would believe America’s disease HQ is this dingy.” Instead, they built a Hollywood set depicting what they thought a facility for those trying to grapple with an out-of-control illness should look like.
When it comes to pandemics, Hollywood is here to sell tickets, not to give a health science class.
Still, the growing audience for plague movies should not surprise. Often, when people are scared, they watch scary stuff. It’s a pressure relief valve. On-screen misery has a cathartic value. Folks see what happening on-screen and think: “It could be worse; it could be us.” This is why monster movies like Frankenstein (1931) were so popular during the Depression.
So, if you are teleworking at home or just looking for an escape from all the bad news, here are some out-of-the-ordinary pandemic movies you might check out. Just remember: the only lessons they will teach is what not to do.
#5. No Blade of Grass (1970). In this one, it’s not the people who are getting sick; it’s the plants. They all die, and there is no food. No matter, the result is the same. Everyone grabs a shotgun and heads for the hills in a free-for-all worthy of The Walking Dead.
#4. The Crazies (1973). Once George Romero became famous raising the living dead (1968), he delivered this awesome government-lets-disease-get-loose movie. Underrated and underappreciated, this film is a million times better than the god-awful 2010 remake.
#3. Idaho Transfer (1973). Forget Easy Rider. This is the best movie Peter Fonda ever made. Okay, that’s not saying a lot, but this is as off-track as a movie can get without going in circles. Teenagers—because, apparently, they are the only ones who can—time travel to the future after some unnamed plague wiped us all out. That’s as much of the plot as is explainable.
#2. Demons (1985). Mix ebola and evil and just one teensy cut and—Ecco!—your average citizen turns into a demon. It happens over and over in this Italian-made masterclass plague movie. The sequel is also not to be missed. Is it just as, er, good. (It’s not subtitled “The Nightmare Continues” for nothing.)
#1. The Stand (1994). Aside from The Shining, this is easily the best movie (actually, a TV mini-series) ever made from a Stephen King novel. A super flu kills all of mankind save a handful chosen by God and the Devil to battle it out in the Midwest. Yes, it sounds like a Democratic primary, but it’s far more interesting.
If you want to be weirdly entertained, watch this movie. On the other hand, if you want to really know what we should be doing in a public health emergency, read some responsible analysis or go to the real Center for Disease Control website.
James Jay Carafano, a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges, is the vice president of Heritage's Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and the E. W. Richardson Fellow.
Image: Creative Commons.