By Craig McKee
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Of what may come. Of each other.
If movies and television in the last few years are any indication, we have so much more to fear in this world than losing a job or a relationship or our health. Our “entertainment” is telling us that a terrifying future could arrive at any time in the form of a doomsday virus that threatens to wipe out civilization and all of us with it.
Over the past decade, the sheer number of movies and television shows that have focused on killer contagions that threaten humanity with death or some kind or horrible transformation is reaching—forgive me for this—epidemic proportions. And there are more being made all the time. There are so many that it has become impossible to see these shows and movies as being made simply because the topic is “popular.” Something else is going on. It’s downright weird.
These entertainment vehicles seem to be telling us that the things that hold our civilization together can disappear overnight. People can turn into vicious creatures, literally feeding off each other as our emotional connections and our biology betray us. The more fundamental message we get is: Don’t trust anyone. Fear your neighbor. Isolation is survival.
Movies and TV shows about killer plagues are not new; they have been around for decades. In the 1970s, during a very cynical and anti-establishment time, we had “infectious” David Cronenberg horror flicks like Shivers (1976) and The Brood (1979), the film version of Michael Crichton’s cautionary novel The Andromeda Strain (1971) and George Romero’s zombie plague in The Crazies (1973).
Of course, Romero really kick-started the modern popularity of zombie films with Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). After 20 years away from the series, Romero discovered the resurgence of interest in zombies over the past 10 years, so he made three more films on the subject. And in recent years, Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Crazies (2010) have been remade. The tagline for The Crazies now is “Fear Thy Neighbor.”
These films and programs are not only showing us what might happen if a catastrophic viral outbreak were to take place, they are also introducing us to the idea of what life might be like if society broke down and we no longer had anything resembling security or technology or rights.
To try to figure out why we have been seeing this bizarre and disturbing trend, it is necessary to consider the concept of “predictive programming.” This refers to the use of entertainment and other cultural artifacts to introduce us to planned societal changes. As we come to see these potential changes as familiar, we also have an easier time imagining them to be normal, acceptable, and inevitable. Frequently, story lines show us the proliferation of video surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, RFID chips, facial-recognition software, and retinal scans to identify us, watch us, and track us. We’ve also become used to the routine appearance of police in full SWAT gear and the accompanying depictions of martial law.
The truly dangerous thing is that we’re getting used to all of it—and that’s the idea. When we saw actual martial law imposed in Boston during the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after the Marathon “bombing,” we didn’t blink an eye. Media commentators didn’t even address the question of whether the limited imposition of a police state was in any way justified. No one seemed to mind that innocent people were being forced to close their businesses and remain in their homes, at least until they were forced to leave them at gunpoint to allow for illegal and unconstitutional searches. It was all seen as a reasonable response to a “bomber” on the run.
How did our familiarity with martial law through entertainment aid in our acceptance of this violation of individual rights in Boston? And is it beyond the realm of possibility that powerful interests that want to stifle dissent and tighten controls over all of us would exert influence over which subjects are given vastly increased dramatic treatment? Is it unreasonable to see entertainment as a form of thought control?
The Planet of the Apes series (the first one began in 1968) is now being remade, and guess what caused the apes to take over the world this time? Yup, you guessed it. As we see in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), a virus sweeps the globe and kills most of humanity. This leads to a shutdown of all technology, another theme that has become significant with TV shows like Revolution and Under the Dome.
In the ‘90s we had the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s opus The Stand (1994) and the Terry Gilliam sci-fi fantasy 12 Monkeys (1995)—both of which saw most of humanity wiped out by a virus—and Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995), which brought us martial law and the possible bombing of a town to destroy an Ebola outbreak.
When it comes to TV success with the apocalyptic zombie genre, it’s tough to top Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead, which debuted in 2010. So it would seem reasonable to suggest that other producers have simply jumped on the bandwagon. And in some cases this is undoubtedly true. But one “hit” can’t come close to explaining the incredible proliferation of these shows. We also have, starting later this month, a prequel to The Walking Dead called Fear the Walking Dead, which shows how the plague that created all the zombies got started. The catch phrase on the poster is “Fear Begins Here.”
Starting in 2008, The History Channel produced the documentary series Life After People, which looked at what would happen to the Earth if people suddenly disappeared. Another British show called Survivors, which ran from 2008 to 2010, looked at a virulent flu virus that wipes out most of humanity. Then we have The Last Ship (2014), which follows the exploits of a group of survivors after 80% of the world’s population has been wiped out by a global viral pandemic. Helix (2014) looked at a viral outbreak in a scientific outpost in Antarctica that turns victims into zombie-like creatures.
Guillermo Del Toro has created another contagion show called The Strain (2014) that features a plague spread by ancient creatures that feed off humanity. That one gives us zombies, vampires, and a mysterious infection all in the same show. One of the heroes is from the Center for Disease Control, an organization that pops up often in these programs. A new show called Zoo, based on a James Patterson novel, looks at another pandemic that turns animals against humans. And there is Z Nation, which is about yet another plague that causes yet another zombie apocalypse.
It gets really interesting when we note that shows about plagues in past decades are being remade now as if we didn’t have enough shows on the topic already. Both The Stand (2015) and The Andromeda Strain (2008) have been remade as TV mini-series while 12 Monkeys (2015) has been turned into a TV show. Tagline for The Andromeda Strain, “It’s a Bad Day to be Human.”
Starting to get the picture? Starting to see a pattern? And that’s just TV. In the past few years, there have also been many feature films that combine zombies with the notion of a viral plague. We have World War Z (2013) about a zombie pandemic that threatens humanity with the UN coming to the rescue; 28 Days Later (2002), about animal rights activists who release animals that carry a deadly virus; and the sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), which shows us London under martial law as it tries to regain control after the plague, only to lose it again. By the way, World War Z 2 is coming out in 2017. For more examples of zombie/plague movies—and there are a lot—check out the list later in this article.
But not all plague films deal with zombies; some are just about mass death and the end of the world that we know. Recently, we’ve had Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) with its telling slogan “Nothing Spreads Like Fear.” Other posters for the film (one shown above) feature this teaser: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.” I kid you not. Parts Per Billion (2014) gives us an apocalypse for the mature set (thanks to stars Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands) with its schmaltzy tag, “When the World Ends, Will Love Survive?” Yuck.
So we have seen epidemics combined with zombies, but we’ve also seen them connected to the idea of an alien invasion in aptly named films like The Invasion (this 2007 film is the fourth based on the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers), The Signal (2014), and Slither (2006), which combines aliens, zombies, and an epidemic. In 1982, we had The Thing (which was a remake of the 1951 thriller The Thing From Another World) and its delightful slogan “Man is the Warmest Place to Hide.” Not shockingly, this alien contagion thriller was remade in 2011. It appears that we literally can’t get enough of these films. Ironically, it is the aliens that are infected at the end of War of the Worlds (2005).
We even have comedy and romantic zombie movies like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), Warm Bodies (2013) and the TV show iZombie.
Here is a list—undoubtedly incomplete—of films made since 2000 that deal with people being “infected” with some kind of virus that leads to horrifying consequences:
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): Some sort of global plague has wiped out most of humanity, giving apes a definite leg up.
- Absolon (2003): A virus wipes out five billion people and the only thing standing between the rest and death is a drug called “absolon.”
- Retreat (2011): A couple in a remote cottage get a visitor who tells them that an airborne killer disease is sweeping Europe. Tagline: “No neighbours. No help. No escape.”
- Slither (2006): An alien plague infects a small town with really disgusting slithering slug-like things.
- Dawn of the Dead (2004): A global plague creates flesh-eating zombies while people hide in a mall.
- Azaan (2011): A secret agent must stop “terrorists” who are about to unleash an unknown strain of the Ebola virus.
- The Invasion (2007): Aliens use a plague to take over people’s minds and flatten out their facial expressions.
- I Am Legend (2007): The last man on Earth talks to himself a lot and fends off zombie-like survivors infected with a virus that wiped out humanity.
- The Crazies (2010): Residents of a small town become insane killers after a mysterious toxin infects their water supply. It’s considered too late to bring in bottled water.
- Parts Per Billion (2008): A global pandemic kills millions, and three couples get all romantic and sad about it.
- Contagion (2008): Another global pandemic kills millions very unpleasantly. Revealing tagline: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.”
- World War Z (2008): A UN employee attempts to save the day as he tries to find a cure for a zombie pandemic that threatens humanity.
- Shaun of the Dead (2008): A light-hearted look at zombies trying to eat everyone in an English village.
- Warm Bodies (2008): A romantic comedy about a young woman falling for a surprisingly engaging zombie. A rare optimistic film on the topic.
- Cell (2015): A mysterious signal is broadcast that turns people into maniacal “zombie-like” killers.
- The Signal (2008): A pulse is transmitted that turns people into maniacal killers: zombies, if you will.
- Zombie Apocalypse (2011): A zombie plague kills 90% of the American population.
- Quarantine (2008): Residents of an apartment building are infected with a virus that turns them into bloodthirsty killers of the zombie variety.
- Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011): They thought they had it contained, but passengers on a plane are infected with the same virus, and it turns them, as you might expect, into bloodthirsty killers.
- [Rec] (2007): Firefighters enter an apartment building and are attacked by the victims of a terrifying virus who have turned into zombies.
- [Rec]2 (2009): Cops in riot gear go into the building with the terrifying virus, and they find out that riot gear doesn’t work against zombies.
- [Rec]3: Genesis (2012): A couple’s wedding is ruined when the guests turn into zombies and kill everyone.
- [Rec]4: Apocalypse (2014): They try to isolate a virus in the middle of the ocean that turns people into zombies, but it doesn’t work. More zombies.
- The Happening (2008): A mysterious plague causes people to begin committing suicide. Many watching this movie had a similar impulse.
- Virus Undead (2008): A virus carried by diseased birds causes corpses to reanimate in search of human flesh.
- Pontypool (2009): People are driven mad by a virus carried by the spoken word.
- Flight of the Living Dead (2007): A virus causes people to turn into zombies on a plane. (A line you won’t hear in the film from Samuel L. Jackson: “I have had it with these motherf*#king zombies on this motherf#@king plane!”)
- I Am Virgin (2010): The survivor of a global pandemic is hunted by other survivors. Not sure where the virgins come in.
- Blindness (2008): An epidemic of blindness causes society to break down. People become disagreeable without literally turning into zombies.
- Extinction (2015): They thought the cold had killed all the zombies, but they were wrong. I guess regardless of the movie, you still have to shoot them in the head.
- Doomsday (2008): A virus kills millions and a wall is built around Scotland to contain those infected. 25 years later the virus is back and lots of things get blown up.
- Mulberry St. (2006): A deadly infection in Manhattan causes humans to “devolve into blood-thirsty rat creatures.” Actual rats are not sure what to make of this.
- Resident Evil (2002): A lab accident causes hundreds to turn into flesh-eating creatures. The story continues in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), and Resident Evil: The Last Chapter (coming in 2016).
- Bio-hazard: Degeneration (2008): A Japanese film about a deadly virus being deliberately unleashed.
- Cabin Fever (2002): Five college kids rent a cabin and are infected by a flesh-eating virus.
- Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009): A flesh-eating virus is spread through bottled water.
- Cabin Fever 3: Patient Zero (2014): The flesh-eating virus is back, this time on an island.
- The Roost (2005): The undead arise on a farm.
- Carriers (2009): Four friends fleeing a global pandemic find out they are carriers.
- The Thaw (2009): An Arctic research expedition releases a deadly prehistoric parasite.
- Mutants (2009): A couple hides from the zombie apocalypse spread by a virus only to find one of them is infected.
- Last of the Living (2009): A virus turns people into zombies, essentially.
- Mission Impossible 2 (2002): Tom Cruise and his team try to recover a man-made bioweapon virus.
- Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (2005): Army loses control of bacteriologic weapon that changes human DNA. Conflict ensues.
- Infection (2004): A Japanese film about a virus that breaks out in a hospital. You’d think that would be convenient, but it isn’t.
- Ultraviolet (2006): A virus gives a woman super powers in the future. (Now this sounds like fun!)
- Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America (2006): An avian flu is transmitted to humans, as the title fully explains.
- The Terror Experiment (2010): A terrorist tries to expose the government’s biological warfare weapon, a deadly virus that causes people to kill each other as viruses in movies tend to do.
- Zombie Strippers! (2008): A zombie epidemic sweeps through a strip club. Still looking for the virgins from the other movie.
- The Veil (2005): A town is infected by a deadly virus and military types are sent in to find survivors.
- Antiviral (2012): Obsessed fans pay to have viruses injected from celebrities. If this sounds like the plot of a David Cronenberg film, it should because it was the directorial debut of his son, Brandon.
Incredible, isn’t it? Over the top? I would add “disturbing.” That’s 57 movies, and it’s not a comprehensive list. All of these have come out since 2000 and 50 of them in just the last decade.
Does this simply reflect our anxiety about the state of the world? Is it a depiction of some of the things we fear most about the future? Or could it be an effort to cause anxiety, to distract us from the atrocities routinely carried out by the elites who currently run things in our world? What is the military-industrial-entertainment complex (as dubbed by Fox Mulder in an episode of The X-Files) trying to tell us? Is it trying to prepare us for things to come? Does it want us to be ready to meekly accept the horrors that our elite rulers have in store for us?
It’s interesting that in the late 1990s and early 2000s—especially prior to Sept. 11, 2001—we had a lot of movies that featured aircraft and asteroids and monsters crashing into buildings like the World Trade Center. I wonder what they were preparing us to accept then…
And now we have epidemics, including man-made ones, threatening to wipe out humanity over and over and over again. And in the midst of all this “interest” in epidemics, we had a real Ebola outbreak in Africa last year that made a brief appearance in North America.
Ever get the feeling the powers that be know something we don’t?
It seems that this explosion of films and TV about contagions and plagues is telling us several things. It tells us that we shouldn’t worry about fixing the world so that it has justice, peace and freedom; we should just be glad the lights work and that we can watch football once a week. The alternative is going back to basics in an effort to outsmart flesh-eating zombies. No more football, and probably no more lights.
These movies and TV shows tell us that living in peace, co-operation, and connectedness with others on this planet is an illusion, a luxury we can’t afford when survival is on the line. In the end, it’s eat or be eaten. The message is that we must be suspicious of each other, mistrustful of each other, isolated from each other, and when it comes down to it, we have to struggle against each other to survive.
As with all forms of control, it’s about fear. People who are afraid, don’t question, don’t challenge—they will do what they are told. They don’t look up the food chain at the psychopaths that are truly feeding off this world; they look sideways, at their neighbors. And they fear and suspect them instead.