Well, it looks set to be a great few weeks for disease buffs. With the gangrenous spectre of Covid-19 hanging portentously over the country, the Prime Minister has announced the government’s plans for what will happen in ‘a worst case scenario’ – which, in a neat twist, also seems to be the most likely scenario. We’ve been there before plenty of times in the movies so most of us know what to expect (if you count a zombie pandemic as a possibility).
Disease is a trope of culture, high and low, just as it’s a trope of life. Here are seven big and small screen portrayals of epidemics that will prepare you for all eventualities.
Of course, it’s schlock, but viewed now Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion seems remarkably prescient. The widespread panic; the conspiracy theorist blogger whipping up hysteria. Gwyneth Paltrow is actually good as Beth Emhoff, as is Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears. Naturally, the virus spreads at an alarming rate, fuelled by poor hygiene and increasingly interconnected air travel.
The ultimate message of the film is ‘germs are everywhere, we never know where or when a pandemic may surface, and we must put adequate funding into ameliorating the socio-economic impact and facilitating scientific research’. Or, alternatively, ‘wash your hands’.
The Cassandra Crossing
A plagueventure, a base-under-siege and a disaster movie all rolled into one, The Cassandra Crossing is best viewed after a few medicinal libations – wine or Lemsip will do. When an escaped terrorist infected by a biological weapon unleashes a virus on a train, Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster) takes charge. Deliberately diverting the quarantined train across an unstable steel bridge, MacKenzie plans to destroy the train – but neurologist Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris), ensconced aboard the stricken choo-choo, has other ideas.
The dialogue is arch and melodramatic – “Good God woman! Do you think I would personally send a thousand people to their deaths?” – and Harris and Lancaster’s performances are even more so. The movie has a rating of 29 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes – seriously, it is that excellent. Recommended.
Just as he isn’t immune from left-wing hypocrisy, so Martin Freeman isn’t immune from the Unknown Plague of Death. A little like The Walking Dead, Cargo revolves around the premise of a mysterious viral infection that turns people into zombies. With an intense performance by Freeman, set against the parched, bleak, dusty Australian outback, Cargo is an engaging, stark watch. The z-word is never uttered, helping further lift this a-grade b-movie. (Happily, COVID-19 doesn’t seem to turn its victims into the undead, though if it did, at least it would make the 24/7 news coverage a tiny bit more interesting).
Carriers is a 2009 apocalyptic horror written and directed by Alex and David Pastor. Set after the world has been devastated by a viral pandemic, this low budget epic-demic (see what I did there?) follows two brothers and two girls as they try to stay alive. Dark and doom-lading doom, this sneezy slasher has enough atmosphere – and just enough violence – to keep its discerning target demographic of drunk post-pub millennials entertained. Do our four friends find their plague free promised land? I won’t spoil it – but this twist on the traditional road movie hits the sweet spot.
The Simpsons – Osaka Flu
Having predicted the Trump presidency twenty years before it happened, The Simpsons has form when it comes to eerily foreshadowing the future. Coronavirus is no exception. The episode Marge in Chains sees Homer order and receive a juicer made in Asia where it has been infected with a deadly airborne virus. It spreads across Springfield as Marge battles to care for the sick. Other Simpson prophecies not quite yet fulfilled are solar-powered cars, Ivanka 2028, Big Ben going digital, virtual reality food and the colonisation of mars. All bets are on.
The history of Doctor Who is littered with monsters and villains unleashing plagues or threatening to, but the most effective evocation probably came in Doctor Who and the Silurians, from 1970. Camp, lispy, yet so toxically masculine the mere sight of him would cause Grace Blakely to explode, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor works through the night to find a cure to the Silurian plague – released, rather unsportingly, by the ancient reptilians to wipe out the “apes” which have taken the Earth off them. The plague sequences are surprisingly effective; the image of a young Geoffrey Palmer, as a grey-suited civil servant, staggering out of the tube before slumping to his death is haunting and ghoulish. Of course, the Doctor saves the day – pretty impressive for a man suffering from internalised gender issues which, due I imagine to the uncompromising no-nonsense Conservatism of the Brigadier, he was forced to keep hidden.
Are You Being Served?
Even Grace Brothers wasn’t immune to the lurgy. In the season 8 episode “Is it Catching?”, Mr. Humphries suffers a funny turn whilst fanning himself with a pair of Y-fronts, and a doctor has to be called. Soon, the staff, gathered anxiously in Mr Rumbold’s office, are being told – by a man in a hazmat suit – that they will need to be isolated for seven days. “But at 7 o’clock tonight, my pussy’s expecting to see a friendly face,” objects Mrs. Slocombe – to no avail. The gang find themselves sealed in the basement, with nothing but a curry and prunes for dinner and a giant water bed to sleep on. And Mr. Humphries diagnosis? Marine’s Disease – caught from shellfish. “I knew I shouldn’t have had those winkles last night.” We’ve all been there.
So there we have it. Drama, sci-fi, jokes, scares and sniffles. If you find yourself holed up in your house this month, nose buried in a handkerchief, you could do worse than give one of these treats a whirl. And just think – it could be worse. You could be well, and actually having to see people. Gesundheit!