Viruses on Film: From the Pandemic Procedural to the Lockdown Comedy to the Activist Documentary
By Steven W. ThrasherMarch 13, 2023
In The Andromeda Strain (1971), Robert Wise successfully depicted just how small viruses are. Even though the eponymous subject of this adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel is an alien organism, the scientists use a realistic, if cruel, scientific method to understand what has turned the blood of humans into a sandlike substance. First, they put animals in a sterile habitat and then, through a series of filters, expose them to air infected by the mystery material. The first filter has holes small enough to catch bacteria. A rat promptly dies. They then expose a monkey, this time using a filter with holes small enough to filter out viruses, which are about 100 times smaller than bacteria. It, too, dies, allowing them to deduce that the offending strain is smaller than even a virus. (This was before CGI, and a real monkey appears to die onscreen, though on set it was actually gassed with carbon monoxide and immediately revived.)
The Andromeda Strain is science fiction. But that scene simulates Dmitri Ivanosky’s 1892 experiment in which the Russian botanist watered tobacco plants with a virulent liquid, but through a filter with holes small enough to catch bacteria. When the plants got sick, he knew that something small enough to slip through his tiny holes was at work—and began to identify what we now know to be viruses.
Evocatively depicting viruses on film has less to do with “seeing” them, however, than with dramatizing how they dance with humans. In the course of writing a book on viruses while at the same time programming a film series about how we depict these tiny and sometimes lethal organisms, I’ve watched roughly five dozen films, made on six continents and spanning 10 decades. Appropriately, this rich canon reflects the widely disparate experiences humans have had with yellow fever, influenza, “swine flu” (H1N1), “avian flu” (H5N1), cytomegalovirus (CMV), the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).
And yet, there are lots of repeating conventions in these viral movies. These include the visual cues used to indicate that “we are in a pandemic!” (surgical masks, hazmat suits, police beatings), which are the same across fiction and nonfiction genres. National borders can’t stop actual viruses, nor the shared elements of viral cinema either. (This is particularly true of movies I call “pandemic procedurals.”) What has changed for audiences is the collective experience of being in a pandemic; almost anyone can now, in the wake of COVID-19, compare cinematic representations of viruses with their lived experiences. This raises the question of whether viruses should correspondingly “evolve” onscreen. Below is a brief history of viral cinematic tropes—in dramatic, horror, documentary, comedy, and experimental cinema—in which I consider how repeating viral motifs, and their variations, have elucidated or obfuscated human-viral symbiosis.
While often double-cast as romantic dramas, pandemic procedurals are, at their core, a subgenre of the disaster-film genre. And like police procedurals, they have a reliable, predictable form. Whether we see viruses characterized in the United States (HIV in 1993’s And the Band Played On; an Ebola-like virus in 1995’s Outbreak; a SARS-like virus in 2011’s Contagion) or Nigeria (Ebola in 2016’s 93 Days) or India (Nipah in 2019’s Virus) or South Korea (2013’s Flu), these movies have evolved to use the same tropes, beats, and elements.
Pandemic procedurals typically begin with a stigmatizing origin story: viruses are dramatized as already—magically—replicating inside of a “patient zero” (often in a place other than the setting of the film) who irresponsibly infects others while doing something shameful. This inciting event is followed by a version of the following: graphics showing how infections are climbing with the passing of hours and days; a lone scientist no one heeds; that same scientist facing a moral dilemma about whether to help their love interest before saving the lives of others (or themselves); the public making runs on stores; the cops beating up looters; soldiers violently locking down civilians as society collapses; a reporter who is either a Cassandra or (as in the case of the blogger played by Jude Law in Contagion) corrupt; the race for an antidote; an attempt to move a child across complicated terrain towards safety; and, in the midst of apocalyptic ruin, an ending note of hope.
The “patient zero” is a character who is hunted by frenetically scrambling epidemiologists and soldiers in a manner akin to how aristocrats hunt game. The term patient zero is actually based on a journalist’s mistake, and conflates viral diagnosis with poor character. It is stigmatizing and unfair. Yet in pandemic procedurals, people with this label are routinely condemned for bringing viruses into ableist-imagined virus-free spaces—and then they are punished. In And the Band Played On, Jeffrey Nordling portrays real-life French Canadian Gaëtan Dugas, the person unfairly and incorrectly vilified as the original patient zero who brought HIV to North America while serving as a flight attendant. In Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, a philandering wife who carries a respiratory virus from Hong Kong to Minneapolis, spreading it in Chicago when she stops for a layover (pun intended) with her ex-boyfriend. In Contagion, perhaps the most popular pandemic procedural as COVID-19 descended on the United States in March 2020, audiences saw Paltrow pick up a virus in exotic Asia and contaminate the United States with her licentious ways. For this, the scalp was sawed off her corpse just minutes into the movie, an onscreen indignity rarely suffered by such a major movie star.
Paltrow’s cadaver represents just one more loose woman in a long history of producers offering up Hollywood hoes, as it were, who bring viruses upon themselves. These “hoes” include Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938), which the film’s trailer describes as the “story of a woman who was loved when she should have been whipped!” (Because she “lived by the wild desires of her untamed heart,” Davis’s character was punished by dying of yellow fever.) Similarly, Robin Wright’s character Jenny Curran in Forrest Gump (1994) dies of AIDS for being a sex-crazed hippie when she should have settled down with Tom Hanks’s titular character.
Patient zeroes are also depicted as sneaky border-crossers. Flu begins with smugglers herding sniffling, sickly migrants into shipping containers in an unknown location outside South Korea. By the time a container is opened in Seoul, all but one person has died from avian flu. The lone survivor flees, infecting Seoul with H5N1, which kills those afflicted within 36 hours. (The film’s H5N1, a fictional version of the real virus that has been killing millions of egg-laying chickens recently, is depicted as easily moving between humans, but in reality, avian flu can’t be transmitted so readily among mammals.) Flu is a gripping film whose opening graphically documents the desperate conditions of migrants. While containers full of dead humans are often discovered around the world, the film doesn’t, however, show how they’ve typically perished—from heat, starvation, cold, or suffocation, and not from viruses. It imagines Seoul as a “clean” place until “dirty” migrants sully it with disease.
Pandemic procedurals usually feature lone-voice scientists, reinforcing the misconception that science is made by individual heroes rather than by groups of cooperating people. From Hollywood (1995’s 12 Monkeys) to Bollywood (Virus) to Nollywood (93 Days), the search for the origins of a virus is also an investigator’s love story, usually of the “boy scientist tries to save girl as world burns” variety. (Occasionally, as in Flu—in which a woman doctor, Kim In-hae (Soo Ae), tangles with hunky, meathead firefighter Oh Ji-goo (Jang Hyuk)—the gender roles are flipped, but the dynamic remains the same.) And the heroic investigator is almost always also trying to move a child from one place to another: in Flu, Kim tries to save her daughter from Seoul’s quarantine zone before the US military might bomb it; in Train to Busan (2016), a fund manager, Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), tries to ferry his daughter safely away from zombies spawned by a virus; in the HBO series The Last of Us (2023), Joel (Pedro Pascal) tries to protect a teenage girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), from the (fungus-made) zombies as he moves her across the United States, as if in a video game (like the 2013 one from which the show was adapted).
A good horror movie reveals insights about societal fears beyond the direct topic of the film itself. In Train to Busan, humans become zombies through an animal infection we first see in a deer that comes back to life. In Flu, avian flu makes people seem as aggressive and unafraid as the undead. They are both, essentially, Korean zombie horror movies that reveal societal anxieties about sickness, policing, and (as in the 2019 Bong Joon-ho–directed viral-metaphor film Parasite) economic precarity under capitalism. In the British film 28 Days Later (2002), the fictional virus is called “rage,” and its zoonotic jump—the moment when a virus in nonhuman animals jumps to humans—occurs when scientists perform cruel lab experiments on monkeys (quite like in The Andromeda Strain). This virus is conjured out of humans’ rageful, extractive relationship with nature, and it leads to their downfall. And in the American-Italian co-production Dawn of the Dead (1978), the zombies reflect European and American fears of consumerism on the cusp of Thatcherism and Reaganism.
Overall, human experiences with viruses in fiction films are more horrific than in documentaries. But as artist Noah Reich (whose project Classroom of Compassion deals intimately with death) put it to me, the 2020 documentary 76 Days (co-produced by filmmaker in China and the United States) “is a horror movie.” Made by three directors—Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and “Anonymous”—76 Days tells the story of Wuhan, China, during its initial lockdown. I have no idea how Wu and Chen shot what they did (perhaps that’s why their third director is anonymous) since their cameras are inside Wuhan’s hospitals as these fill up with patients whose suffering no one understands. The staff is shown transitioning from wearing masks to hazmat suits, and the patients from wearing nothing over their faces to wearing flimsy masks, and then to being intubated with ventilators before they die. We see patients’ personal effects, and then their bodies in bags, beginning to pile up. The horror is less frenetic than in a pandemic procedural but more painful. No one is running. There are no guns. We don’t see the military. And as nurses, orderlies, and doctors disappear into identical hazmat suits, we don’t visually see a hierarchy. As the staff triage on the fly, 76 Days’s horror is that no one is in charge. The terror is in the slowness and the omnipresence of death—of not knowing when, or if, its enormity will end.
Indeed, unlike in action movies, the tragedy of 76 Days is in forced inaction: helplessly watching the mounting death toll. Hidden under heavy gear, the workers do not visibly emote and seem, at times, cold and clinical. We see one nurse mechanically making phone call after phone call to tell people that “Grandma has died.” But then, in one call, she breaks protocol: she asks the relative of the deceased to come to the hospital because she wants to return their items personally. Going outside to meet the relative, the nurse hands over the sterilized cell phone and apologizes for not saving the patient. She starts crying, and the relative starts crying. (Seeing them sharing their pain made me start crying.) The scene captured the weight of what nurses and surviving kin in Wuhan (and soon after, worldwide) have endured. It was a welcome juxtaposition to the misleading depiction of nurses in Contagion, who flee their posts in fear and frustration.
Many documentary films about long-suffering people are made by an outsider who is relatively immune to their plight. This is not the case for virus documentaries: the people wielding the camera are usually sick or at risk of infection (or incarceration) themselves. Alongside their subjects, the filmmakers of Survivors (2018), who documented an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, faced that virus’s 40 percent death rate. (Of the 28,000 people who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone and neighboring countries of West Africa from 2014 to 2016, more than 11,000 died.) Some of the filmmakers knew the ambulance drivers, medics, patients, and mourners. The four directors—Banker White, Anna Fitch, Lansana Mansaray, and Arthur Pratt—are thus depicting the ravages of Ebola from the inside; their film is saturated with a compassion born of intimacy.
This is the case, too, in Brazilian director Sandra Kogut’s 2022 documentary Voluntário ****1864, which follows people who volunteer for vaccine trials. Similar to how the Indian movie Virus explains contact tracing, Voluntário ****1864 explains pharmaceutical human testing, including the emotional toll of being in a “double-blind” trial, when neither a patient nor their doctor knows if they’ve received an experimental drug or a placebo.
Brazil lost 700,000 people to COVID-19 so far, a death toll second only to the United States’ 1.1 million (and counting). As a counter to pandemic procedurals where everyone is out to save themselves, Kogut’s film turns its gaze to people who offer their bodies as guinea pigs for the general good. Because Kogut and her subjects were under lockdown, she shipped filmmaking equipment to their homes so they could document their own experiences. She then interviewed them in video calls, layering in the act of their watching themselves experience the pandemic; viewers of Voluntário ****1864 become the viewers of these viewers while also simultaneously experiencing the pandemic themselves.
How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger: A History of ACT UP are two AIDS documentaries released in 2012 that use footage from the ACT UP Oral History Project and showcase one of the most radical acts of protest of all time: the 1992 “ashes action,” in which angry gays threw the cremains of their dead loved ones onto the lawn of the White House. Though both films were edited and released years after medications had been developed for HIV, the footage of ACT UP members marching, having “die-ins,” and storming the National Institutes of Health were shot by people facing imminent death (and many did die).
Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger captures the group ethos of ACT UP, making an argument for why viruses must be addressed communally. A richer and more realistic film than David France’s glossy, Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, it features interviews with dozens of ACT UP members, whereas the latter has interviews with just a handful. But more importantly, and damningly, How to Survive frames plagues in the “how to” genre—as if structural forces such as poverty, racism, and homophobia could be overcome were the viral underclass only smart enough. The tacit implication: All the brilliant stars of another AIDS documentary, Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989), would still be with us today if only they’d been “smart enough.” In Tongues Untied, Riggs and poet Essex Hemphill, along with other writers, describe the Black queer experience in the United States. At the end of the film, Riggs speaks directly to the camera while a heart beats like a clock counting down the minutes until AIDS will take him. HIV took much of Tongues Untied’s cast (including Riggs in 1994, at just 37 years of age), but none died for lack of knowing “how to survive.” In their short lives, they survived for days and months and sometimes years, and indeed lived quite well—while writing slam poetry, dancing, fucking, and laughing. These queens laughed in the face of death and were, at times, very funny, as in the scene where they teach us how to “snap like a diva!”
Humor is an underused tool in viral filmmaking. The two most effective pandemic comedies I’ve seen are both directed by gay men: Tsai Ming-liang’s Taiwanese musical The Hole (1998) and Fábio Leal’s Brazilian love story Follow the Protocol (2022). And because of their comic aspects, they are among the best films at dramatizing how viruses shape human longing, alienation, desire, and (dreams of) connection. The Hole depicts 1990s anxiety about the coming millennium with comic absurdity: a fictional virus in Taipei is making people act like cockroaches, causing adults to scurry on the floor like the protagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Unlike in pandemic procedurals, where people are locked down in cities, Taiwanese officials in The Hole try to get people to leave infected Taipei by shutting off the water. But Taipei is also experiencing a millennial end-times level of rain, and so a few people remain in a dilapidated apartment building: an unnamed woman (Yang Kuei-mei) and her upstairs male neighbor (Lee Kang-sheng). Before evacuating, a worker comes to the latter’s apartment and uses a sledgehammer to create a hole in the floor, absurdly connecting these two lonely lives.
Except when the woman escapes by imagining herself in Grace Chang musical numbers, she and the man spend their pandemic in mundane, alienating ways—by collecting rainwater to drink, for instance. But the hole between their apartments depicts how—whether we like it or not—viruses (and our corporeal holes) connect us, at times inconveniently. We also see the woman hoarding toilet paper in piles that get increasingly and ridiculously large, presciently describing the ennui of such hoarding that would happen two decades later. And when the woman is cold, and coughing, even hacking, in bed for minutes at a time, The Hole gives us insight into the existential loneliness triggered by viruses.
In the opening of Follow the Protocol, the main character, played by Fábio Leal (who also wrote, directed, and produced the film), is similarly alone and in quarantine. On a video call, his character breaks up with his boyfriend, who is tired of being accused of “killing grandmas” by risking infection to have sex with other people. After eight months, Leal’s protagonist has not broken protocol by leaving his house to meet his boyfriend. Instead, we see him alone, watering plants and doing exercises to pass the time. Eventually, despite his high-minded morals, he, too, gets horny and tries to hook up with men while deploying absurd safety measures. The first time, he attaches a clear painter’s cloth to the ceiling and, in an N95 mask, tries to have sex with a partner from opposite sides of this wall of plastic. Eventually, he and another man touch and kiss, but only while wearing N95s. We see their naked, vulnerable, pudgy, and blemished bodies in ways that are funny and touching. I have never seen male nudity portrayed so intimately, honestly, and naturally onscreen. Follow the Protocol reveals with care and humility how viruses force us to find creative ways to be with one another.
Of the dozens of virus films I’ve screened in the past year, Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) most eloquently embodies a physical sense of what a virus can do to the human body. It doesn’t just flaunt the global conventions of pandemic films but also eschews—indeed, outright rejects—the conventions of narrative filmmaking altogether. One of England’s great gay film directors, Jarman began losing his sight after his tenth feature. HIV had battered his immune system, enabling CMV to reduce his vision to the undefined color blue. Blue embodies what a virus does by showing us almost nothing at all: just the color blue, the last image Jarman can see, accompanied by a soundscape of Jarman hearing the world around him, remembering exciting club days, and meditating on the life and history of the last character he will direct on film. “O Blue, come in,” Jarman’s narrator pleads. “I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.”
What exactly are contemporary global cinema and Hollywood showing us about SARS-CoV-2? Surprisingly little. It certainly hasn’t been rapidly tacked on to movies taking place in the present day in the way, say, that police killings of Black people have been. In 2021, COVID-19 was depicted in passing in two Oscar-nominated movies released far from Hollywood: Norway’s The Worst Person in the World and Japan’s Drive My Car. Both films show people haphazardly masked in their last few minutes, as if their respective directors, Joachim Trier and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, wanted audiences to know that something unusual was going on when these films were made. But the masks amount to nothing more than incidental props.
The virus does appear in at least two 2022 Hollywood films. “The pandemic,” as it is generically referred to, gets mentioned in one line of The Menu and is the obvious backdrop to a quarantine Zoom call in the opening scene of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery before the wealthy characters get fictional vaccines and never have to think about it again. The scant presence of the novel coronavirus on the big screen is curious, in part because Hollywood studios have been among the strictest employers in following pandemic protocols in any industry—albeit not for altruistic reasons but because, once cameras start rolling on a film, studios cannot afford to stop production.
Despite our handwringing over China allegedly suppressing scientific information about COVID-19’s origins as well as media coverage about its true death toll there, the United States—“the land of the free”—has yet to produce a film honestly reckoning with our one-million-plus COVID dead with the power, scale, or reach of 76 Days. Hollywood can look backwards to righted wrongs that have been tidily solved. But it doesn’t deal well with recent reality. It can imagine alternative worlds of zombies or aliens where pandemics rage. But it isn’t able to digest and respond to mass death to the point of being able to produce unflinching films like 76 Days or Survivors. Hollywood can make great romances, but it is still too uncomfortable with queerness, disability, fatness, and even real intimacy to produce something like The Hole or Follow the Protocol, or to depict the searing, embodied sense of loss of Jarman’s Blue.
Hollywood is too frightened to go to the truly dangerous places where onscreen viruses might teach us something useful about the present. But now that everyone’s been through the real thing, can it ever bring back the pandemic procedural? I doubt it. More importantly, has experiencing a pandemic, which has caused as many as 20 million excess deaths, changed people’s views on how viruses should appear on film? It’s certainly changed mine. The experience of losing friends to COVID, researching COVID, and watching COVID-era cinema has, however, left me with the sorry conviction that, when it comes to depicting viruses on film, Hollywood is game for nothing more than the spectacle of distraction.
Steven W. Thrasher, PhD, a professor of journalism, LGBTQ studies, and public health at Northwestern University, is the author of The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide (2022) and co-curator of the retrospective Viruses on Film series, screening March 15–23 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
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