Things are looking pretty grim right now, and it’s hard to find anything uplifting stories out there – even fictional ones. While some people may want to stay positive, others may bury their head in the sand, revel in the collapse of civilisation, or have a morbid sense of humour. While we prefer the first option, it can’t be ignored that the top songs going around right now are REM’s It’s The End of the World As We Know It, Weird Al’s Germs, and Tom Lehrer’s I Got It From Agnes (along with We Will All Go Together When We Go). So people are looking for something. Thankfully, there’s a contagion story out there to match whatever mood you’re in, and here are 11 of the best…
I Am Legend (1954)
Probably best known these days for the 2007 film adaptation, the original novel by Richard Matheson is arguably the most influential virus story ever. Detailing a mass infection with a sci-fi horror story scenario and adapted several times, Vincent Price and Charlton Heston made their mark in The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man respectively. That was before Will Smith chased wildlife around the streets of a deserted New York between bouts of killing the undead in I Am Legend. Inspiring countless zombie movies, just about every one of them owes this a debt of gratitude. However, it’s often forgotten that the original infected became vampires – not zombies.
By day, Robert Neville roams the deserted streets of Los Angeles, apparently the last survivor of a global pandemic desperately searching for supplies, a cure to the infection – and killing the infected. Why just by day? Because the infected have become seemingly-invincible vampires, who swarm the area during darkness. Neville suffers from loneliness, depression and alcoholism, but makes several key breakthroughs and succeeds in whittling the number before things start to go wrong again. However, the vampire-slaying status of the last man on Earth has made him a legend amongst legendary creatures…
The Stand (1978)
One of Stephen King’s genuine masterpieces, this post-apocalyptic horror tells the tale of a ‘flu-like pandemic that wipes out 99% of humanity – dubbed Captain Trips – and the subsequent biblical stand of good versus evil of the survivors. While only King’s fourth novel, it’s easily one of his best and has been adapted as an impressive (and sometimes disturbing) miniseries starring Gary Sinise and a graphic novel from Marvel, with another miniseries (starring James Marsden, Amber Heard and Marilyn Manson) is in the works.
The first third of the story details the spread of the virus itself, the outbreak of Captain Trips being uncontainable and spreading rapidly across the USA – and, presumably, the world. While many first assume it’s the ‘flu and dismiss it, or downplay the severity of the situation, the death toll rises and society collapses. The military and the CDC ultimately attempt to keep things under control by force, but even that becomes impossible. Things fall apart, leaving the few survivors – seemingly picked by the higher powers of Heaven and Hell – to unite in two distinctly different factions. In Colorado, the aged Mother Abigail leads with goodness from her rocking chair, while the supernatural evil known as Randall Flagg rules through fear in Las Vegas…
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Purists will always choose the Romero original, but Zack Snyder & James Gunn’s remake takes centre stage here and it’s a curiously overlooked horror classic. In the best zombie fashion it’s the blend of overwhelming survival horror, tension, social commentary and dark comedy that really shine. Highlighting the various attitudes to a pandemic scenario from a diverse community of characters, it also has enough gallows humour to use Richard Cheese and Lounge Against The Machine’s cover of Down With The Sickness to hilarious effect on its soundtrack.
Ana is a young nurse who’s about to have the worst day imaginable. While she sees hints of the imminent zombie apocalypse at the hospital where she works, it isn’t until events strike at home that she sees the full magnitude of it. Escaping to a nearby mall with a local cop, she takes refuge in the heart of consumerism amongst a survivor population that’s a microcosm of society. But before long, the barriers break down and the question becomes how humanity can survive at all…
The Andromeda Strain (1969)
Before he was copying his own film Westworld and turning it in to Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton created The Andromeda Strain. It’s a thinking person’s contagion story with a difference, with this particular sneaky virus being the human race’s first “contact” with alien life. Reminding us once again that life finds a way, we’re reminded that a microorganism can still technically count as life. When a satellite returns from space with an unwelcome invisible enemy, some capable scientists are called in to find a cure… but they don’t actually know where to start.
When the otherworldly virus wipes out almost all life in a small US town, the infected satellite is taken to an underground testing facility and the two survivors – a baby and an old alcoholic – are investigated to determine what the link is between them that helped them survive. What the scientists don’t realise is that the virus is still killing people outside, has cut off outside communication, and is destroying their base around them. Also, thanks to a comedy of errors and human ineptitude, they’re working on top of a nuclear bomb that’s could detonate at any moment as a failsafe – which will cause the virus to mutate and spread across the globe, killing everyone.
Damn those monkeys! Okay everybody, let’s ignore the fact that Kevin Spacey won a couple of awards for this; instead, consider the more bizarre concept that an actual outbreak of Ebola was occurring in Zaire when this film about an Ebola-like virus from Zaire became a box-office success. Detailing the rapid spread of the infection throughout a small town in the US and the government’s reaction to it, it’s all because of some monkey business. Literally. A monkey that’s smuggled into the country is stolen by a worker at an animal testing laboratory, so it can be re-sold on the black market.
Enter a military virologist and his ex-wife who works for the CDC, as they attempt to track down the source of the outbreak in the small town of Cedar Creek. It’s a race against time for them to find a cure before the military incinerates the town and its population, halting the pandemic. While the potential outbreak is terrifying, the idea of innocent people being killed is equally disturbing and a scary possibility. It doesn’t help that a military nutcase would rather keep the virus around to use it as a biological weapon, too. Cue martial law, Dustin Hoffman being an unlikely action hero, and a desperate chase to catch that monkey!
28 Days Later (2002)
Damn those monkeys… again! Danny Boyle and Alex Garland united to reinvigorate the zombie genre with one of the most disturbing looks at a society that’s collapsed due to contagion. Of course, there’s zombies and that puts this firmly in the horror bracket, but there’s a lot worse to worry about than that, as we later learn. When some kind-hearted activists try to liberate some chimpanzees from a laboratory, they inadvertently release a virus into society that soon wipes out a huge majority of the population. So much for good deeds not going unpunished.
The twist is that the audience doesn’t see the disaster itself, but rather the after-effects and empty streets. A bike courier wakes up from a coma 28 days after the outbreak began, finding to a deserted world where he has to be on guard at all times and adapt to survive. While the zombies themselves are terrifying, rarely has contagion been so evident as we see one character tragically become infected just from looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. More disturbing is the breakdown of social morality, as we witness the price the protagonists are expected to pay if the human race intends to create a new world…
12 Monkeys (1995)
Damn those monkeys… again. Again! In this wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey tale of cause and effect based on 1962’s La Jetee, the science of time travel plays almost no part whatsoever and the audience is never shown the full effect of the pandemic. Forget about the specifics. All we know is that in the wild imagination of Terry Gilliam it makes sense to wear a body-condom and be compressed in a giant accordion. Also, despite all the animal motifs and the knowledge that a virus has wiped out most of civilisation, the mysterious 12 Monkeys are behind everything. Or not. Because, you know, time is weird and details are sketchy.
In 2035, James Cole – a survivor of a pandemic that’s wiped out civilisation – embarks on a series of time travel journeys to locate the source of the virus and stop it, the mysterious 12 Monkeys. The problem is that his multiple time jumps result in him bouncing around history where he’s shot in World War 1, locked up as a mental patient in 1990, and possibly inspires the Army of the 12 Monkeys to begin their war of anarchy… whatever it may be. Going on the run, Cole tries to unravel the truth, but is it possible to change the future or is the outbreak inevitable.
Lurgi Strikes Britain (The Goon Show, 1954)
Classic radio shows don’t get enough credit these days. However, The Goon Show is often mentioned with reverence by Monty Python fans, aware of how much of a zany influence it played on their madcap antics. Spearheaded by the insane creative genius of Spike Milligan and backed up the Peter Sellers – the original Inspector Clouseau – and Harry Secombe, each week the show delivered off-the-wall stories with wild, crazy characters. In Lurgi Strikes Britain, the UK is rocked by a new mysterious disease called Lurgi – resulting in its victims screaming “Eeee-YAKaboo!” uncontrollably.
The usual fall guy, Ned Seagoon, is given the case details by the show’s usual scheming duo, Moriarty and Grytpype-Thynne. He’s guided by them to seek government aid in developing a cure, but, in typical Goons fashion, nothing is what it seems. Is it fake news, or is the fake news really real? The punchline is inspired, and it’s a great laugh. Way ahead of its time, it’s a hilarious and warped portrayal of social – and government – responses to a pandemic. Lurgi (or “lurgy”) has become such a part of real British culture that it’s used to describe many daily maladies – and even gets a mention in Harry Potter, with Luna Lovegood believing that an unfortunate quidditch player is suffering from Loser’s Lurgy.
On the Beach (1959)
Technically not about a virus, but this chilling Cold War-era film made a huge impact on release, premiering across all seven continents – yes, even Antarctica. Unusual for its time, the story doesn’t revolve around the explosive devastation a nuclear holocaust; instead, the last pockets of humanity are being wiped out by the invisible enemy of unseen radioactive fallout which pollutes the air… and the wind currents have just shifted towards the last group of survivors. When a morse code message of gibberish comes from the seemingly-extinct USA, survivors in Australia send out a submarine in a desperate search for help.
Meanwhile, the Australian government starts arranging suicide pills for the populace, in order to help everyone avoid prolonged suffering. With nothing left to lose, some make peace with loved ones or risk their lives just for one last thrill – one disturbing example sees Fred Astaire’s character win a makeshift Grand Prix, while many around him are happy to die in car crashes. As for that message of hope, forget it. The film is an instant downer, and the depiction of the collapse of society is eerily plausible.
Last Man on Earth (2015)
What better way to bow out of existence than with a good laugh? This particularly offbeat TV comedy series starred Will Forte and Kristen Schaal, who poked fun at the apocalypse and explored the twisted new social dynamics that it could bring. Using the end of the world (due to a virus, naturally) as a premise for a comedy series may seem impossible, and the humour is of the gallows variety; however, it also drives home some unlikely serious drama regarding the breakdown of social order, the fracturing of mental states due to loneliness, and the concepts of love and loss. When it gets serious, it hits home… but it still makes you laugh too.
Lovable loser Phil Miller is (initially) the last man on Earth after the apocalypse, and makes the most of all of the goodies that humanity has left behind – from driving around in stealth bombers and the Back to the Future DeLorean to setting up paddling pools of margarita mix in the Oval Office of the White House. Unfortunately, the loneliness of his situation has driven him a bit… eccentric. Things get worse when he meets Carol, the last woman on Earth, and they despise each other. Slowly they realise that they have no choice but to be together and they attempt to rebuild society. But what future can there be, and are they truly alone?
The War of the Worlds (1897)
It’s been over a century since HG Wells’s science fiction classic turned the entire genre on its head, and it’s still the classic that sets the standard for countless alien invasion stories. It’s been adapted several times and continues to inspire and terrify fans, while also offering up a message of hope that even the worst disasters mankind will face can be overcome. While the alien invaders and their advanced technology is often given a lot of the focus, it’s the biological virus elements which play a key factor in both the destruction – and eventual salvation – of humanity.
When a meteor lands in England, locals discover that it’s the first ship of an invading alien fleet. Before long, octopus-like aliens emerge, riding in their tripod “fighting machines”. While many people die from the alien heat rays, the invaders also use a lethal bio-weapon called Black Smoke to make the air harmful to humans and Martian red weed vegetation begins to cover the surface of the planet. Our hero goes mad from witnessing so much destruction, and the end seems inevitable. Except, the aliens just… die. In a twist of delicious irony, the invaders are wiped out by a simple human virus, presumably the common cold: “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in His wisdom, has put upon this earth.” It’s a wonderful reminder that things can go both ways, and that not all microorganisms are out to get us. In fact, some may hold the key to our salvation…