Movies depicting the spread of disease have become a well-established genre and helped frame our understanding of the real-life COVID-19 pandemic. The spirit of these films increasingly reflects the despair and atomization of neoliberal capitalism.

A still from the 2011 outbreak movie Contagion. (Rotten Tomatoes Trailers / YouTube)

At the end of the 2011 movie Contagion, which depicts the spread of the MEV-1 pandemic, Dr Ellis Cheever, a director of the Centers for Disease Control, receives the eagerly awaited vaccine along with other government VIPs and their immediate families.

Cheever had recently married his fiancée in an ethically dubious move to make her eligible for the first round of vaccine distribution. Although she expresses misgivings about receiving the vaccine before nearly all other Americans, Cheever dismisses her doubts by stating that he is “just taking care of everybody that’s in my lifeboat.”

The scene sharply contrasts with a comparable moment from the 1950 movie Panic in the Streets about the spread of plague (Yersinia pestis) in New Orleans. In this earlier film, another public health employee, Dr Clinton Reed, can save his wife and son by having them flee the city before potential mass panic when the public learns about the outbreak.

Yet Dr Reed refuses to do so. As he idealistically exclaims, “We’re all in a community, the same one.” His community, as he goes on to relate, includes his family, the people of New Orleans, and the entire world. Reed selflessly serves the public, even if his own family might die.

No Such Thing as Society

Movies reflect the cultural mood as well as driving it, and movies about disease, like other genres, thus offer a useful lens to understand American society. Films of this kind date back to the early twentieth century. Some, such as Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), mythologized the scientific development of modern medicine. Others, like White Zombie (1932), depicted disease as a means to distinguish “real” Americans from “the other.”

Movies reflect the cultural mood as well as driving it, and movies about disease, like other genres, thus offer a useful lens to understand American society.

In spite of these differences, almost all the movies from this period shared a belief in the “common good” and a faith in reason and science to cure disease. Dr Reed was just one of many characters who exemplified this ideology.

In contrast, the belief in a common good is absent from most recent disease movies. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) condemns corporate biomedicine and foresees an inevitable global pandemic, while in World War Z (2013), the main cause for humanity’s survival amid a fast-moving zombie pandemic is toxic, anti-intellectual masculinity. The thrust of both realistic and imaginary disease movies has shifted from support of a common purpose, however flawed, to the embrace of individual interests amid a tableau of social collapse and global destruction.

Over the course of the last century, disease movies have, in a broader sense, gone from offering a critique of mid-century, state-managed capitalism to an acceptance of the neoliberal order. Increasingly, recent movies even go beyond the neoliberal framework of contemporary capitalism. Reflecting debates over what comes next, they now embrace global destruction and human extinction as the inevitable outcome.

A famous remark of Frederic Jameson’s — “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” — literally plays out on the big screen in today’s disease movies. Contagion and other disease movies were among the most watched movies in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ideas underlying disease movies shaped expectations and responses to COVID. These movie stories continue to frame our thinking about diseases today as well as the perception of our place in global capitalism under US hegemony.

Depicting Disease

Disease movies that aspired to realism, from the early days of film until the mid-1990s, typically featured heroes searching for a way to contain disease. If disease was a key plot element, such as the “Asiatic” cholera outbreak on a ship in Pacific Liner (1939), it offered a way to comment on American society and capitalism.

Disease movies that aspired to realism, from the early days of film until the mid-1990s, typically featured heroes searching for a way to contain disease.

In the case of Pacific Liner, the film presented a critique of social groups that did not fulfill their class obligations. The movie criticized the upper class for partying instead of paternalistically stopping the spread of cholera below decks. Yet the working-class characters on board were no better, since they were uncivilized, justifying their huge number of deaths.

Only the hardworking, professional middle class correctly fulfilled their class roles, ensuring the safe arrival of the ship in San Francisco. The rules of American capitalism were clearly laid out and disease served to reinforce those social norms.

Mid-century movies about imaginary diseases similarly underscored these rules while also revealing problems with American capitalism. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) implicitly presented consumerist culture as a force turning the country’s citizens into conformist, emotionless “pod people.” Yet American ingenuity and heroic actions — in this case a studio-imposed happy ending to the movie — offered a way to defeat this disease-based threat to the American way of life. The 1978 remake made the social critique more explicit and then dispensed with the upbeat conclusion.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) also depicts an infection that originated in space. This time, it transforms humans into the undead (“zombies” as they are now known). George Romero’s film used the undead to identify the problems of America at the time: the patriarchal family, sexism, and racism. While the film’s ending offers no solution, the undead have been contained, since America, despite its problems, is resilient. The film calls upon its audience to uncover solutions to these problems in order to improve the social contract.

Facing the Apocalypse

By the mid-1990s, disease movies had begun to emerge as a separate genre, reflecting the increased awareness of reemerging infectious diseases as a reaction to the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s that Hollywood movies had largely ignored. The blockbuster Outbreak (1995) retold the story of Panic in the Streets from forty-five years earlier. It, too, ended by containing a disease that originated abroad but threatened the American mainland, and it, too, had a charismatic military doctor (played by Dustin Hoffman) as the hero needed to defeat it.

By the mid-1990s, disease movies had begun to emerge as a separate genre, reflecting the increased awareness of reemerging infectious diseases.

The film acknowledged the problems of America’s global, capitalist power at its high point, depicting the military as the bad guys. But it nostalgically retreated to a past era of heroic individualism to solve the growing concerns about infectious diseases that could spread almost instantly around the world.

The 2010s have witnessed the latest transformation of the genre: either doubling down on the neoliberal order or welcoming the prospect of a future, apocalyptic world. Containment is gone, and science only causes more problems. Movies like 2019’s Little Joe, inspired by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, openly embrace a neoliberal ideal of social conformity and a bland emotional reality. As the head of the biotech company responsible for creating a flower that turns people into zombie-like humans observes: “Who can prove the genuineness of feelings? Moreover, who cares?”

In contrast, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) offers the end-times as a solution. Its easily missed end credits depict the global spread of a disease that a greedy pharmaceutical company has developed. The impending pandemic is so much to be expected that the question of how and where it strikes no longer matters.

The Planet of the Apes sequels released in 2014 and 2017 focus instead on how the supposedly better ape species goes on to remake the world and replace humans. Given a choice between conformity and extinction, it is perhaps not surprising that movies and their audiences welcome the apocalypse.

These narratives are central to nearly all disease movies today, from art-house cinema to mainstream, commercial junk. The six blockbuster movies of the original Resident Evil franchise (2002–16) are hardly consistent and indeed barely comprehensible, but they follow the same historical progression to capitalize on audience expectations.

Given a choice between conformity and extinction, it is perhaps not surprising that movies and their audiences welcome the apocalypse.

While the first two movies tell stories about possible containment of the undead, the later ones shift to postapocalyptic landscapes with the origins and spread of disease now irrelevant. The irony is that these corporate-backed, end-of-the-world movies ultimately demand more of the neoliberal and capitalist solutions that caused the extinction in the first place. Heroes and individual brilliance will save the day, while empathy and community play no role.

For better and worse, disease movies have supported the shifting role of capitalism in shaping American society. Early movies offered a belief in doctors and ordinary citizens along with the application of science and reason to address social problems — or at least they pointed out where things should change.

Stories about ordinary Americans sacrificing material gains, let alone their family’s health, to defeat a disease have today virtually disappeared. America is no longer worth defending, and everyone is on their own. At best, recent movies, such as 2009’s Zombieland, convey the message that each person should “enjoy the little things in life” — in this case, one hero’s quixotic quest for a Twinkie.

Personal benefit trumps all else against a backdrop of hopelessness. As the only surviving human, Hermit Bob, puts it at the climax of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die (2019): “What a fucked up world!”

Pandemics in Fact and Fiction

Faced with the real-life COVID-19 pandemic, society did not collapse, and no one needed to get a gun to defend their home and family in the style of Matt Damon’s character in Contagion. Millions watched films like Contagion, Outbreak, or even the zombie apocalypse 28 Days Later (2002) in an effort to understand what might happen during the early months of 2020.

Yet the messages that these movies conveyed were wildly off. There was no social collapse of the kind that might ultimately improve humanity, just failed expectations.

In some respects, the response of the US ruling class to the pandemic was even worse than the behavior previously depicted in movies. In Contagion, members of Congress sought to save their own lives first; in reality, members of Congress publicly denied growing fears about COVID-19 while selling stock to make a private killing during the initial market collapse. If Contagion’s MEV-1 struck each person equally without regard to age, class, race, or any other social factor, the spread of COVID-19 revealed how the white and the wealthy were protected by their power.

From the perspective of early 2024, another global pandemic seems inevitable sooner or later. A more equitable response would require structural changes in the US system of power. While the Biden administration placed COVID at the forefront of its agenda in 2021, that priority quickly disappeared, along with any planning for future outbreaks, as the administration focused instead on restoring the economic status quo. America might be resilient economically, but the fruits of this resilience are still only enjoyed by the relative few — even as many share its costs.

Disease movies serve as a form of truth telling, influencing popular ideas about disease and creating new myths about how to address disease.

In 2011 when Contagion was released, a former Centers for Disease Control director described how the movie’s scenario could “play out in real life.” That assumption now seems wildly optimistic: in the film, a single vaccine permanently wipes out the pandemic by curing the disease. Contrast that with the tangled story of how COVID-19 was contained without being eliminated altogether — not to mention the fact that huge swaths of the American public refuse vaccines or no longer see the point in getting boosters.

Disease movies serve as a form of truth telling, influencing popular ideas about disease and creating new myths about how to address disease. They need not be dark as they are today. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), set during the Black Death in medieval Scandinavia, offered the vision of a knight enjoying his time with a traveling family, enabling them to escape death. He takes pleasure in what he has accomplished in life even when he dies. Children of Men (2006), while depicting the barbarization of capitalism during a global pandemic of infertility, offers the faith of ordinary individuals who sacrifice themselves for people of all backgrounds.

These stories appear unrealistic and even altruistic against the background of contemporary capitalism. But what is needed is a way to turn these ideas into a lived reality. Disease history offers examples of how stories can create new realities.

The myth — and it is a myth — of Jonas Salk refusing to patent the polio vaccine and rhetorically asking “Could you patent the sun?” offers one such example. Salk’s supposedly altruistic perspective about using science to help America and the world still resonates to this day. In this way, our myths, including those on screen, possess power. They can illuminate our contemporary cultural darkness and offer the hope of a brighter future.

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