When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, a lot of movie buffs couldn’t help but compare the ongoing global health emergency to a number of pandemic-themed movies. Though things got a little better in some parts of the world a year after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to the development and deployment of vaccines, it’s too early to tell how exactly the health crisis would end.
Despite the uncertainty, people are generally hopeful that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t lead to the end of mankind, which is one of the most common endings of films about pandemics, viruses, outbreaks, and widespread diseases. If you’re one of those who don’t mind watching these kinds of flicks in the middle of a real pandemic, then check out some of the most terrifying pandemic-themed movies on the list below.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys centers on James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict from 2030s who is sent back to 1997 to gather information about a man-made virus that wiped out the majority of the world’s human population. In the movie’s version of 1997, people live in cages underground and have to wear condom-like bodysuit to avoid infection.
Though some critics find 12 Monkeys’ plot a bit of a jumble, mind-blowing plot twists and excellent performances from the cast make the Terry Gilliam-directed movie an eccentric and impactful experience. Aside from Willis, the film also stars Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, and Brad Pitt, who earned an Oscar Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as psychotic mental patient Jeffrey Goines.
28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later follows London bike courier Jim (Cillian Murphy) who wakes up from a coma a month after only to find his city deserted. On the run from zombie-like victims of the highly contagious virus called Rage, Jim stumbles upon a group of survivors, including Selena (Naomie Harris) and cab driver Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and joins them on a perilous journey to what he hopes will be safety.
Though few of its ideas are borrowed from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead film series, 28 Days Later features an original story and unique visuals that largely contribute to the artsy and poetic feel of the movie. Unlike the zombies in Romero’s franchise, the zombies in the Danny Boyle-directed movie can run fast, making 28 Days Later more frightening than traditional zombie films.
Bird Box (2018)
Set five years after a mysterious pathogen drives most of society to suicide, Bird Box follows a mother (Sandra Bullock) and her two children as they embark on a dangerous journey through the woods and down a river to find the one place that may offer sanctuary.
Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Josh Malerman, the Susanne Bier-directed movie loses its intrigue as it advances, but Bullock’s strong performance and the film’s chilly visuals make it a captivating and thrilling experience.
Black Death (2010)
Set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in 14th-century England, Black Death follows a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), who is recruited by the knight Ulric (Sean Bean) to lead a group of soldiers through the marshes into a mysterious small village, where rumors are spreading that a necromancer is raising plague victims from the dead.
The Christopher Smith-directed film is particularly horrifying not because of its fair amount of gore, but because it takes viewers on a real journey into the heart of darkness, which some may find delightfully disturbing.
An adaptation of the 1995 novel of the same name by José Saramago, Blindness is set in a city ravaged by an epidemic of instant white blindness. It tells the story of a doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore), who is one of the few individuals left who still has sight. Sent to a government asylum along with her now-blind husband, the wife witnesses how the city’s condition deteriorates. And when the civilization finds itself in jeopardy, the wife breaks out of the asylum to lead a small group to freedom.
Though Blindness doesn’t feature humans transforming into monster-like creatures seen in many pandemic-themed movies, the Fernando Meirelles-directed film still manages to communicate a sense of deep-rooted paranoia and anxiety to its audience, thanks to its claustrophobic moments that smother viewers.
Written and directed by brothers Àlex and David Pastor, Carriers follows Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci), his brother Brian (Chris Pine), and their friends Bobby (Piper Perabo) and Kate (Emily VanCamp) who all set out across the desert in the Southwest to elude a viral pandemic that threatens to wipe out humankind. However, over the course of several days, the four friends learn that the darkness within themselves may be deadlier than any microbe, as they start to turn on one another.
While the film’s depiction of gradual human extinction is scary, Carriers proves that the demise of humanity due to pettiness, individualism, and foolishness can be a lot more frightening.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Contagion received renewed popularity in 2020 because of its eerie similarities to the state of the world during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie revolves around the spread of a deadly virus transmitted by respiratory droplets and fomites, attempts by medical researchers and public health officials to identify and contain the disease, and the loss of social order in a pandemic.
Aside from critics praising the film for its narrative and the performances, professionals in the field of epidemiology also commended the movie for its scientific accuracy. Inspired by epidemics such as the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak and the 2009 flu pandemic, Contagion was penned by Scott Z. Burns, who consulted with representatives of the World Health Organization as well as medical experts such as W. Ian Lipkin and Larry Brilliant while writing the film.
Death in Venice (1971)
Based on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella of the same name, Death in Venice centers on composer Gustave Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) who travels to a Venice resort to escape personal and artistic stress. But as he starts to develops a disturbing attraction to an adolescent boy named Tadzio (Björn Andresen), both of their lives are threatened with a sudden outbreak of cholera.
Though Death in Venice’s ornamental imagery seems off-putting for an outbreak-themed movie, critics and audiences alike are both entranced by the film’s exaggerated sensuality and astonishing beauty. The movie’s frightening subject matter is also overshadowed but the flick’s extravagant production value, which includes Oscar-nominated costume design.
One of the memorable pandemic-themed movies set in Asia is South Korea’s Flu. Written and directed by Kim Sung-su, the disaster film is about an outbreak of a deadly strain of the airborne virus H5N1 that kills its victims within 36 hours. The quick spread of the virus throws the district of Bundang in Seongnam, which has a population of nearly half a million people, into chaos.
Despite its familiar story, Flu effectively works on a visceral level. Though there are criticisms over its poor CGI and superficial plot lines, the film remains a decent, edge-of-seat action thriller.
I Am Legend (2007)
Loosely based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson, I Am Legend is set in 2012 New York City where a man-made virus, originally created to cure cancer, has transformed most humans into bloodthirsty mutants. It follows U.S. Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) as he calls out for other possible survivors and works on finding a cure for the plague using his own immune blood.
While I Am Legend was criticized for its questionable special effects and divergences from the source material, particularly the ending, Smith was praised by critics for its top-notch performance in the Francis Lawrence-directed film.
An independent Venezuelan film, Infection centers on a new strain of rabies that turns people into rampaging zombies. It follows Dr. Adam Vargas (Rubén Guevara) and his friend Johnny (Leonidas) as they fight their way across the Venezuelan city of Caracas to an international laboratory to create a cure, while also trying to find Dr. Vargas’ son who is staying in the countryside with his grandparents.
The Flavio Pedota-directed movie received several awards and nominations but has been banned in Venezuela because of its anti-Chavismo commentary.
Based on Richard Preston’s 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone, Outbreak centers on a fictional ebolavirus and orthomyxoviridae-like Motaba virus that spreads in a small town in California after a monkey from Zaire carrying the lethal virus is smuggled into the U.S. To control the spread of the disease, a team of doctors including a contagious disease expert (Dustin Hoffman) and his ex-wife (Rene Russo) are brought in. But after the army intervenes to handle the situation, the doctors must fight against the clock to save the town and its residents.
Though the residents of the town are ultimately cured from the deadly contagious disease, Outbreak is considered as one of the most terrifying pandemic-themed movies ever, partly because a real-life outbreak of the Ebola virus was occurring in Zaire when the film was released.
A remake of the 2007 Spanish film REC, Quarantine follows a reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steve Harris), who are working a story on night-shift firefighters for a reality TV program. A late-night distress call takes them to a Los Angeles apartment building, where the police are investigating a report of horrific screams. Escape soon becomes impossible when the Center for Disease Control seals the building following the discovery that a deadly mutated strain of rabies is spreading among the property’s occupants. Despite the risks, the reporter and the cameraman continue to record the events that unfold inside, of which the film itself is the final result.
Unlike other found-footage horror films, Quarantine has no actual musical score, helping the movie achieve its unique sinister tone. Though the John Erick Dowdle-directed movie follows the same plot as its source material, the former features exclusive scenes, characters, and dialogue, as well as a different explanation of the virus.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
One of the pandemic-themed movies from the ‘70s, The Andromeda Stain tells a chilling tale about a U.S. research satellite carrying a deadly extraterrestrial microscopic organism that crashes into a small town in Arizona. A team of top scientists are hurriedly assembled in a bid to discover what has killed the citizens of the town and learn how the deadly contagion can be stopped.
Based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel, the Robert Wise-directed film stars Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, and David Wayne. The movie was nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Film Editing at the 44th Academy Awards.
The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
Directed by George Pan Cosmatos, The Cassandra Crossing is about a deadly virus planted by Swedish terrorists on a transcontinental passenger train. Onboard are the glamorous Jennifer Chamberlain (Sophia Loren) and her ex-husband, Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris), as well as Nicole Dressler (Ava Gardner) and her young lover, Robby (Martin Sheen). The quartet, together with the other passengers, can’t get off because they may expose the rest of the world to the virus. One solution proposed is to quarantine them by rerouting the train over the unstable bridge called Cassandra Crossing. Dr. Chamberlain wants to save them but has to battle the terrorists first.
Though called by some critics as “an unintentional parody of a disaster film,” The Cassandra Crossing features some terrifying moments, including the graphic scenes of the passengers being killed at the end of the film, which had ensured an “R” rating in theatres and led to two “censored” and “uncensored” versions for broadcast and home media.
The Happening (2008)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, and Betty Buckley, The Happening is an apocalyptic drama about the rapid spread of an unknown virus that causes individuals to commit suicide. It follows a science teacher (Mark Wahlberg), his wife (Zooey Deschanel), and a young girl as they struggle to survive the plague.
The Happening is the first and so far the only movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan to receive an R rating, so people who have yet to watch it should expect a fair number of adult content like harsh language and intense graphic violence.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Also based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a survivor of a global epidemic that turns most of humanity into zombie vampires. Dr. Morgan thinks that he is immune to the disease because he’s previously bitten by an infected vampire bat, which may have introduced a diluted form of the plague into his blood.
Unable to stand sunlight, the zombie vampires featured in the black-and-white sci-fi horror film only come out and prey on the living at night. Forced to hunt and hide, Dr. Morgan goes through a grueling routine every day. Until one day, he carelessly falls asleep at his wife’s grave, awakening to the mutants being upon him.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Based on the 1842 short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death tells the story of young European royalty Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) who terrorizes the local peasantry while using his castle as a refuge against the “Red Death” plague that stalks the land.
While the plague setting of the Roger Corman-directed movie is quite chilling, the film’s primary source of horror is Price’s brilliant portrayal of the main character. In fact, the actor’s standout performance in the film has been described by some critics as a master class in villainy.
World War Z (2013)
Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Max Brooks, World War Z stars Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator who traverses the world in a race against time to stop a zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening humankind itself. Unlike most zombies in pop culture, the zombies featured in the movie move fast and are capable of running towards their would-be victims with extreme ferocity.
Though the Marc Foster-directed movie was praised for Pitt’s impressive performance and for reviving the zombie genre on the big screen, it received negative reviews for its anti-climax, outdated CGI, and lack of faithfulness to the source material. Despite the criticisms, World War Z was a box-office success, grossing over $540 million against a production budget of $190 million.
Zombieland stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin as survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The quartet abide by a list of survival rules and zombie-killing strategies as they take an extended road trip across the Southwestern United States in an attempt to find a rumored safe haven in Los Angeles.
Though the Ruben Fleischer-directed movie is technically a comedy, it also has some terrifying moments that will make viewers briefly forget that they’re actually watching a spoof of the zombie genre.