Metastasizing across the globe this weekend is CONTAGION - Steven Soderbergh's star-studded entry into the deadly virus subgenre. It's a fascinating prospect on many fronts: Soderbergh, who usually toes the line between slick Hollywood entertainment and artsy-auteur fare, is said to soon forgo filmmaking in favor sculpting ( a sabbatical he's now calling it). If CONTAGION is indeed one of his last, he may have something truly special in store for us. Furthermore, given such a rife cinematic subject matter, how Soderbergh sets his apocalyptic vision of the world apart from others is something I'm sure we won't be let down by. Shouldn't be hard though...if you're anything like me, you'd be happy watching Marion Cotillard wash f*cking dishes! That being said, why not take a look back at some of the best filmic examples of the realm Soderbergh looks to mutate. Here now are my ten favorite deadly virus flicks!
WARNING: MINOR TO MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
#10. CARRIERS (2009)
Pimped and plugged as an out-and-out horror flick, many who saw Alex and David Pastor's soul-crushing CARRIERS were likely surprised by just how austerely dramatic the material played. In other words, there's usually a modicum of fun to be had with these types of films, but with CARRIERS, the tone and tenor becomes so heightened that the film comes off far more as a desolate, disturbing drama rather than a thrill-a-minute scare-fest. In fact, CARRIERS is a PG-13 film...and you know what, that's fine by me. Why? Because the Pastor bros. seem far more concerned in eliciting an emotional response through its content - a believable doomsday scenario - rather than simply scaring us through graphic carnage and gratuitous imagery. Finely acted, quickly paced, CARRIERS does a nice job of viscerally engaging us in a way that makes us feel like we're one of the 4 remaining survivors...in the entire world. A scary prospect indeed!
#9. RESIDENT EVIL (2002)
It's hard to dismiss the multimedia, pop-culture ripple RESIDENT EVIL has caused in the last decade or so...spanning from videogames to novels, from comic-books and merchandise to a soon to be 5th film. However, considering how far the title has come in the last ten years, it's the initial cinematic entry that still bears the high mark for us. Sure, this is a slight variation on the mutated-virus theme, but when all is said and done...it is a deadly strain that morphs mofos into odious, maw-spuming zombies. And for that we're thankful! Interestingly enough, horror legend George A. Romero was originally set to direct the film, but creative differences over Romero's script caused an impasse between he and the studio in 1999. It certainly would have been cool to see what Romero did with the material, but truth be told, I'm glad he didn't get the chance to. Somehow, the literal and cinematic marriage of Anderson and Jovovich has worked well in creating one of the strongest, most badass female characters we've seen in some time.
#8.CABIN FEVER (2002)
"Pancakes, pancakes...PANCAKES!" Fostering a love-it or hate-it schism, Eli Roth's darkly comedic horror flick CABIN FEVER offers a much welcomed variation on the deadly virus paradigm. Instead of an airborne disease or some kind of zombie-inducing plague, Roth's murderous mutation is one apparently inspired by a real life condition the writer/director had when was younger: A gnarly skin-eating virus! And while it pains me to see Jordan Ladd's pretty face reduced to a masticated puddle of teeth and bone, nothing makes my skin crawl more than seeing the gorgeous Cerina Vincent shave the skin off her leg in the bathtub. So erotic, so foul, so utterly marring. Believe it or not, according to the film's sound mixer, John Neff, the F/X in the film are 100% accurate. You see, Neff is said to have had a gnarly case of a flesh-eating bacterium in his system. Dude survived, barely, after 13 nonstop days of intensive medical treatment. Not that I wish ill-will on anyone, but I hope that story isn't a publicity hoax.
Now, I could have just as easily spotlighted the bodily horror of David Cronenberg's RABID, but since SHIVERS came out two priors, why not award the original! Also known as THEY CAME FROM WITHIN, Cronenberg shows his trademark verve - on a much lower budget - in a film about a high-rise apartment complex ravaged by a parasitic scourge. But instead of mindless, flesh-starved zombies...it's mindless, SEX-starved drones that they slowly alter into. A nice distinction, as only Cronenberg knows how to pull. Shot in a mere 15 days, Cronenberg resorted to such low-fi techniques as using his own shoulder, padded, to be stabbed in one scene (apparently the blade missed the pad). Also, when star Susan Petrie couldn't produce tears on the spot, David had freshly diced onions brought in to help the lass. When that failed, Cronenberg slapped the poor broad across the grill. No joke! Talk about dedicating yourself to your art!
#6. THE CRAZIES (1973/2010)
While I still prefer George A. Romero's 1973 original to Breck Eisner's 2010 redo, I do think both versions of THE CRAZIES certainly warrant some love here. I mean, come on...when a virulent water-source (or tainted biological weapon, as in the original) begins to plague unsuspecting townsfolk, the entire area is soon overrun by a cavalcade of blood-parched mouth-foamers. What more do you really need? While we're on the subject, check out Jean Rollin's French homage THE GRAPES OF DEATH for an awesome time as well (in that film, it's a pesticide that causes the "craze"). But back to the predecessor...Romero's gritty, $270, 000 Pennsylvania shoot, locals aplenty, bereft of any actual Hollywood stuntmen...his film has an indubitable authenticity, one I see mirrored and even heightened by the trailers for CONTAGION. And while I did appreciate the Lynn Lowry cameo in Eisner's retouch, the original, as in most of Romero's work, had a far more poignant subtext I tend to appreciate in low-budget horror.
#5. OUTBREAK (1995)
Made during a time when the subgenre was at its absolute nadir, Wolfgang Peterson's star-studded OUTBREAK takes a much more traditional, dramatic approach to the material. This isn't a cheaply made B-horror movie, it's an A-list studio picture...a common trait shared with Soderbergh's CONTAGION. And while OUTBREAK ultimately succumbs to typical Hollywood third-act tumult, you can tell the size and scope of the subject matter is an ambition also picked up by Soderbergh as well. Still, it's the intricate detail and compelling back-story by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool that makes the film so damn believable. The Motaba virus, akin to Ebola, liquefies human organs and has a 100% mortality rate within three days of contact. Interestingly, OUTBREAK raced and ultimately beat another deadly virus flick out of development back in 1995. The other film was called CRISIS IN THE HOT ZONE, and had Robert Redford and Jodie Foster set to star. I wonder whatever happened to that script.
#4. 28 DAYS LATER (2002)
After his critically lambasted ode to existential paradise, THE BEACH, Danny Boyle sadly found himself relegated to doing telefilms in his native England. When he did finally return to the ring of feature filmmaking two years later, the dude bludgeoned our senses with the ferocious, hyper-kinetic 28 DAYS LATER...a movie that completely bucked convention and flipped the zombie mythos on its head...at the same time offered a new spin on the widespread virus motif. Instead of drooling, somnolent beings...Boyle imbued his infected beings with an unmatched brio. These f*cking these are not only enraged, they're fevered, darting around like cracked-out cannibals...feasting on any hapless passerby they may cross. And instead of a physical response elicited from the Ebola-like disease, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland wanted their virus to stimulate a psychological reaction...unmitigated rage!
#3. [REC]/QUARANTINE (2007/2008)
Definitely inspired by 28 DAYS LATER and RESIDENT EVIL...the malefic virus featured in both [REC] and its American counterpart, QUARANTINE...is also of the rabid, zombie-inducing variety. With a highly immersive, first-person gaming quality...[REC] places you smack dab in the middle of the action, the handheld camera work makes it feel like it's your own. There's an unbridled energy and immediacy that, as time goes on, offers such a visceral response you can't help but feel dizzy from all the horrific commotion. In QUARANTINE, which I think is a fine remake (I like it better than [REC] 2), I contend the filmmakers do a slightly better job of making us care for the lead character (Jennifer Carpenter in the remake). With a few more minutes to the runtime, early scenes establish the character as affable and quirky, or at least someone we can relate to. Easy to go unnoticed, it's those early scenes that generate such a crippling reaction to the film's final shot.
#2. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)
Funny, it wasn't until years after I had read Michael Crichton's THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN that I realized it had been adapted into a movie (same thing with Koontz's DEMON SEED). And not just any movie, a solid 70s thriller directed by the great Robert Wise! Sure, I could have just as easily cited Boris Sagal's THE OMEGA MAN...the story of which went on to inspire the likes of I, AM LEGEND and others...but if it's a matter of preference, I favor the former. Here, a band of scientists unite to investigate a deadly extraterrestrial virus that fell to Earth through a satellite. While deliberately paced, when the action picks up near the end, there's an unmatched level of suspense to be felt. With accurate, believable scientific explanation, flawed characters and lack of Hollywood cliche...THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is simply one of the best made movies on our list. Damn I still wish they made movies like they did in the 70s!
#1. 28 WEEKS LATER (2007)
If Danny Boyle radically changed the pandemic thriller meme in 2002, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo took the reins and pulled a Usain Bolt with them five years later in the sequel 28 WEEKS LATER. Doing what the best sequels do: ramp up the action, beef up the body-count, elaborate on the set-pieces, continue to build the storyline in a cogent, germane fashion...and of course, have the money to pay a larger, more talented ensemble of players...28 WEEKS LATER is a break-neck 100 minutes of viral ravishment very few movies of its ilk can match up to. And while Danny Boyle was contractually obligated to direct SUNSHINE instead of this sequel, he actually did do some second unit directing for Fresnadillo. He also directed a first unit sequence, which made it into the final film. It's an early scene in the barn where Sally and Geoff meet their gory demise. Pretty cool shite, no? Let's hope Boyle and Fresnadillo get together and work out the kinks on 28 MONTHS LATER after the 2012 Olympics (which Boyle is directing).