Pandemics Go to the Movies

Hollywood's fascination with diseases, infections and disease-infected zombies has a long history.
By Victor Couto

Last week “Songbird” became the first movie to begin filming in Los Angeles since the Covid-19 lockdown. The film, a pandemic thriller, is set in the future as the world awaits a coronavirus vaccine. Hollywood’s fascination with disease outbreaks has a long history.

An image from RetroReport
A poster from “Arrowsmith.”
Pandemics in film aren’t always true to life. Sci-fi and dystopian films have featured a zombie plague in 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth” and 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain,” about a deadly virus from outer space.

The stigma of infection is a common theme. In the 1993 film “Philadelphia,” one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to depict AIDS, Tom Hanks played an H.I.V.-infected lawyer who is fired from his job.

Interest in pandemic-themed movies has surged since Covid-19 emerged. Films like 2011’s “Contagion,” below, began trending. The doomsday movie “Outbreak,” which topped the box office 25 years ago, regained popularity earlier this year.

Many Hollywood studios remain shut down, but filmmakers are racing to weave the coronavirus pandemic into their plots, including a movie to be directed by “Bombshell” writer Charles Randolph, about the virus’s origins in Wuhan, China.

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Beware, Germaphobes: Where to Stream:

The movies mentioned in this article are available to watch online through the streaming services listed at JustWatch.com.

Interrupted Melody” (1955) Eleanor Parker stars in a fact-based biography of Marjorie Lawrence, an opera singer who discovers she has polio.

Camille” (1936) A Parisian courtesan must choose between the young man who loves her and the callous baron who wants her, even as her own health begins to fail.

Arrowsmith” (1931) A medical researcher is sent to a plague outbreak, where he has to decide priorities for the use of a vaccine.

The Last Man on Earth” (1964) When a disease turns all of humanity into the living dead, the last man on earth becomes a reluctant vampire hunter.

The Andromeda Strain” (1971) A team of top scientists work feverishly in a secret laboratory to discover what has killed the citizens of a small town and learn how this deadly contagion can be stopped.

Philadelphia” (1993) When a man with HIV is fired by his law firm because of his condition, he hires a homophobic small time lawyer as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit.

Contagion” (2011) Healthcare professionals, government officials and everyday people find themselves in the midst of a pandemic as the C.D.C. works to find a cure.

Outbreak” (1995) Army doctors struggle to find a cure for a deadly virus spreading throughout a California town that was brought to America by an African monkey.