With The Crazies (review here) remake bursting down our door, I thought it would be a good opportunity for Dread Central to look back at some of the most memorable virus/outbreak movies of the genre’s past. It’s a slippery slope when determining what constitutes a viral plague versus a standard zombie apocalypse, but I boiled my criteria down to one basic rule: The carnage must be driven by an infection, and re-animated corpses crawling out of the dirt need not apply.
Here goes nothing. And make sure to join me in the discussion below. Part of the reason I enjoy making these lists so much is to hear what other like-minded horror fans think. What did I miss? What shouldn’t have been included (I can hear some of those now)?
10. The Stand (1994)
Sure, it’s a strange world where a Mick Garris film snags a spot on any top ten list, but this adaptation of one of Stephen King’s finest novels does offer some of the subgenre’s most effective and memorable setpieces. From the opening outbreak cued to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to Larry Underwood’s suspenseful escape through the Lincoln Tunnel, this mid-90s miniseries may have fallen apart after the third hour, but this epic look at the end of the world remains an apocalypse worth enduring.
9. Warning Sign (1985)
If The Crazies was set entirely within a sealed off laboratory, you’d have this underlooked gem from the mid 80s. The simple premise (scientists trapped with a deadly virus become crazed lunatics) wastes no time in getting under way, and the actors (Sam Waterston, Kathleen Quinlan, G.W. Bailey, Richard Dysart, Yaphet Kotto) succeed in creating characters you genuinely care about – which helps make the proceedings all the more emotional. I don’t know why this one never ‘caught on’, but it’s worthy of discovery.
8. Zombi 3 (1988)
I know. Three movies in, and it looks like I’m violating my criteria by honoring a movie with Zombi in the title. And while the gut-munchers in this Italian epic sure do look like the undead, they’re really a bunch of mutated Filipinos who’ve gone crazy as a result of germ warfare escaping into the local atmosphere. This troubled production (original director Lucio Fulci fell ill and was replaced by Bruno Mattei) knows how to entertain through extreme setpieces (that won’t be spoiled here) and deliriously wonderful dialogue, like when one of our survivors discovers his weapon is empty amidst a crowd of creatures only to exclaim, ” It’s empty! Looks like I’ve had it!” It’s films like this that make me proud my last name ends in a vowel.
7. 12 Monkeys (1995)
It’s probably the odd man out on this list, but the twisty narrative and bleak nature of Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi classic is enhanced by incredibly strong performances and some truly haunting imagery. Glad to see the plague-devastated 1997 envisioned in this film didn’t come to pass, but 12 Monkeys never fails to impress on repeat viewings. Bruce Willis’ performance went overlooked at the time of the film’s release, but his portrayal of a despondent criminal chosen to investigate the fate of humanity remains a haunting one even today.
6. The Crazies (1973)
I’ll admit George A. Romero’s The Crazies isn’t among his best efforts, but it’s a solid film and one that terrified me as a little kid. This examination of the devil you know is weakened by its lack of budget, but the almost documentary feel creates an authentic and unsettling ‘ground zero’ in the most unassuming of locations. I also love the use of ‘amateur’ actors; it really heightens the authenticity – something that today’s movies sorely lack with their GQ fashion models as stand-ins for the everyday person. That said, I’m hoping the remake knocks it out of the park – there’s room for improvement, and from what I’ve seen, they might’ve succeeded.
5. 28 Days Later (2002)
To be perfectly honest, I struggled with the idea of including this one at all. While I think it’s a good film, it never struck the chord in me that it does with most people, and it’s a bit too derivative of the themes thoroughly explored in Romero’s work to be all that compelling. That said, it was also THE movie that adrenalized the zombie genre for modern audiences – and that means it’s earned a spot on this list. A good film, but I can’t see it as the great one many fans suggest it to be.
4. The Ebola Syndrome (1996)
This movie is just so politically incorrect that you have to worship the ground that it oozes on. When our lowly protagonist/antagonist rapes an African tribeswoman, he contracts the Ebola virus, loses his mind, and spends the rest of the film infecting as many people as possible. And no one is spared by this debauchery … not innocent families or restaurant patrons (watch out for that jizz-addled meat next time you go out to dinner!) – it’s an equal opportunity offender, and I revel in every frame.
3. Planet Terror (2007)
Planet Terror is pure bliss: Suicidal children, severed balls, Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn as quarreling brothers, and of course an army of crazed mutants have combined to make this one of the most entertaining genre offerings in years. Many people wondered whether or not Rose McGowan had the chops to navigate the ballistic waters conjured by writer/director Robert Rodriguez, but she proved to be more than up to the task, delivering her one-liners with as much accuracy as a spray of bullets from her machine gun leg while battling an army of mutated Texans. If it’s 106 minutes of splatter-filled nonsense you’re after, you can’t do better.
2. Shivers – aka They Came From Within (1975)
It doesn’t sound all that great on paper I suppose — a parasitic infection turns victims into sex-starved psychos (okay, maybe it does) — but this one continues to hold up. The setting of the Starliner apartment complex is claustrophobic and the Canadian Master of Horror manages to bilk lots of tension and suspense out of the premise. One doesn’t mention this one without referencing the infamous bathtub scene, but there’s more to savor than just the shocks. David Cronenberg’s debut film remains a startling one, a terrifying metaphor for contagious disease as well as an examination of humanity at its most primal. This one’s considered a classic for a damn good reason.
1. Doomsday (2008)
Yes, Doomsday. Somebody needed to resurrect the post-nuke flick, and who better to do that than Neil Marshall? Sure, the nuke was changed to a deadly disease (the reaper virus) that obliterated all of Great Britain, but the wild and crazy nature of the genre comes through intact in this gonzo masterpiece. What’s not to love about a futuristic thriller in which those immune to the virus either revert to crazed cannibals who adopt outdated 80’s punk fashion or seek refuge in a castle like it’s the Dark Ages? I haven’t been this entertained by a movie in a long time. From the obvious nods to the works of Carpenter and Miller to the BRILLIANT car chase scored to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the eye-popping setpiece that is Rhona Mitra herself, this is, in my estimation, the perfect movie. Sol (Craig Conway) might just be my favorite screen villain since Hans Gruber – if only because watching him dance around to Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” never fails to make me laugh.
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