Porky’s Revenge: Swine Flu and the Virus in Film… by JAY

Posted on May 6th, 2009
Posted on May 6th, 2009

In 1999, civilization teetered on the brink of annihilation as the oracles of doom lined up for a spot on the talk show circuit to pronounce the end of the world as we knew it.  According to the naysayers, the Y2K bug was poised to wreck havoc on computer systems across the entire digital spectrum from finance to air traffic control to eBay.  In short, it was claimed that this viral Boolean mutation would infect the operating systems of every computer on the planet and thereby destroy our global infrastructure; plunging mankind back into the Dark Ages.  NBC, in a deplorable yet completely predictable vulturistic fit of negative opportunism, pounced on (and many believe exacerbated) the ensuing panic; exploiting the unscientific and unfounded fears by producing and broadcasting the worst case scenario abhorrence, “Y2K: the Movie”.  Of course when the clock struck 2000 and nothing happened, “Y2K: the Movie” immediately mutated into “Y2K: the Punchline”.  Then in 2002, SARS emerged as the next great threat to man’s continued existence on Earth.  But before Joe Eszterhas could even scribble a treatment of “SARS: the Movie”, it was determined that consumption of meat from a civet cat was the only way to contract the illness.  So unless you had eaten at an Indonesian Arby’s, you were in no eminent danger.  And even for the .00000136% of the world population that did exhibit symptoms, they had whopping a 98.7% chance of a complete recovery.  Thus the cinematic viability of the SARS scare evaporated as quickly as the disease itself.

Today another microbiological menace has emerged; or rather reemerged.  Due to a rebounding economy and long-absent positive presidential approval ratings, network media outlets are scrambling for crises – real or imagined – to translate into ratings gold.  Enter the cyclical resurgence of influenza A virus subtype H1N1, or swine flu; the perfect fodder for theoretical postulation of an impending pandemic that could decimate the human race.  So far there have been about 20 deaths attributable to the disease in rural Mexico; about the number who die from eating goat tacos from street vendors on any given day.  While the CDC and the WHO are urging if not begging for reactionary restraint, CNN and Fox are camping out at ERs around the globe, scaring the crap out of any patient with so much a sniffle in order to fan the flames of histological hysteria.  And surrounding a mahogany conference table in an studio complex somewhere near Culver City, a group of execs in a brainstorming session are fleshing out the quickest (and cheapest) way bring “Zoonosis: the Motion Picture” to the screen – before it’s too late.

But until the theatrical release of “Swine Flu: the Wrath of Carnitas”, those interested in cinematic infection will have to look elsewhere.  So let’s have a look back at some other films in which mankind was threatened with extinction by an antagonist of the microbiological persuasion.

(Note:  There is a plethora of movies out there where it’s not enough just for a virus to wipe out the majority of the population; it also has to transform at least some of the survivors into flesh-eating zombies.  Now as entertaining as one dude eating the brains of another dude can be, that paradigm falls outside the scope of this discussion.  So for the sake of this discussion, movies with ghouls, cannibals, vampires and zombies are out.  You’ll get over it.)

The Satan Bug (1965)

Based on the Alistair MacLean novel with a screenplay by James Clavell and
helmed by famed director John Sturges, “The Satan Bug” is a first rate, if
dated, military thriller.  Cultures of a designer virus are missing from a
secret government lab and the race is on to get them back before they are
released on an unsuspecting public.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

From the mind of Michael Crichton comes the tale of an extraterrestrial
menace that kills by crystallizing the blood of its victims.  An elite team
of scientists gather in a remote desert facility in a race against time to
find a way to stop the contagion before it destroys mankind.  Sounds clichéd
now, but this is the film that basically started it all.  Some of the
editing is atrocious, but overall the film is a classic.

Epidemic (1987)

Sort of an apocalyptic version of “Waiting for Godot”.  Lars von Trier and
Niels Vørsel play themselves writing a screenplay about a fictional deadly
disease while a deadly disease rages around them.  If Albert Camus had a
nightmare in Swedish, this is what it might look like.   Makes “Pink Floyd:
the Wall” look like an episode of “Sesame Street”.

Quarantine (1989)

Take one part “1984”, one part “Brave New World”, fold in a cup of “The
Plague” with a pinch of “A Boy and his Dog” and you’ve got the recipe for
“Quagmire” – sorry, “Quarantine”.  So this is what Canadians think will
happen in a post-apocalyptic world.  Oh boy.

The Stand (1994) (TV)

Adapted from Stephen King’s epic novel, “The Stand” depicts the eternal
struggle between good and evil after the earth’s population is decimated by
a killer flu accidentally released from a remote military lab.  The tone,
symbolism and interwoven plot lines are decidedly religious while the
characters are time worn and overly familiar to King fans.  But for a TV
miniseries the cast is strong and story well paced.  “Bump-tee-bump”.

12 Monkeys (1995)

For me, Terry Gilliam’s films are the visual equivalent of listening to
“Dark Side of the Moon”.  I love the imagery and the characterizations even
when they seem abstract solely for the sake of abstraction.  But this
melding of viral annihilation, “Pulp Fiction” and “Groundhog Day” is much
more than flash over substance.  The strong cast and stunning visuals help
drive an imaginative story of viral obliteration, time travel and

Virus (1995)

(a.k.a. “Formula for Death”) Based on the Robin Cook novel “Outbreak”, this time the viral threat is of
the ebola variety.  As with all “Cook books”, the plot is an unimaginative
drone in which doctors are both the heroes and the villains. 

Outbreak (1995)

Inspired by Richard Preston’s terrifying non-fiction bestseller “The Hot
Zone”, “Outbreak” follows the spread of the fictional ebola-like virus known
as Motaba and the efforts of CDC and USAMRIID virologists to stop it before
it wipes out the human race.  Kudos to Wolfgang Petersen for his inspired
casting choice of Dustin Hoffman as the hero.  High production value and a
stellar cast make this the best of the “plague” movies. 

Virus (1996)

Starring Brian Bosworth.  Do I really need to elaborate?

Pandora’s Clock (1996) (TV)

If you’ve ever suffered from late-night hunger and/or insomnia, chances are
you’ve seen this movie.  Maybe not this exact movie, but trust me – you’ve
seen it.  A plane full of folks, one’s got a doomsday virus, the gub’ment
wants the plane shot down and an hour and a half later the pilot and the
doctor or flight attendant fall madly in love.  Next time, try a Hot Pocket
or Ambien.

Contagious (1997)

This time it’s cholera from contaminated shrimp, a passenger jet, an
infected drug smuggler and a camping trip marred by the plague. Here’s an
instance where a screenplay is little more than a string of clichéd plot
catastrophes strung together.  A typical made-for-TV offering with little
suspense or coherency.

Carriers (1998) (TV)

This unabashedly feminist train-wreck of viral cliché stars Judith Light as
Maj. Carmen Travis: an Army medical doctor trying to track down a killer
hemorrhagic microbe.  Africa, monkeys, yadda yadda yadda.  The production
apparently was too strapped for cash to pay for a military consultant – and
it shows.

Virus (1999)

A deep-water salvage ship encounters a derelict Russian “research” vessel
where something screwy is happening with the onboard hardware.  The
extraterrestrial computer virus plot, in the hands of a talented writer,
could have provided a great segue into a “Terminator” type franchise.  But,
like the ship, the film founders on a rocky premise and horrid casting.
Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland have as much chemistry as a Wellesley
grad student.

Mission Impossible: 2 (2000)

Tom Cruise is back as super agent Ethan Hunt.  This time he has a supped-up
motorcycle and a magical mop of super hair with which he battles super
villains who have their hands on a super virus.  Director John Woo (China’s
answer to Michael Bay) concocts an offering more closely akin to a
Queensryche video than movie with close-ups, whiz-bangs and bromance slo-mo
Cruise shots o’plenty. 

Flying Virus (2001)

Aka “Killer Buzz”.  That’s what I would recommend you tie on before watching
this cinematic equivalent of a colonoscopy.  Killer bees are infected with a
killer virus and the rest is hysteria.  This offal film was obviously made
at a time when Rutger Hauer was answering his phone on the first ring with
the phrase “I’ll do it!”  Yikes!

Shakedown (2002)

Wolf Larson is agent Alec “Mac” MacKay and… I’ve lost all interest.  This
dreck of a movie is reminiscent of the garden variety, made-in-a-week slop
you flip past on Saturday afternoon on the Sci-Fi Channel.  And honestly: if
Erika Eleniak isn’t bounding down the beach in slo-mo wearing a red
French-cut uni, then why is she here?

As you can see without the threat of zombification, the virus on film is a
tough row to hoe.  But like slasher flicks and cinematic werewolves, the
movie virus seems to follow a roughly ten-year cycle; by which time swine
flu will have come and gone and come again.  Hopefully in its next cinematic
mutation a new generation of film makers will rediscover the merits of the
virus as antagonist and not just the backdrop of silly rehashed films
featuring deranged super villains and global extortionists.  J.J. Abrams,
are you listening?


Other “List” posts:

#1:  BLEEDIN’ WICKED GOOGLY… Films about 35 of those “Other” Sports (Parts 1 – 7) by JAY
#2: “Bard None: A Cinematic Guide to Really Bad Shakespeare” by JAY

  • Top 10 Scariest Horror Scenes by COOP
  • Top 10 Greatest Halloween Villains by COOP
  • DARK SIDE announces the BEST MOVIE VILLAIN of 2008… Who will claim 2009? **UPDATED**
  • DARK SIDE announces the BEST MOVIE VILLAIN of 2007… Who will claim 2009?
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