Black Death on the Silver Screen

February 29, 2020



For the last year I've been working on my first podcast concept, a series about films that feature pandemics and plagues called "Black Death on the Silver Screen." The idea is to interview one person from the world of science & one from the world of film to tackle "the hard science, the movie magic, and everything in between." I'm putting the project on hold for now because it doesn't seem appropriate to launch a light podcast about such a dark topic while the world is tackling a real live pandemic, and I'm not about to ask an epidemiologist to be a guest on a movie podcast at a time like this. But I know that a lot of people are currently interested in watching more movies about plagues and pandemics now, so I want to share some of my research and recommendations here today.

For some reason we're drawn to fictional accounts of real live horrors. Maybe it's the happy endings that assuage our fears and convince us that this is a solvable crisis, maybe we want an idea of what to expect when our worst fears become reality, or maybe it's just an unfortunate form of masochism. Whatever the cause, Contagion (2011) is the number one trending Amazon Prime rental in my area right now and it's not hard to guess why.

In my research for the podcast I was surprised to learn that there aren't actually an awful lot of movies about plagues, even going back to the silent era. If you remove zombie outbreaks from the picture, the list dwindles even more. And often the outbreak is just a small slice of the plot and not the main focus, like in Arrowsmith (1931) or So Long at the Fair (1950). My own theory as to why outbreaks aren't a more popular cinematic subject is that it's a form of horror that is a bit too realistic, and lacking the sense of romance and/or mystery that art has found in murder, shipwrecks, and even certain diseases like consumption (tuberculosis.) You can't kill it with a knife through the brain, you can't hide from it under the basement steps. Your sense of cunning will not help you outsmart it. It's the worst kind of movie villain, because it is so possible and so real.

My own fascination with this tiny genre started when I saw the movie Outbreak (1995) as a kid. I'm not sure that anything up until that point scared me as much as that movie did. There was one scene in particular that has haunted me, where the camera follows virus particles moving through an air vent like a killer snaking his way through hallways looking for his next kill. I think it really planted in me the idea that this was something of which I had cause to be afraid. It wasn't a made-up movie monster, or a figment of my imagination hiding in my closet -- this was a real thing that could come and get me.

Of course, it's somewhat easier to find some enjoyment in movies that take place during plagues long past, like The Black Death of the 14th century. One of my favorites depicting this era is The Pied Piper (1972), which I wrote about here. And the most famous film about the plague is probably The Seventh Seal (1957) in which Max Von Sydow stakes his life on a game of chess with the grim reaper (pictured in my drawing above eating popcorn.) These films don't feel as intensely scary as a film like Outbreak because they take place in world that is so far-removed from our own, filled with knights and castles and traveling troupes of actors. They also feature a monster -- Yersinia Pestis, more commonly known as plague -- that can be stopped in its tracks nowadays with modern medicine.

That being said, an infectious movie can still pack a punch even if its star villain is no longer a threat to humanity. Two movies from 1950 - Panic in the Streets and The Killer That Stalked New York - feature contagions that have either been neutered or eradicated, but the claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in a city with pestilence on the loose still rings true today. These movies are unsettling and terrifying, but they are also great examples of government and law enforcement working fast and efficiently to stop the killer in its tracks. If you're looking for a film that will give you a little bit of hope during the current epidemic I'd suggest one of these.

If you're looking for something that might trick your brain into thinking this is all a bad dream with gorgeous and spooky cinematography, I'd suggest checking out Val Lewton's production of Isle of The Dead (1945). It has the same vibe as I Walked With a Zombie, but with plague. It's a good movie to watch if your current thinking is "I want to watch something about this but I still want to pretend it's not happening."

Ideally I want to avoid zombie films on the podcast, but for the sake of this post I'm going to include a few of my favorites, just because the atmosphere in zombie movies is very similar to actual outbreaks. The fear of other people who might be carrying the bug, the initial stage of the outbreak when people are hearing reports on the radio or television and aren't entirely sure what's going on, the fear of the unknown. Those are all relatable experiences even if we're not dealing with hungry reanimated corpses. My favorites in this genre are Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and World War Z (2013). I normally stick to older films on this blog, but World War Z was truly fantastic and the ending was utterly perfect. This is another one I'd highly recommend if you need a little dose of hope and a reminder that modern science has got our collective backs.

If, like me, this kind of stuff really freaks you out and can send you spiraling with panic, anxiety, and gut-churning worry, I highly recommend listening to the new podcast Epidemic with Dr. Celine Gounder and Ronald Klain. They're releasing weekly episodes that break down what's happening with the coronavirus and their first episode this week was very informative and helped me to calm down a bit. Hopefully someday soon this will all be over and I can invite one of them to talk movies with me on my own podcast. In the mean time, do not touch your face and for the love of god, please wash your hands.

1 comment:

Matte Blk, Catalyst4Christ said...

I wont say anything, dear.
I'll let Jesus speak, k?