The Seventh Seal, Blindness, Carriers, Rabid, Mayhem, Masque of the Red Death, Infection, Flesh + Blood, The Crazies – all amazing movies exploring our communal fear of contagion. They pick that scab, so to speak, but are there others that do it better?
Our two rules: no zombies, no living beasties (The Thing, Shivers, etc.) Just some kind of virus. Here goes!
5. Pontypool (2008)
Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s shock jock horror film is best appreciated as a metaphor on journalistic responsibility and the damage that words can do. Radio air personality and general pot-stirrer Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) finds himself kicked out of yet another large market and licking his wounds in the small time – Pontypool, Ontario, to be exact. But he’s about to find himself at the epicenter of a national emergency.
McDonald uses sound design and the cramped, claustrophobic space of the radio studio to wondrous effect as Mazzy and his producers broadcast through some kind of mad epidemic, with Mazzy goosing on the mayhem in the name of good radio. As he listens to callers describe the action, and then be eaten up within it, the veteran McHattie compels attention while McDonald tweaks tensions.
Shut up or die is the tagline for the film. Fitting, as it turns out that what’s poisoning the throng, turning them into a mindless, violent mob, are the very words spewing at them. It’s a clever premise effectively executed, and while McDonald owes debts all around to previous efforts, his vision is unique enough to stand out and relevant enough to leave an impression.
4. Antiviral (2012)
If you could catch Kim Kardashian’s cold, would you?
This is the intriguing concept behind writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s seething commentary on celebrity obsession, Antiviral.
Young Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for a clinic dealing in a very specific kind of treatment. They harvest viruses from willing celebrities, encrypt them (so they can’t spread – no money if you can’t control the spread), and sell the illnesses to obsessed fans who derive some kind of bodily communion with their adored by way of a shared herpes virus. Gross.
But the ambitious Syd pirates these viruses by injecting himself first, before the encryption. Eventually, his own nastiness-riddled blood is more valuable than he is, and he has to find a way out of quite a pickle. Maybe vitamin C?
3. It Comes at Night (2017)
Deep in the woods, Paul (Joel Edgerton, solid as always), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have established a cautious existence in the face of a worldwide plague. They have boarded their windows, secured their doors, and enacted a very strict set of rules for survival.
At the top of that list: do not go out at night.
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults explores the confines of the house with a fluid camera and lush cinematography, slyly creating an effective sense of separation between the occupants and the dangers outside. But what are those dangers, and how much of the soul might one offer up to placate fear itself? In asking those unsettling questions, It Comes at Night becomes a truly chilling exploration of human frailty.
2. It Follows (2014)
It Follows is another coming-of-age tale, one that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay (Maika Monroe) discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.
Yes, it’s the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.
Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.
Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable, and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.
1. 28 Days Later (2002)
Activists break into a research lab and free the wrong effing monkeys.
28 days later, bike messenger Jim wakes up naked on an operating table.
What follows is the eerie image of an abandoned, desolate London as Jim wanders hither and yon hollering for anybody. In the church, we get our first glimpse of what Jim is now up against, and dude, run!
Prior to 28 Days Later, the zombie genre seemed finally dead and gone. But director Danny Boyle single-handedly resurrected the genre with two new(ish) ideas: 1) they aren’t dead, 2) therefore, they can move really quickly.
Both Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy are impeccable actors, and Naomie Harris is a truly convincing badass. Their performances, and the cinematic moments of real joy, make their ordeal that much more powerful. But you know you’re in trouble from the genius opening sequence: vulnerability, tension, bewilderment, rage, and blood – it launches a frantic and terrifying not-zombie film.