Ted Gideonse is a medical anthropologist who studies the effects of public health discourses about HIV and drugs.
As people with more than a passing understanding of biology and medicine know, movies about pandemic disasters tend to be wildly inaccurate. No virus is going to turn us into frenzied zombies in five minutes à la World War Z, and no cure is going to be found in a weekend, certainly not following a helicopter chase through a canyon, as in Outbreak. But films, even ones about things that actually happened, are shadows, triggers, and symbols of our emotions—our fears, desires, needs, and nightmares. I’ve collected 10 scenes from the pandemic genre that get at some of those feelings quite accurately, even if they’re not exactly correct. You can find all these scenes in a handy YouTube playlist.
1. Zombies aren’t a real thing, but they tap into real fears of losing identity and control and then ignoring the taboo of cannibalism. Few things terrify me more than an apocalypse of brain-chomping undead. The most nightmarish scene is the opening sequence of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Sarah Polley’s Ana wakes up to her daughter biting a hole in her husband’s neck; she escapes his raging hunger and then drives through suburban Milwaukee as half of the populations loses its mind and devours the other half. Almost 15 years after I walked out the film in a state of panic, the scene still shows up in my worst dreams.
2. Before its mostly nonsensical third act, I Am Legend is an engrossing, unnerving fever dream of desperate loneliness, the worst-case scenario of socially distant survival’s guilt. Will Smith’s character Robert Neville is to roam New York accompanied only by his German Shepard Sam, whose tragic arc left filmgoers in tears. But after watching the movie during COVID-19, I can’t stop thinking about the mannequins Neville places in the various parts of Manhattan he passes on his daily hunting and gathering. At first, it’s funny that he talks to them, and then we realize he’s not joking and it’s sadder than anyone who has ever named their sourdough starter.
3. Death in Venice is also full of loneliness, with cholera, depression, and internalized homophobia doing for Gustav von Aschenbach what zombies do for Neville. Von Aschenbach is a mess, and his decision to stay in Venice despite everyone else fleeing simply to stare at a beautiful teenage boy is von Aschenbach at his messiest. The horrifying sequence of wild-eyed Gustav following the boy and his family through the maze of diseased and burning streets—all of them dressed creepily in summer whites—should be shown to anyone pondering sexual liaisons during social distancing.
4. As occasionally ridiculous as 1995’s Outbreak is, only partly because of Dustin Hoffman’s scenery-gnawing speechifying, it does feature one of the cutest vectors in movies. Betsy is the capuchin monkey that carries the hemorrhagic virus “Motaba” on a Chinese cargo vessel from Africa to California, where it kills a bunch of white people. Betsy is a perfect wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, seemingly benign but actually deadlier than, well, Ebola; she’s the simian version of a handshake. She was played by two monkeys named Katy and, natch, Monkey, a duo who eventually played Marcel in the TV series Friends. Betsy’s screech is a bit jarring, but she’s a big-eyed wee innocent who charms her way to freedom before befriending a little blonde girl.
5. In Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow creates one of the most horrifying death faces in film history. Her expression as she seizes in the Emergency Room is a contortion of agony and fear. The scene is so indelible that it became a go-to illustration for articles about pandemic movies during the weeks leading up to the stay-at-home directives in the United States.
6. Bette Davis is differently iconic in William Wyler’s 1938 Jezebel. The film is deeply problematic in its racism and gender politics, but when Davis’s Miss Julie is redeeming herself, demanding that she join a yellow fevered Henry Fonda in quarantine on an island leper colony near New Orleans, she is gloriously, fiercely beautiful—the epitome of the romantic caregiver.
7. New Orleans is so often a humid hell on film, as it is in the minor masterpiece Panic in the Streets. Elia Kazan’s 1950 noir thriller is about an idealistic public health doctor and a grizzled police captain frantically trying to trace the contacts of a murdered man who also had pneumonic plague. One of the quietest, most powerful scenes is with the killers: Cold-blooded Jack Palance and sweaty, bumbling Zero Mostel are nursing their deathly ill friend while hiding from the police. And it’s impossible not sympathize with these bad guys, who are evil but love each other.
8. As a text, And the Band Played On has a tortured history, and the HBO adaptation definitely deserves some enhanced interrogation. But Matthew Modine’s Don Francis yelling at the blood bank executives is righteous indignation at its best: “How many dead hemophiliacs do you need? How many people have to die to make it cost efficient for you people to do something about it? A hundred? A thousand?” The scene actually happened (sorta), but scientists screaming at the system never get things done as fast as the fear of class action lawsuits.
9. One of the ways we deal with the ineffable horror of tragedy is to make art out of it, to structure and shape the memory into something meaningful. The 1989 AIDS drama Longtime Companion is not a great film, but the ending is one of the great melancholy wish fulfillments in movies. The only survivors of a sprawling group of friends are walking down the beach on Fire Island and they wonder what will happen if we find a cure for AIDS. Suddenly coming over the dunes is everyone who has died, laughing and hugging and celebrating. Then the party fades away, and the survivors walk down the beach in silence.
10. The Seventh Seal begins on the beach, with Death—a sneaky, sadistic, and snide apparition with a white face and black cloak—approaching a resting knight named Antonius Block. Block challenges Death to a game of chess; if Block wins, he can live. Through Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 allegorical masterpiece, the game continues in different venues as Block and his squire collect strangers with the promise to save them from the encroaching Black Plague. One night, as everyone camps out in a forest, Death is nearing checkmate when Block upends the board like the lamest of cheaters. Death remembers where all the pieces were of course, and resets the board. But Block only meant distract Death for the moment a sweet couple and their child needed to escape doom. It’s a small, imperfectly shot moment in a sea of brilliant scenes, but it provides moral guidance in the face of inevitability.
Cite as: Gideonse, Ted. 2020. “Ten Film Scenes Every Stay-At-Home Cinephile Should Know.” Anthropology News website, June 19, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1438