Infectious Disease Outbreaks, Pandemics, and Hollywood—Hope and Fear Across a Century of Cinema

Walter Dehority

Published online April 24, 2020.


A search of (Internet Movie Database, an online database of film and TV information) was conducted in February and March 2020 to update a 2017 search1 using 163 infection-related search terms to identify films with a major focus on infectious diseases (as assessed by review of plot synopses on IMDb, the American Film Institute database, or Wikipedia) through December 31, 2019. The search yielded 373 films released in US theaters. All 80 culturally relevant films were viewed and thematically analyzed, and a subset are reviewed here for thematic illustration.

Many themes were consistent throughout the 80 films. Infection was frequently used as an explanation for the transformation of the infected into something less than human (eg, zombies) and represented the most common theme (29 movies). This began with Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) and continued into the new millennium (23 films). Loss of one’s humanity was often emphasized in such films, with the transformed frequently portrayed simply as objects to be destroyed (23 movies, 18 over the last 2 decades). The infected often feared the loss of their humanity more than the loss of life, as exemplified by requests to be killed after infection rather than suffer transformation (eg, Day of the Dead [1985]).

A theme of untrustworthy leadership and government was present in 20 films, beginning with The Satan Bug (1965) and featured every decade since. 

Stigmatization of people who were infected was featured in 19 films dating back to the 1940s (eg, the treatment of peasants with suspected plague in Monsieur Vincent [1947], and blaming women for outbreaks of plague in The Seventh Seal [1957]). This theme of stigmatization mirrors the ostracism of the “other” in society during infectious outbreaks, be it HIV-infected individuals, the Hopi and Navajo people following the 1993 Hantavirus outbreak in the Four Corners region, or contemporary references to COVID-19 as the “Chinese flu.”

Health disparities and disruption of social class were depicted in 18 films. Fortified castles and city walls portrayed in The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Pied Piper (1972), and The Season of the Witch (2010) were ultimately unable to keep the plague from the more privileged residents therein, just as the wall built around Jerusalem in World War Z (2013) was ultimately unable to protect its inhabitants from the coming pandemic. However, differential access to medical care was a feature of 9 films, with the more privileged having more ready access.

Interestingly, within one month of the first case of COVID-19, Contagion (2011) was back among iTunes’ top 10 most-downloaded movies. Many may remember the development of a successful vaccine at the end of the movie. Perhaps, as we collectively enter an uncertain future wrought by COVID-19, some of these films will help us share not only a moment of communal reminiscence but of hope as well.