‘Contagion’ and the Best Disease-ter Movies

This week’s Contagion is a different type of disease-disaster movie than we’re used to seeing: Simple germs more or less comprise the boogeyman, and the concept is actually steeped in plausibility. But the Steven Soderbergh thriller follows a long line of movies in which a disease or all-out epidemic wreaks havoc on the human race. Here are some of the most notable “disease-ter” flicks—not to be confused with the zombie genre or tearjerkers about one man’s losing battle with, say, AIDS. Thus no Night of the Living Dead. Or Philadelphia.

Here are a few of the standouts:



Although not the best disease movie overall, Outbreak has a similar feel to Contagion, in that it’s based on the spreading of what is supposed to be an actual disease. It arouses a visceral, real-life kind of terror, as opposed other movies of its ilk that rely on more conventional scare tactics.

28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later


It’s important to remember that the undead in this horror franchise are not technically zombies but rather “Rage”-afflicted non-beings. And on that technicality, both movies fit in this list—and have to be considered the best of their kind, especially Danny Boyle’s Days entry.

I Am Legend


It is, of course, difficult to consider a hyper-stylized Will Smith blockbuster part of a microgenre like this, but since I Am Legend is about a humanity-ending plague (you know, with the exception of the then-biggest movie star on the planet), it does qualify. Much to most people’s surprise, the movie’s actually half decent.

Cabin Fever


A pre-Hostel Eli Roth had a blast with this gore-fest about a flesh-eating virus that afflicts a group of pretty young things lodging in a cabin. It’s uneven, to be sure, but as with all Roth offerings, there are a few images that still reside in our brains—namely that shot of the toothy, bloody, mangled mug of Jordan Ladd.



One of the most underappreciated movies in recent years (at least in our opinion), James Gunn’s Slither is a fun, hilarious, original and scary take on the alien-plague-gone-terrestrial concept. How the makeup job on Michael Rooker’s plague-afflicted Grant Grant was not nominated for an Oscar will never be understood by the dozens of people who saw the movie.

Children of Men


It’s a bit of a stretch on this list, but Children of Men was so good that, after consulting with the judges, it was granted inclusion by the narrowest of margins. Besides, when infertility reaches such scary proportions, it’s an epidemic!

12 Monkeys


Terry Gilliam’s best movie not named Monty Python (or Brazil) depicts a kooky post-apocalyptic dystopia caused by virus—and a positively, never-better Brad Pitt. Well, maybe expect that True Romance performance.



The movie boasted a great, if horrifying, concept: An epidemic of “white sickness” breaks out, and it’s easy to contract but impossible to cure. While nowhere near the novel on which it is based in terms of profundity and sheer impact, the big-screen version—whose subject matter is difficult to depict, for obvious reasons —is (no pun intended) visually stunning.



Some might argue that the “found footage” style employed by Quarantine is itself an epidemic, but it could also be argued that the movie—a shot-for-shot remake of the Spanish horror film REC about an unknown disease that causes its victims to turn bloodthirsty—is only watchable because of said gimmick.

Resident Evil Franchise


Even the most novice gamer could blindly recite the disease-y plotline of this videogame-to-movie adaptation: Amnesiac heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) and a group of Umbrella Corporation commandos are the world’s only hope against the outbreak of the deadly T-Virus.