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Hollywood has used satire and drama in pandemic tales
Published on Apr 2, 2020

This week, we’ll try to have some fun out of our national pandemic panic by recommending three movies that take three uniquely different approaches to the idea of outbreaks and the apocalypse. One is a propulsive thriller that had some dark laughs along the way with an ebola-style outbreak that sweeps the planet, another has gleefully sick and twisted fun with a zombie apocalypse, and the third and likely least-seen of the trio offers a beautiful portrait of love in the face of impending obliteration.

First up, “Outbreak” is a 1995 thriller starring Dustin Hoffman and Renee Russo as two epidemic experts who also happen to be former spouses. Hoffman is Colonel Sam Daniels of the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, who is sent to investigate a new and massively deadly virus outbreak in Africa that’s modeled after the ebola virus, which had devastated that continent in the couple of years prior to the movie’s release.

Daniels wants to warn Americans and the world at large of the new disease, but his superior General Ford (Morgan Freeman) basically says “What, me worry?” since it’s in a far-off continent. But when a monkey carrying the virus makes it to a rural California town, the outbreak hits the States and the movie becomes a propulsive thriller following the anything-goes attempts to put the virus genie back in the bottle.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who had an insane streak of fun films in the ‘90s with this, “In the Line of Fire” and “Air Force One” (both of which would make dandy viewings themselves right now), Outbreak keeps its focus on entertaining its audience, even as it’s a bit scarier than usual with our current situation.
My favorite sequence comes when a man with the virus starts coughing and sweating in a crowded movie theater, with his infected saliva droplets flying around and entering his laughing fellow moviegoers’ unsuspecting mouths. You can catch this on Netflix, along with the more dour and dire thriller Contagion (also on Netflix), which more grimly follows the Centers for Disease Control as it attempts to stop a pandemic.

In “Shaun of the Dead,” a bonkers British comedy by director Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver,” “Hot Fuzz”), a loser named Shaun (Simon Pegg) is approaching 30 with a terrible sales job and an unhappy girlfriend. In fact, he’s so self-absorbed that once he snaps out of his funk over being dumped, he is surprised to find that London has been utterly swarmed with zombies and that he must help save the world or risk being zombified himself.

What makes the film brilliant is that, aside from the many hilariously inventive ways that people and zombies die in this movie, it’s also a mix of romantic comedy and zombie film that works on both levels. It also has a lot of social satire digs at the lack of connection among strangers in our constantly moving society, ultimately scoring a couple of thoughtful points as well.

What would you do if you had only three weeks to live? That’s the dire yet compelling question at the heart of our final film this week, 2012’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.,” which was my favorite film that year (and I see plenty). It follows Steve Carell and Kiera Knightley as unlikely friends who meet as apartment neighbors after word gets out that a meteor will hit and destroy earth in exactly three weeks.

Some resort to taking drugs, others to sex, and others to suicide – all of which are depicted with dark humor, moving sympathy or both. Some persevere with dignity to the end. The absurdity of life and the value of death is highlighted, as strange as this may sound. Death puts life into its proper perspective. On the surface, this film seems like a romantic comedy and some may dismiss it as such. But look past the surface of this film and you will begin to appreciate it much more.

Basically, the film looks at what in life is truly important. What is worth living for? Who would you want to spend those last moments with and why aren’t you spending time with them now? Because this movie brings such existential topics into focus, it deserves a high rating and more renown than it received in its mistimed summer 2012 run, which ended quickly due to bad business from being a deep film in a season of fluff. In its ongoing life, more than 100,000 IMDb viewers have given it a solid 6.7 rating. It also has phenomenal use of two terrific ‘60s epic tunes, “The Air That I Breathe” from the Hollies and “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert, that are among the best uses of pop songs I’ve ever seen in a film.

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