With the coronavirus outbreak now officially classified as a pandemic by the WHO, with the Austrian government closing schools and urging most of the rest of us to work from home, it‘s hard not to feel disoriented. Even a sensible person may have trouble making sense of this.
But never fear – global contagion has long inspired cinema, making it second only to nuclear Armageddon as a premise for post-apocalyptic dystopias! As you grumble about toilet paper shortages at your local Billa, take comfort that at the very least, things aren’t quite so bad as these silver screen nightmares.
1. The Omega Man (1971)
Based on the 1954 novel I am Legend, this “last man on earth” narrative starring Charlton Heston is, despite its obvious failings, superior to the 2007 adaptation with Will Smith in several ways. There’s something deeply entertaining about watching Heston overemote his way through a deserted 1970s Los Angeles, teaming up with Black Power activists and fighting infected humans inexplicably clad in Satanic-looking black cloaks. With every deliciously cheesy one-liner, it becomes increasingly clear why Heston went from portraying Moses and Ben Hur to Hollywood’s go-to guy for dystopian sci-fi films like Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes: Ham acting was rarely this satisfying.
2. The Road (2009)
Bleak to the point of despair, this adaptation of the eponymous novel by Cormac McCarthy evades action in favor of exploring the emotional and moral toll of the apocalypse. After an unspecified global catastrophe, an unnamed Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) scavenge their way through a nightmarish vision of America, trying their best to get by. The Man is desperate to protect his child’s innocence and sense of human decency, but also needs to toughen him up to survive a world where people kill for a can of food and cannibalism is common. Unsurprisingly, the Man can’t do both. Parents in particular will feel this one.
3. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam is one of cinema’s great eccentrics, and his films tend to either be quirky triumphs or glorious failures. 12 Monkeys is definitely the former, starring Bruce Willis as James Cole, a time-traveling convict from a craptastic future where mankind lives underground after a man-made plague wiped out 5 billion people. Supposedly unleashed by the militant animal rights group “The Army of the 12 Monkeys,” Cole is tasked with going back to 1996 to locate the original strain so future scientists can synthesize a vaccine. Unfortunately, he ends up in a mental institution instead, harangued by paranoid schizophrenic Jeffrey Goines (a young Brad Pitt), who may be linked to the pandemic, and after multiple trips between past and present, finds himself doubting his own sanity. Questioning reality, memory and humanity’s place, 12 Monkeys is eerily prescient, bringing up many topics that are still hot-button issues today, like animal welfare, crass consumerism and environmental collapse.
4. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale of the same name sees a callous prince retreating to an abbey with his court to wait out a deadly plague, carousing while peasants die at his gate. But there’s no hiding from the inevitability of death… B-movie legend Roger Corman’s version keeps the basic premise, but transforms the 1842 gothic horror story into a lurid technicolor fever dream starring Vincent Price, replete with psychedelic sequences, Swingin’ Sixties decadence, pints of garish fake blood and a whole lot of Satanism, all designed to shock and titillate the primarily teenage drive-in audiences his movies catered to. Not exactly an accurate adaptation, but, like its contemporaries from the British Hammer Studios, a lot of fun.
5. The 7th Seal (1957)
Considerably more highbrow than Corman’s medieval antics, Ingmar Bergman‘s international breakthrough is full of existential angst and references to classic literature and culture. As returning crusader Antonius Block (the recently deceased Max von Sydow) engages Death in a chess game for his soul, he buys time for one meaningful deed, crafting the framework for an allegory on faith and human existence set in plague-ridden Scandinavia that is still highly regarded today.
6. Children of Men (2006)
The thinking man’s dystopian thriller, Children of Men presents the world on the brink of collapse, ravaged by pandemics, war and above all, a mysterious plague that renders all women infertile, eradicating any hope for humanity’s continued existence. The United Kingdom is one of the last functioning countries and hopelessly overrun by refugees fleeing the chaos, transforming the country into a police state with the armed forces oppressing increasingly militant migrants. But when an African refugee becomes the first woman in nearly 20 years to become pregnant, it’s up to a cynical civil servant (Clive Owen) to escort this last vestige of hope past the warring factions to England’s south coast, where a ship full of fertility scientists await. Also starring Julianne Moore and Michael Caine, Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón combines gripping action with deft social commentary; it feels all the more relevant in a post-Brexit, Trumpian world.
Not technically a Pandemic film, but too fun to go unmentioned
7. Die Gstettensaga: The Rise of Echsenfriedl (2014)
Created for ORF III on a shoestring budget, the Austrian art collective monochrom’s trashy satire depicts life after the great nuclear war between the last two superpowers: China and Google. Schwechat is now a megacity full of technophile nerds, mutant aristocrats, unionized zombie mineworkers, EU subsidy-worshipping farmers, the free market fetishists of the Raiffeisen Leobendorf, and a militarized postal service that speaks Reformsteirisch (a bunch of incoherent growls), all surrounded by a wasteland known as “Niederpröll.” Based on an earlier performance at the Volkstheater and partially written in a coffeehouse, Echsenfriedl is chock full of references to Austrian politics and pop culture, sparing no one from irreverent ridicule. Full movie available on monochrom’s youtube channel (subtitled in English):