Outbreaks, pandemics and isolation have all been used for decades to instil fear within film loving audiences. More than an exercise in shock and gore, cinema’s relationship with pandemics is not as skin-deep as you may first imagine – scratch away at its pores and you’ll find an abundance of sociopolitical subtext reflecting the best and worst of humanity.
As I write this the two top trending films on IMDb are 2019’s The Platform and 2011’s Contagion. The former, an apt allegory to the nation’s stockpiling madness and the latter (probably not quite as subtle) documenting the spread and desperate attempt to contain a deadly virus. As the world tackles the crisis of a generation, what is drawing the public at large to view films so close to the bone? Is it subconscious, a macabre sense of entertainment or something more calculated? The fact is where some audiences may find these types of film stressful the rest will relish it – the film-going public as a whole love to be scared, but not necessarily in its traditional sense. Horror tropes aside, what really gets under the skin is subtext and social commentary, the reflection on the world around you at that time and the underlying themes that get you thinking about your own humanity and what you would do if put in that situation – what better way to play on that fear by putting the audience in a circumstance that requires moral ambiguity. Choice based dilemmas are practically a staple within the isolated, post-apocalyptic sub-genre. These tend to be everyday, ordinary folk caught in the midst of an extraordinary situation finding strength, compassion, insanity and in some cases malevolence where they never knew they had it. Under the pressure of extreme circumstances a protagonist’s morals can be tampered with, especially when there is conflict within a group of survivors.
George A Romero had his finger (ahem) on the pulse with regards to satirical horror films starting with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, followed by 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead. All of these films focused on a group, usually mismatched, working together and trying to survive through a zombie apocalypse. What was unique for the time was that Romero would play heavily on social commentary – for Night of the Living Dead you had the racial tension between two of the group, echoing the racial tension sweeping America during the 60s, Dawn of the Dead focused on the modern consumer society of the 70s (with the survivors taking refuge within a shopping mall) and Day of the Dead took jabs at humanity and what it means to be human as the zombies start to become self-aware – Romero particularly set the blueprint for survival based horror tropes which can be seen in subsequent works. Take Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic The Evil Dead, a group of friends spend the weekend in a cabin in the woods (now also a trope all unto itself) but Raimi ramps up the tension with sheer ferocity by having the group become possessed by an evil presence one by one at breakneck speed. This creates a sense of extreme paranoia (another theme that was successfully utilised in John Carpenter’s The Thing) amongst the survivors as they try to work out who has been ‘infected’ – a twisted take on trust and friendship which are usually safe spaces. Raimi took the horror of isolation up a notch with Evil Dead II in which the protagonist Ash (Bruce Campbell), having survived the events of the first film, finds himself locked away in the cabin on his own – battling his ever-increasing insanity… and severed hand. There is a flipside to this, with George Miller’s Mad Max series, Max (Mel Gibson, later Tom Hardy for Fury Road) prefers to survive on his own due to his ongoing internal soul searching and past traumas, seeing other survivors within the post-apocalyptic wasteland as either a hindrance or an opportunity.
As we moved into the 90s the focus shifted from the more isolated, survivor fare of the 70s and 80s by concentrating on the virus itself and the potential global impact it may have. 1995’s Outbreak centres on a deadly virus that originates from an African jungle and eventually infects the populace of a small American town. Although bigger in budget, themes on self-preservation and conflicting morals are apparent as the protagonists try to find ways to stop the spread of the disease. In the same year 12 Monkeys was released, telling the story of James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict who volunteers to travel back in time to prevent a virulent holocaust, reportedly unleashed by the mysterious Army of the 12 Monkeys. Again, James’ morals and choices are tested throughout its runtime as he tries to determine and ultimately prevent the end of humanity. Although these examples concern bigger things at stake than one’s survival, the protagonists are still isolated in the philosophical sense as their own codes of ethics are tested for the greater good.
At the turn of the millennium the industry started to ramp up the fear factor, combining the fantastical elements of the 60s, 70s and 80s with the more plausible themes of the 90s. When Danny Boyle and Alex Garland unleashed 28 Days Later in 2002 they practically reinvented the zombie apocalypse genre. Using Romero’s blueprint, 28 Days Later intensifies the terror by creating a realistic depiction of a broken society – the scenes of Jim (Cillian Murphy) roaming a deserted central London is nothing short of iconic – a scarily accurate precursor to our current predicament. As Jim meets other survivors the danger shifts from the infected and on to other survivors with abhorrent motives. This theme has become the norm for modern survival-horror, regardless of the circumstance the true horror is other people’s actions. Frank Darabont’s The Mist (an adaptation of a Stephen King novella) employs isolation with a group of survivors, and the moral dilemmas they face to great effect – a mist that brings terrifying, carnivorous creatures with it descends upon a small town forcing some of the townsfolk to hole up in a supermarket. Initially the group is level-headed, conjuring tangible (yet ultimately flawed) plans to escape their situation and seek help. As the story moves forward the group dynamics start to flay as factions are formed through distrust and extreme measures taken to ensure self-preservation – the monsters lying in wait outside are nothing compared to the monsters within. Darabont understood this comparison well, he developed The Walking Dead TV series which plays heavily on these themes.
What all of these films have in common is isolation, either as a group or an individual, and the way in which the characters cope with their circumstances. Isolation can mean many things to different people; some may take this literally as being stuck in one place with no means of escape, others may see this as metaphysical. In 28 Days Later Jim has all the freedom to roam the British Isles (albeit whilst evading the infected) yet has no understanding, initially, of how society has broken down or if it will ever recover – it’s scary to think of what you would do next when you essentially have no direction. And that is the pull for these types of films/series, audiences love to be able to relate and toy with their own codes as to what they would do in a post-apocalyptic situation (especially when you can relate). Seek help, stay put, form factions… it’s about the tough decisions and the consequences of those actions that get you talking long after the credits roll.