Stay home, trust science: Everything Hollywood and ‘Contagion’ taught us about pandemics before coronavirus

For decades, Hollywood has been prepping for just this emergency.

Like volcanoes and asteroids, pandemics have always had their place on the big screen.

“Disaster movies have always been very marketable at the box office,” says Tom Meyers, executive director of the Barrymore Film Center, the new $9 million movie center and film history archive coming to Fort Lee, N.J., this fall – circumstances permitting.

Because Hollywood movies about epidemics are inevitably worst-case scenarios, they’re a comfort and a relief when (as usually occurs) the worst doesn’t happen. Watching a movie that deals head-on with your worst fears can be reassuring.

That said, it’s possible that you don’t feel like seeing a movie about a virus just now.

In that case, the good news is, we’ve done the work for you. Here are 10 movies that deal with contagion – and the lessons they have for today.

‘The Andromeda Strain'(1971)

A virus from outer space comes to Earth in a fallen satellite; a team of scientists works 24/7 in a super-laboratory to find the cure.

The message for today: Government funding! We need the best scientists. And they need the best five-story underground labs. The scientists and politicians in “The Andromeda Strain” may quarrel, but everyone takes the crisis seriously. And no one skimps on the cash.

Gwyneth Paltrow infects the entire world in "Contagion."


A bat and a pig team up to produce a lethal virus that Gwyneth Paltrow, partying in Hong Kong, gives to the world. The quarantining, food shortages, empty airports and all that follows should seem eerily familiar, in a film you really mightnot want to watch right now. Of all movies on the subject, this is probably the most scientifically accurate, and the most disturbingly like our present situation.

The message for today: Hands off. This movie focuses obsessively on people touching surfaces. Door knobs, elevator buttons, cocktail glasses: It’s a germophobe’s nightmare. “The average person touches his face 2,000 or 3,000 times a day,” announces Kate Winslet, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor. If this film doesn’t make you wash your hands for 20 seconds, nothing will.

Vincent Price teamed with Roger Corman for "The Masque of the Red Death."

‘The Masque of the Red Death'(1964)

Pestilence stalks the land. Vincent Price, as the lascivious Prince Prospero, shuts himself away in his castle with his courtiers and devotes himself to idle pleasure. But as Edgar Allan Poe reminds us in his classic tale, even the rich can’t keep death out.

The message for today: No quarantine is 100% foolproof. Still, practice social distancing.

Max Schreck stars as the super-creepy Count Graf Orlok in "Nosferatu," an early Dracula movie.

‘Nosferatu’ (1922)

A ghost ship sails into the town harbor at night. A gaunt stranger disembarks, followed by hundreds of plague rats. A few days later, the streets are full of funerals. In this great early silent version of “Dracula,” the vampire is an embodiment of disease.

The message for today: The Other – the invader from somewhere else, bringing contagion – is a very old cultural memory. In past ages, Jews were persecuted, witches burned, outsiders of all stripes were stigmatized when people fell ill. We can’t make the same mistake today. No person, no culture, is responsible for coronavirus.

Dustin Hoffman searches for the source of a pandemic in "Outbreak."

‘Outbreak’ (1995)

This covers much the same ground as “Contagion” – only much less convincingly. This is the one with the escaped monkey and the helicopter chase scene. Still, the moment where the guy coughs in the movie theater, and the droplets are seen spreading and dispersing, is memorably scary.

The message for today: Stay home. Watch Netflix.

‘Panic in the Streets'(1950)

A man who unknowingly has bubonic plague is loose in New Orleans, and detective Richard Widmark needs to track him down before he spreads it. This excellent, too-little-seen thriller from Elia Kazan has the bonus of providing a colorful picture of 1950s New Orleans (the movie was shot on location).

The message for today: Testing, testing, testing. We need to know who is ill – for their sake, and for ours.

A disillusioned knight (Max von Sydow) returns from the Crusades to play Death in a chess match.

‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957)

In the 14th century, bubonic plague is everywhere. A knight, played by the late Max von Sydow, challenges Death to a game of chess. The knight knows he can’t win. He only hopes to postpone death long enough to find some meaning in life.

The message for today:The world in 2020 may not be as dire as the medieval Sweden of Ingmar Bergman’s classic. But use these housebound days to take stock: What, in life, is really important to you? What’s the one thing you’d like to accomplish while you’re here?

‘The Stand'(1994)

A superflu, jauntily known as “Captain Trips,” kills off 99% of the world’s population. The few who remain rally around two opposing figures: the evil Randall Flagg and the saintly Mother Abagail. If nothing else, this 1994 miniseries based on Stephen King’s humongous best-selling book will make you think twice before going into the Lincoln Tunnel.

The message for today: A crisis doesn’t change who you are. Fear will simply reveal, rather than change, your true nature.

Charlton Heston stars as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epic "The Ten Commandments."

‘The Ten Commandments'(1956)

A green, pestilential mist descends from the sky and blankets 19th dynasty Egypt. The next morning, Charlton Heston is alive, but all the first-born Egyptians are dead.

The message for today:Pestilence may discriminate in the Bible, and in Cecil B. DeMille epics. But not in 2020 America. Just because you’re young, or from the U.S. rather than China or Italy, doesn’t make you immune.

Bruce Willis, left, and Brad Pitt co-star in "12 Monkeys."

’12 Monkeys’ (1995)

A virus, in 1996, wipes out most of the world; Bruce Willis is sent back from the year 2035 to find it before the catastrophe happens.

The message for today: No one is coming from the future to save humanity. It’s up to us.