A collection of DVDs

Culture of epidemics

New diseases have inspired numerous works of fiction

In ‘28 Days Later’ (2002) Cillian Murphy plays a man who wakes from a coma to find central London deserted. He eventually encounters a group of survivors living in fear of crazed zombies infected by a virus released when animal activists attack a primate research facility. The virus has wiped out most of the population of the UK. The shots of a deserted, windswept London are genuinely eerie, though the zombies are fairly typical flesh-eating monsters.

A deadly virus is also the villain in ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995) and ‘World War Z’ (2013), the latter based on the 2006 book of the same name. In ‘World War Z’ Brad Pitt’s character finds his way to a WHO research facility in Wales – in the midst of a zombie apocalypse – where he injects himself with a deadly (but curable) pathogen to prove his theory that zombies don’t attack ill people. A ‘vaccine’ based on the pathogen is then created to confuse the zombies and prevent them attacking.

In ‘Outbreak’ (1995), by contrast, Dustin Hoffman rides to the rescue, single-handedly preventing a pandemic hitting the USA. An African monkey harbouring a deadly Ebola-like virus is smuggled into the country. An outbreak strikes a California town and it’s a race against time to develop an antidote before a bomb is dropped on the town to halt the spread of the virus.

The film illustrates some interesting aspects of disease control, but is marred by the usual Hollywood clichés – the bad guy who wants to use the virus as a biological weapon, the inevitable reconciliation between Hoffman and his estranged wife, and the cliff-hanger happy ending. Purists will wince as Hoffman looks down an ordinary light microscope and sees something suspiciously like the Ebola virus…

In the 1950s and 1960s ‘atomic radiation’ was the symbolic ‘technology out of control’, creating destructive forces such as ‘Godzilla’ (1954). In recent decades biological agents – particularly viruses – have assumed this role. A forerunner of this genre was ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1971) – though, it being a Space Age work, the deadly agent is brought back from space. Interestingly, the core of the story rests on the scientific analysis of the alien strain in order to find an antidote – a surprisingly realistic depiction of the process of science.

‘The Andromeda Strain’ was based on the book of the same name by Michael Crichton, who was also responsible for the novel ‘Prey’ (2002), in which swarms of nanobots reduce living matter to the fabled ‘grey goo’. So the emerging threat is post-biological – machines that act like infections. If ‘The Andromeda Strain’ is admired for its scientific realism, the same cannot be said of ‘Prey’, which was widely criticised for its misleading representations of nanobots (see Big Picture: Nanoscience).

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A collection of DVDs

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About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Epidemics’ in September 2007 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Health, infection and disease
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development