How Ebola Has Made Disease Films Go Viral Again

Ebola's always captured our imagination like no other disease.

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Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone, a nonfiction account of the first Ebola outbreak (based on his New Yorker feature of 1992), is back in Amazon’s top 25. And Twentieth Century Fox, producer Lynda Obst and director Ridley Scott, who’ve held The Hot Zone’s screen option for 20 years, have recently decided to adapt it as a Fox TV series.

Why? The same reason Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion was on TV this week – because Ebola is zeitgeisty again.

When The Hot Zone first came out, a girl in my year level at school read it and recounted with glee its gory details of people’s insides liquefying and pouring out of every orifice. I thought this sounded like the most terrifying horror novel ever – all the more so because Clarissa’s punchline was, “And it’s all true!” – so I have always been afraid to read it. I’ve just found a preview online; here is a relatively tasteful chunk of NOPE starring Patient Zero, ‘Charles Monet’:

“The black vomit blew up around the scope and out of Monet’s mouth, spewing black-and-red fluid into the air, and it showered down on Dr Musoke. The liquid struck Dr Musoke in the eyes. It splattered over his white coat and down his chest, marking him with strings of red slime dappled with dark flecks. It landed in his mouth.”

Although epidemiology professor Tara C Smith debunks the many Ebola myths promulgated in The Hot Zone, the article and book have decisively shaped public perceptions of Ebola ever since. So why wasn’t it made 20 years ago? And what other Hollywood visions based on real-life pandemics have proven catchier than The Hot Zone?

The Hot Zone: A Hollywood Disaster Story

Preston’s 1992 article sparked a bidding war between movie studios. Fox won the auction, and producer Lynda Obst was determined to create a great lead role for a female scientist. She offered Jodie Foster US$4 million, plus 5% of the gross – the same amount director Ridley Scott was being paid.

Concerned at the budget blowout, the studio demanded a male lead, which led to Robert Redford coming on board (in a heavily rewritten role) for $7 million plus 7% of the gross. Foster and Redford both complained that their parts were being reduced in favour of the other. The script was rewritten again and again, and eventually both stars walked away.

Foster later reunited with Obst to portray a female scientist in 1997’s Contact. But efforts to reheat The Hot Zone with Robin Wright-Penn, and later with Emma Thompson, failed. Why?

Outbreak: The Steven Bradbury of Ebola Thrillers

While Fox was faffing about, rival producer Arnold Kopelson, who’d bid unsuccessfully for The Hot Zone, was working up his own competing Ebola thriller for Warner Bros. Screenwriters Laurence Dworet (a medical doctor) and Robert Roy Pool were commissioned to whip up a script, which Ted Tally (who’d won an Oscar for his Silence of the Lambs screenplay) then polished into an action thriller, rebranding Ebola as ‘Motaba’. Cheekily, Kopelson asked Ridley Scott to direct. (He said no.) After The Hot Zone fell over, Outbreak skated into cinemas in 2005.

Many people will remember Outbreak for Kevin Spacey’s droll turn as an epidemiologist who ends up with seriously festy special-effects makeup. It co-stars Patrick Dempsey, caught between his ’80s teen stardom and his McDreamy renaissance, as the idiot who unleashes the outbreak by smuggling into America a cute Motaba-carrying monkey. (That monkey can act.)

Dustin Hoffman makes an unlikely action hero in a part that seems obviously written for Harrison Ford. But the other retrospectively striking thing about Outbreak is its paranoid twist that the government had known about Motaba for decades and been secretly weaponising it. As the Cold War thawed, and large-scale nuclear holocaust no longer seemed imminent, biological warfare would take on a greater emphasis in onscreen terrorism.

The Dormant Phase: Crappy Exploitation Movies

Outbreak’s success made Ebola stories fashionable, but for the rest of the decade they didn’t break out beyond the quarantine of genre flicks and telemovies starring also-rans.

The 1995 telemovie Virus casts Ebola as a deliberately released killing tool. It suffered from brand recognition problems; there’s a 1980 movie also called Virus (which you can watch in full on YouTube), plus this Virus was based on a 1987 novel called Outbreak (unrelated to the film Outbreak) by Robin Cook, a Michael Crichton-esque writer of zeitgeisty medical thrillers. This resulted in the insanely clunky alternative title Robin Cook’s Formula for Death. A spunky doctor (Nicollette Sheridan) must investigate the outbreak… but quickly finds her own life in danger. Turns out the killers are a sinister cabal in the medical establishment!

The tasteless 1996 Hong Kong black comedy Ebola Syndrome (which you can also watch in full, if you’re so inclined) follows a murderous restaurant worker who flees to South Africa, where he contracts Ebola after raping a local girl. After also murdering his new boss and the boss’s wife, our sick, sick protagonist minces their bodies and serves them to an unsuspecting public as deadly hamburgers. When he flees back to Hong Kong, the disease comes with him.

Operation Delta Force is a 1997 TV movie starring Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson as an army major who must help the titular Delta Force stop a group of right-wing South African terrorists from stealing a newly discovered and especially lethal strain of Ebola (plus the matching vial that contains its cure). It’s a basic hijacking thriller, with Ebola as the McGuffin.

Most preposterously, the 1998 German B-movie Airboss II: Preemptive Strike is basically Ebola: In Space! The virus has been launched into orbit so that ‘micro-gravity’ can be harnessed in developing a cure. But when it comes back to earth, it’s stolen by terrorists and the shuttle crew killed… well, except superpilot-slash-astronaut Frank White. Lead actor Frank Zagarino went on to star in Airboss III: The Payback and Airboss IV: The X Factor, both in 2000.

From Contagion To The Stand: Flu Freak-Outs

Before Ebola reared its bloody, vomiting head once more, movies were freaking out about influenza strains after the 2003 SARS outbreak and 2009 swine flu pandemic. These flu freak-outs speak to anxieties over border transgressions – for instance, in the 2013 South Korean film Flu, a people smuggler brings the superflu to Seoul along with illegal immigrants.

And in Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), Gwyneth Paltrow becomes Patient Zero on a business trip to Hong Kong. But her status as dangerously diseased is conflated with her infidelity to her stolid everyman husband (Matt Damon) – who turns out to be immune, while Gwyneth’s son by another man falls ill too.

Patient Zero stories often say something disquieting about American morality, from the recalcitrant Irish immigrant ‘Typhoid Mary’ Mallon, who abused her nurturing role as a cook, to Gaëtan Dugas, the promiscuous Canadian flight attendant who was wrongly blamed for singlehandedly introducing AIDS to the United States.

Tiffani Thiesson stars as a CDC doctor in the 2007 miniseries Pandemic, in which an American surfer spreads a strain of bird flu through Los Angeles… which he got in Australia. Great. Faye Dunaway’s the governor, Eric Roberts is the mayor, and Tiffani figures out that the way to save everyone from bird flu is to give them… consumption! (delicate cough into hanky.) A 2009 conspiracy thriller also named Pandemic is directed by Jason ‘Son of Sean’ Connery, and stars Ray ‘Leland Palmer’ Wise as the general who shows up with suspicious swiftness to the site of the outbreak.

Perhaps the newfound interest in Ebola will get things moving quicker on the much-anticipated reboot of Stephen King’s epic, post-apocalyptic superflu novel The Stand. The star-studded 1984 miniseries adaptation (Gary Sinise! Molly Ringwald! Rob Lowe! Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis!) was faithful but stodgy (you can decide for yourself by watching it on YouTube).

The latest news on the new version is that The Fault in Our Stars director Josh Boone is attached, as is actor Nat Wolff (who played the blind hipster in Stars), and it’ll either be a three-hour epic or, in Hollywood’s double-dipping tradition, two movies.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.