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The Arts and Medicine
April 24, 2020

Infectious Disease Outbreaks, Pandemics, and Hollywood—Hope and Fear Across a Century of Cinema

Author Affiliations
  • 1University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Pediatrics, Albuquerque
JAMA. 2020;323(19):1878-1880. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.7187

Movies are a shared cultural experience that have historically depicted infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics and reflected accompanying hopes, fears, and at times, uncomfortable realism about contagion. To better characterize this phenomenon, a search of IMDb.com (Internet Movie Database, an online database of film and TV information) was conducted in February and March 2020 to update a 2017 search1 using 163 infection-related search terms (eBox in Supplement 1) to identify films with a major focus on infectious diseases (as assessed by review of plot synopses on IMDb, the American Film Institute database, or Wikipedia) through December 31, 2019. The search yielded 373 films released in US theaters (eFigure in Supplement 1). Of these, 142 (38.1%) featured a human infectious disease outbreak (increase in expected cases of an infectious disease in a population) or pandemic (outbreak over multiple countries or continents), as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,2 with the outbreak/pandemic (or the threat or aftermath of one) as an important component of the story (eTable in Supplement 2). Eighty films were selected as culturally relevant, defined as having box office earnings of at least $10 million (adjusted to 2019 dollars using a Bureau of Labor Statistics online tool, equating to ≥1 million tickets sold); winning an Academy Award; or having 1 or more long-gap connections, defined as cultural reference to a film (eg, in television or another movie) at least 25 years after release3 (eTable in Supplement 2). All 80 culturally relevant films were viewed and thematically analyzed, and a subset are reviewed here for thematic illustration.

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    4 Comments for this article
    Zombie Movies
    Douglas Davidson, Master of Library Science |
    In movies featuring zombies, the point is not to "dehumanize" disease victims, but to use disease as an excuse for a zombie movie. The zombies are already dead; that is, they're no longer disease victims but monsters at the time they become dangerous.

    Also worth noting is that three of these films, "Last Man on Earth," "Omega Man," and "I Am Legend" are based on the same novel. Matheson's novel, also, is not about disease as such, but is a science-fictional attempt to envision an (admittedly strained) scientific explanation for vampirism. Although the movies vary in how they interpret
    the novel's themes, in the original work, the vampires, like in zombie films, are animated corpses.

    Seems remarkable to get through an essay on this subject with no mention of "Night of the Living Dead" or "12 Monkeys."
    "The Andromeda strain" (Robert Wise, 1971)
    Marta Crespo Barrio, M.D, Ph.D. | Hospital del Mar
    This is clearly a very timely article. We all lived the begining of this nightmare feeling that we suddenly were moved into a movie. Reality looked more like cinema than like reality.

    Though this is a thorough review, we miss a reference to “The Andromeda strain”, directed by Robert Wise in 1971, based upon the novel written by Michael Crichton (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066769/). It is one of the most relevant movies of the 70’s. A disturbing film thanks to the containment of expressive resources, which contrasts with the narrative noise of other films of the genre at the same
    time. Not only does the deadly virus portrayed in the novel and the film connect with the current Covid pandemic, but also the vision of scientists as leading professionals who must take control of the situation.

    Marta Crespo, M.D. & Daniel Esteban, Video creator
    See the Lead Book on this Topic
    Victoria Sutton, PhD, JD, MPA | Texas Tech University School of Law
    The author overlooked the lead book on the topic, "The Things That Keep Us Up At Night--Reel Biohorror," published in 2014 (1). 

    Unlike most movie analysts and critics, I actually watched all 48 movies in my book, beginning with Nosferatu, identified as the first of this genre. The book is full of legal and public health analysis, and useful for interdisciplinary humanities, law and science discussions.


    1. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Things_that_Keep_Us_Up_at_Night/NKV4oAEACAAJ?hl=en.
    CONFLICT OF INTEREST: I am the author of the book I am discussing.
    What About the Classic Biopics of Famous Microbiologists?
    Manuel Sanchez Angulo, Ph.D. | Universidad Miguel Hernández - Spain
    Good article, but I miss some references to movies like "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" (1940) and "The Story of Louis Pasteur" (1936). Even the Germans made one dedicated to Koch ("Robert Koch, der Bekämpfer des Todes" 1939).