Graveyard Shift

It Was Overlooked At The Time, But 'Contagion' Is One Of The Most Realistically Scary Modern Films 

Lauren Milici
March 20, 2020 16.4k views 12 items

It may seem like just another Outbreak-esque epidemic thriller, but Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is unusually authentic in its depiction of a viral epidemic. The best horror films about viruses and diseases are terrifying because of their realism, and even the CDC contends that Contagion is largely realistic.

The film's production involved the inclusion of real-life virologists and epidemiologists (one of whom was tasked with designing the virus featured in the film) who served as round-the-clock on-set consultants. The emphasis is not necessarily on the disease, which causes seizures and subsequent death, but on the spread and eventual global outbreak. It's a cautionary tale, one that will have you washing your hands every hour like that scene from The Aviator.

The coronavirus pandemic that began making its way across the globe in early 2020 had one strange side effect: a sudden surge in interest for Contagion in rental, torrent, and eventually streaming platforms. While the film was a modest box-office success at the time - tallying $75.7 million in the US to squeak into the top 50 for 2011 - it didn't find a true widespread audience until nearly a decade later, and largely due to unusual circumstances. The details of the drama's fictional outbreak may be alarming, and those details may be scarily accurate - but the film eventually provides a distinct sense of hope, as well. The mortality rate declines, a good vaccine is developed, and normalcy finally peeks around the corner.

It Starts With A Simple Cough - And Suddenly An Epidemic Is In Full Swing Before Anyone Knows It
It Starts With A Simple ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list It Was Overlooked At The Time, But 'Contagion' Is One Of The Most Realistically Scary Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), a suburban mom from the Minneapolis area, is the presumed patient zero. It starts with a simple cough at the airport while waiting for her flight home from a business trip in Hong Kong. Two days later, Beth collapses with seizures and flatlines at the hospital. By the time her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) returns home, his stepson Clark has already succumbed to the disease. An autopsy is conducted, the results are abnormal, and the CDC is notified. Unfortunately, Beth's son isn't the only person she's infected. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, the virus has spread and things have spiraled into total chaos.

It's worth noting that Beth's cough occurs on Day Two of the outbreak, leaving the audience to wonder: If she isn't patient zero, then who is? Where did the virus originate? Who caught it first?

The Film Visually Weaponizes Human Touch, Coughing, Breathing, And Shared Surfaces
The Film Visually Weapon... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list It Was Overlooked At The Time, But 'Contagion' Is One Of The Most Realistically Scary Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

When Beth hangs up the phone at O'Hare International Airport, she fishes a few peanuts out of a bowl in front of her. The camera lingers. She gives her credit card to the bartender and the camera closely follows the transaction between hands, and how the bartender's hands then touch the cash register. Within hours, Beth is deceased and the disease has spread worldwide. It's that easy.

The camera lingers on hospital doors, metal poles on public transportation, lips wrapped around restaurant glassware, and fingertips touching casino chips. A bartender coughs into his hand, then polishes a glass. A grandmother playfully feeds a chip, by hand, to her granddaughter. Soderbergh wants to instill some panic in the viewer, not for shock value, but for awareness. This is how easily disease is spread. Director Steven Soderbergh is giving the audience a direct visual illustration of the very advice - wash your hands, don't touch your face - that in 2020 became cultural catchphrases.

The Film's Global Scope Reflects The Alarming Speed With Which Modern Viruses Can Travel Great Distances
The Film's Global Scope ... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list It Was Overlooked At The Time, But 'Contagion' Is One Of The Most Realistically Scary Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

Following the passing of Beth and her son, the virus continues to spread. An epidemic begins to grow in Geneva. A young man perishes suddenly on a bus in Tokyo. John Neal, whom Beth slept with during her layover, is taken away on a stretcher in Chicago. People all over the world are coughing, burning up from fever, seizing up, and then quickly perishing. It isn't long before cities become ghost towns, streets become barren save for bags of trash and discarded clothing, and mass graves become the only way to dispose of human remains.

It may seem dramatized, but the CDC confirmed that the set-up is completely and totally plausible, having been modeled after the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia - which spread to 13 countries on three continents in less than 30 days, and the 2009 H1N1 (or swine flu) pandemic, which spread globally within a few weeks.

The Movie Was Designed To Be Cautionary, And Great Care Was Taken To Get The Science Right
The Movie Was Designed T... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list It Was Overlooked At The Time, But 'Contagion' Is One Of The Most Realistically Scary Modern Films
Photo: Warner Bros.

"Contagion is a work of fiction, but it's based on fact not fantasy."

Sure, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns set out to make a horror-thriller, but they insisted that the most horrifying aspects be grounded in fact - because there's nothing more frightening than reality. They sought the help of Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, who joined the writing team.

Lipkin recalls asking the team, "Is this going to be like Outbreak or I Am Legend - or do you want to make a serious movie?" Lipkin served not only as a consultant for the writers, but reviewed sets and costumes, sat in on filming to review the accuracy of critical scenes, and even helped the realism of makeup (how an infected patient would appear) and dialogue. Craig Street, a senior bioinformatics analyst and colleague of Lipkin at Columbia, helped design the film's fictional virus, MEV-1. State-of-the-art lab equipment was used, and actors met with people whose work they represented in laboratories and the field. Kate Winslet, who plays a virologist, even learned how to pipet.