More and more people appear to be researching pandemics, and that's clear in their entertainment choices, too. Realistic disease movies like Contagion have climbed up the streaming charts, and in the era of fake news and misinformation, it can be difficult to tell medical fact from science fiction. Which pandemic movies actually paint a realistic picture of what a global medical catastrophe would look like?
These accurate pandemic movies manage to stick to the science, showing realistically how a virus spreads or how virologists protect themselves while conducting research. Of course, these medical crisis films all have a bit of artistic embellishment, but each offers a truthful glimpse at what could happen during a worldwide viral outbreak.
What It Gets Right: In this 1963 British cult classic, Dr. Steven Monks (Richard Johnson) makes his way to the town of Bath, where he discovers a smallpox outbreak. In an effort to reduce panic and contain the disease, Monks goes through a rigorous and realistic procedure to eliminate possible patients and quarantine those infected.
Where It Falls Short: 80,000 Suspects melds together the medical thriller and romantic drama genres, which led to some creative license with the viral spread. In order to heighten the drama, the contagious smallpox manages to take both Monk's wife, Julia (Claire Bloom), and his extramarital lover, Ruth Preston (Yolande Donlan), but Monks himself is completely okay. While it is possible he could have avoided the infection - the virus isn't contagious until the fever starts - the virus's targets feel more poetic than realistic.
Actors: Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Cyril Cusack, Yolande Donlan
Directed by: Val Guest
What It Gets Right: Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon is a fictional docudrama, but the terror it inspires is very real. A lone rebel decides to infect himself with smallpox. He then walks around New York, touching people and silently infecting them. The virus rapidly spreads, panic ensues, and chaos erupts as the virus takes the lives of more than 60 million people. The film uses fake news clips, talking heads-style interviews, and amateur footage to track the aftermath.
Where It Falls Short: There is no denying that Smallpox 2002 does a great job of instilling paranoia; it suggests anyone you encounter could be a literal WMD. According to Bernard Dixon, who reviewed the film for peer-reviewed journal Current Biology, even the most determined of lone wolves would have a difficult time obtaining the virus in the first place. The virus is stored in two highly guarded facilities in Russia and the United States.
Instead, Dixon believes that if the guarded virus were to actually get into the wrong hands, it would be those of state-sponsored extremists. In this event, Dixon says the state would vaccinate its own population in preparation, which would tip off other countries to start their own vaccinations.
Also, while smallpox is deadly, it wouldn't have the capacity to wipe out 60 million people if it were spread by just one man.
Actors: Brian Cox, Sterling K. Brown, Leigh Zimmerman, Tom Cotcher, Nadia Cameron-Blakey, + more
Directed by: Daniel Percival
What It Gets Right: In 28 Days Later, audiences are introduced to the rage virus, a highly contagious, lethal disease that infects within 20 seconds of contact. In the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, the British are dealing with the aftermath of the initial infection. American armies come in and set up a "Green Zone" where there are no infected people.
A woman returns from the Red Zone and seems to be okay - but she is an asymptomatic carrier of the rage virus. Asymptomatic carriers - or people who have a virus but show no symptoms - are a very real threat when it comes to the spread of infectious diseases.
Where It Falls Short: As critics noted with the first film, the rage virus itself is impossible, as no virus is able to replicate so quickly that it produces symptoms in 20 seconds. There are also some moments when audiences really have to suspend their disbelief, like when two children are able to leave the military-guarded Green Zone and return to the Red Zone without detection.
Actors: Rose Byrne, Idris Elba, Jeremy Renner, Imogen Poots, Robert Carlyle, + more
Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
What It Gets Right: San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts wrote his fact-dense book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1987. The 1993 HBO film adaptation attempts to capture the real-life complexity surrounding the outbreak, from political infighting to disbelief and denial in the communities the virus affected most. The film is full of accurate statistics and facts of the disease's initial toll and its path of spread.
Where It Falls Short: According to the actual scientists who worked to pinpoint the mysterious HIV and its transmission methods, the film adaptation takes a lot of creative license when it comes to the who's who of the scientific community. The film portrays Robert C. Gallo (Alan Alda), the National Cancer Institute researcher who co-discovered the malicious virus, as a straight Hollywood supervillain. Many HIV activists felt that the caricaturization of the researchers muddled any real data or science the movie conveys.
Actors: Ian McKellen, Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Phil Collins, Lily Tomlin, + more
Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode