Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

The hot zone

The zombie film is essentially defined by inexplicable plague and no hope of a cure. It’s just about survival, and frankly that’s a losing battle when the world is quite literally overrun with undead eating machines infecting everyone they bite. World War Z, the sprawling, big-budget adaptation of the Max Brooks fictional history of the coming plague, takes a different approach. It’s about staunching the spread of the plague, searching for a cure and saving not just a few hardy survivors but the entire human race. Brad Pitt is the U.N. specialist searching for ground zero, the source of the plague, because the only hope for a cure is in the source.

In the real world, the source of a contagious disease is essential to understanding the nature of the threat, before it has mutated through transmission, and to track its spread. In the movie world, such details lend a sense of urgency to the story and plenty of opportunities for dramatic obstacles and cinematic action. The globe-trotting Mr. Pitt might want to take notes on how some of these medical heroes fight plagues and pandemics in the center of the hot zone of outbreaks, and what kind of obstacles he may face in his medical adventure.

‘Panic in the Streets’

Panic in the Streets” (1950)

Infection: Bubonic plague
Transmission: Human contact
Cinematic symptoms: Low life thugs even more sweaty and twitchy than usual
Breeding ground: New Orleans

Method man Elia Kazan directed this unusual outlier in the shadowy crime genre we know today as film noir. There’s a murder and a couple of killers on the run, but what makes them so deadly is that they are carrying and spreading a highly infectious strain of bubonic plague through the underworld of the New Orleans waterfront. There had been plenty of films about courageous doctors fighting deadly epidemics, but Richard Widmark’s public health officer is more action hero and crusading detective as he tracks the contagion to the source. The film even equates the underworld criminals (Jack Palance and Zero Mostel) as literal vermin: rats scurrying through the dark alleys and waterfront dives spreading disease as they scavenge the streets. It certainly makes the case for crime as a disease in our midst.

Prognosis: Predict a full recovery, thanks the bare-knuckle commitment of our public health officials.

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