Feature Story: CDC in the Movies

Related: My radio interview on NPR/Georgia Public Broadcasting about CDC on the silver screen.

collageWhat do Elia Kazan, Robert Wise, George Romero, Wolfgang Petersen, Danny Boyle, Francis Lawrence, Steven Soderbergh and Ryan Murphy have in common? All have directed films about infectious diseases and health officials in hot pursuit of a cure. Whether it’s the fictional “Rage” of 28 Days Later or the virus transmitted from the hot zone in Outbreak or the real-life threat of HIV/AIDS addressed in And the Band Played On, Hollywood has been fascinated with the depiction of epidemics and pandemics on celluloid. On this 70th anniversary of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), media outlets such as NPR are examining the portrayal of health organizations in the movies. There’s even an organization called Hollywood Health & Society dedicated to expert information for storylines in the movies and on TV. They’ve consulted on NCIS and The Walking Dead and have been instrumental in shaping realistic portrayals of diseases and those who handle them in multimedia. Epidemics in the movies have run parallel to McCarthyism, to the fallout from Vietnam, from skepticism in the ’80s to survivalist Y2K mentalities to globalization in modern day. Pod people and zombies have often been stand-ins for the emerging threats. I highly recommend Contagion as a hyper-real film whose makers partnered with actual CDC officials to showcase a disease taking shape and transmitting through fomites and The Normal Heart about the struggles of a protagonist to coax government officials to confront AIDS head-on. And if you can find some of these cult movies and curiosities, check out Miss Evers’ Boys, The Andromeda Strain, The Crazies, Panic in the Streets, 12 Monkeys, I Am Legend and John Greyson’s Zero Patience, a Canadian musical about AIDS partially set in a fictional locale called The Hall of Contagion. With varying levels of accuracy, films featuring disaster, disease and dystopian futures wouldn’t be the same without scientists in hazmat suits applying their own brand of heroism.

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I've reviewed films for more than 20 years. Current movie reviews of new theatrical releases and direct-to-video or streaming films are added weekly to the Silver Screen Capture movie news site. Many capsule critiques originally appeared in expanded form in my syndicated Lights Camera Reaction column.

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