Who could have imagined, when we entered 2020, that we’d be encouraged by our bosses to work from home, covetously stockpile pasta and anything in a jar, and get snippy with strangers over the last toilet roll in the supermarket? Or, indeed, that watching pandemic movies would suddenly become the next big thing?
But then we hadn’t anticipated the global spread of coronavirus, resulting in nationwide lockdowns, self-isolation for the sick and at-risk, and entertainment venues being shut indefinitely.
As a result, there’s been a resurgence of interest in pandemic-themed films, with people apparently finding cathartic release in seeing their anxieties play out onscreen. But don’t take these depictions of social collapse, martial law, and apocalypse too seriously – they’re enjoyably exaggerated entertainments, mostly skimping on scientific facts.
So, whether stuck indoors or just trying to find some relevant escapism, we’ve compiled a list of the best films about pandemics available to stream right now.
- So much to stream! Here's all you need to know about Disney+
Every cloud has a silver lining, it seems. Steven Soderbergh’s medical thriller Contagion, released in 2011, raced back up the iTunes charts to take a Top Ten position this month, helped no doubt by the film’s parallels with the current outbreak of coronavirus. This fast-paced thriller charts the rapid transmission of a virus across the globe as scientists hurry to find a vaccine and social order disintegrates.
Despite being a Hollywood thriller, this breathless multi-perspective narrative has been described as ultra-realistic - informed by the World Health Organisation and praised for its accurate depiction of a pandemic by scientists. It’s also got a Hollywood cast to make you weak at the knees – Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon – but seeing Paltrow catch the flu on film couldn’t have inspired confidence in her wellness brand, Goop.
Available to stream in the US at: MaxGo and Amazon Cinemax
UK: Paid rental - including Amazon, Sky Store and Chili
Canada: Netflix and Crave +
Australia: Paid rental - including Google Play and iTunes
The Crazies (1973)
Five years after George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, he gave us another film about human contagion - The Crazies. When a military plane carrying an untested bio-weapon crashes in the hills of a nearby American town, their water supply becomes contaminated causing local residents to die or become homicidal. The government draft in the military to quash the spread of the disease, given instructions to shoot on sight.
The film’s low-budget quality heightens the grisly shocks as families retaliate against the hazmat-clad military while additionally fending off the violence-prone citizens. Starring Will McMillan and Jane Carroll, it’s a believable scenario executed with extreme flourishes. Failing to make an impact on its initial release, it’s now a cult classic with a 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant.
Outbreak gave monkeys a bad name way before the rage-plagued primate in 28 Days Later. Opening in Zaire, Africa, a fictional disease called Motaba spreads to California after an infected capuchin monkey is smuggled into the country. The disease develops into a strain of influenza, and the small town of Cedar Creeks is placed under martial law as the infection rapidly spreads.
Although based on Richard Preston’s nonfiction book The Hot Zone, the film takes plenty of grand liberties in the name of cinematic heroics – this is a Hollywood pandemic through and through. But it entertains with a talented cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Rene Russo. There’s also an iconic scene in a movie theatre that, where they not already closed, would make you think twice before visiting the multiplex.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Did someone know something we didn’t? There were two monkey-related pandemic flicks in 1995, this one from Terry Gilliam. Twelve Monkeys is a dystopian sci-fi fantasy set in post-apocalyptic Philadelphia in 2035. As most of humanity was wiped out by a virus in 1996, Earth’s remaining inhabitants live underground. Bruce Willis is Cole, a convict who volunteers to go back in time in the hope of reducing his sentence and finding the cause of the virus. But the past proves more bewildering than the future.
Gilliam-esque camera angles and stunning production design are impressive, particularly a desolate Philly overrun by animals. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt bagged his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as Jeffrey Goines: inmate and leader of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. It’s an atypical performance that’s thoroughly engrossing, all nervous tics and a crazed glint in his eyes.
Last Man on Earth (1964)
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend has spawned three adaptations. Last Man on Earth was the first – starring horror legend Vincent Price – followed by The Omega Man in 1971 and the titular Will Smith blockbuster in 2007. The 1964 version is arguably the best. It revolves around the monotonous routine of Doctor Robert Morgan who, in the wake of a virulent plague, is left the last human alive.
Although rather dated and low-budget, it’s an evocative portrayal of crushing loneliness, with Morgan patrolling the streets during the day to kill the infected undead, only to return home alone at night to barricade himself against the vengeful hordes.
It Comes at Night (2017)
Another gem from production company A24 (Hereditary, The Witch) this horror-thriller is full of slow-burn dread. In the aftermath of a planetary contagion, a lone family exist deep in the woods until a handful of survivors cross their paths – father Will, mother Kim, and their son Andrew. Although initially distrustful, they agree to share resources and begin to bond. But, following a series of strange incidents, suspicions start to emerge that maybe one of them isn’t well after all.
Starring Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr., it’s a grim vision of life after a major pandemic. The families’ fears of infection come to life in nightmarish visions – of the diseased dead returning to life – while the film has an atmosphere of clammy claustrophobia. Don’t anticipate a happy ending!
The Host (2006)
Before Bong Joon-ho made history in 2020 – becoming the first South Korean to win an Academy Award with Parasite (2019) – he made this monster-movie with a little socio-political bite.
Like The Crazies, the film shows mankind sow its own destruction when an American pathologist instructs his Korean colleague to dump formaldehyde in the Han River. A few years and lots of dead fish later, a gigantic amphibious creature emerges, attacking the local residents and kidnapping a young girl called Hyun-seo. As the military arrive to quarantine the area, they declare that not only is the mutant dangerous, but that it carries an unknown virus too.
Starring Parasite’s main man Song Kang-ho, The Host is a blast – full of humour, thrills, and jaw-dropping action.
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Those infamous scenes of Cillian Murphy walking through an abandoned London in 28 Days Later (2002) seem eerily prophetic in the wake of coronavirus. The 2007 sequel however begins after the outbreak of the rage virus, with the infected dying of hunger and NATO instigating a safe zone in the capital.
A degree of normalcy has returned to daily life and we’re introduced to a new set of characters: Don (Robert Carlyle), his children Tammy and Andy, and US Army Medical Officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne). But, after the children’s ill-advised trip to seek out their mother – presumed dead – those bloody, fleet-footed zombies are causing carnage once again.
It’s a brisk, brutal film that the New York Times described as “exhaustingly terrifying”, with a sombre ending that implies the infected have reached European shores. The film’s savvy, pre-launch hype saw a biohazard sign projected on the white cliffs of Dover, declaring: “contaminated, keep out.”
Available to stream in the US: Paid rental - including Amazon and DirecTV
UK: Paid rental - including Amazon, Sky Store and Chili
Canada: Paid rental - including Cineplex and Microsoft
Australia: Foxtel Now
Day of the Dead (1985)
Although less well regarded than Romero’s first two entries in The Dead series, Day of the Dead aptly captures the sense that, in a world where zombies outnumber humans 400,000 to 1, there’s nowhere left to run.
The encroaching zombie horde largely takes a backseat to the strained dynamics of the remaining survivors, who reside in an underground facility. These include Dr Sarah Bowman; a scientist dubbed “Frankenstein”, and a group of soldiers led by the increasingly unhinged Captain Rhodes. Scientific logic comes to blows with military force and soon the greatest threat to their existence seems to be each other.
Originally dubbed 'the Gone with the Wind of zombie films' (before its budget was split in two), it’s a zombie flick with brains (and lots and lots of guts) and a worthy follow up to Romero’s ongoing exploration of societal collapse.
Ending on a lighter note, and proving pandemics aren’t all doom and gloom, we have Zombieland, a Zom-Com in the same vein as Shaun of the Dead.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus and Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, they’re two mismatched survivors: one has an extensive set of rules to keep him alive (“Rule 22: When in doubt know your way out”), while the other is happiest eating Twinkies and kicking ass. On their separate ways across the country, their trajectory changes when they fall in with two streetwise sisters, played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, and end up at Pacific Playland.
It’s a refreshingly fun, irreverent take on the genre, with a surprise cameo to please all 80s comedy fans. And, as well as the gore and guffaws, it manages to accommodate romantic and heartfelt moments too.
How to stream the best pandemic movies when abroad
We've listed out where to watch this selection of films in the US, UK, Australia and Canada. But if you're away from home and you discover that there's no way to watch them (your usual stream is likely to be geo-blocked when overseas and even Netflix doesn't have every film in every region) then you'll need to download a VPN to change your IP address to a server in the country where it is being streamed - it's much easier than it sounds, we promise!
Firstly, grab the best service out there - we think that's ExpressVPN, thanks to its speed, security, simplicity of use an d superb customer service. ExpressVPN also has a 30-day money back guarantee and you can purchase an annual plan for a 49% discount and 3 months extra FREE.
Once installed, select the location of your home country and simply click connect. You’ll then be able to easily watch your chosen film from pretty much anywhere in the world.