(NOTE: You guys have asked in the past for links to the movie(s) referenced in a review. I put something together which I’ll post in the comments.)
It would be easy, nay, even hacky to prepare a “pandemic movie watching list”. Fear of widespread disease arose in the wake of post-WWII nuclear holocaust fears, thanks (as always) to our always media’s tireless reliance on monetizing panic . IMDB’s earliest movie tagged with #pandemic is actually a British comedy from 1961 about smallpox of all things. (Smallpox was a big topic in the ’70s and ’80s because the disease had been eliminated except for lab samples, and the provocative question of the time was “should those be destroyed”?) It stars that epitome of Englishness Terry-Thomas and the always hot Honor Blackman (who would’ve been 95 this August had she not passed last week). It’s called A Matter Of Who, if you want to track it down.
Of course, you can’t really trust IMDB taggers for much: The second earliest film tagged is Charlton Heston’s Omega Man which is ten years later meaning people tagged the 1971 film without noting its predecessor, Vincent Price’s Last Man On Earth. Last year’s remake of Rabid is noted but not David Cronenberg’s 1977 seminal body-horror original.
Then there’s the whole question of what constitutes a movie about a pandemic in the first place. The highest rated film on the list is 12 Monkeys, by Terry Gilliam (whom we will revisit) which is more of a time-travel film. Next is the competently dopey Children of Men—a chase movie at heart. The 2016 Korean horror Train To Busan is essentially a zombie film, and a bunch of films fall into that particular rubric, like the 28 Days and Resident Evil series, Jim Mickle’s early effort Mulberry Street, and on and on. Hell, Color Out Of Space is basically a movie about the start of a pandemic. Pretty soon, you’re pulling in 1984’s Night of the Comet—the only post-apocalyptic film I am aware of with a dressing-in-different-outfits montage—and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
For my money, it’s not really about the disease unless people are getting gross (a la Rabid) and/or the focus is on curing and containing, like The Andromeda Strain or Soderbergh’s Contagion (in which a slutty Gwyneth Paltrow dooms us all, as many have predicted).
But to be honest, this isn’t my favorite category of movie.
The thing is, a pandemic doesn’t serve up great narratives. You can treat it like a disaster movie—have disparate people thrown together by a crisis—and could be enjoyable on that level, but unlike a disaster movie the opportunities for visually entertaining physical peril are limited. I mean, you could have a disease that struck suddenly and end up with pilots or engineers suddenly passing out, sorta like zombie movies do. But in a movie about a disease, humans should be pretty aligned in wiping it out and controlling the spread and so on. Which, being far from true in a way that is comitragically on display in our current situation brings me to a kind of movie that really does interest me: Movies about the dynamics of crowds.
Let me elaborate on what I mean by that through contrast. The big Disney animations of the ’90s and ’00s were all about the main character. The movies, bad or good, were incredibly narcissistic. I have to be me! (The reasons for this then and the consequences now are too obvious to cover here.) By contrast, the Pixar movies (arguably excepting The Incredibles) of the same time period were starkly about the consequences of pursuing selfish interests (even with the best of intentions) on the group. Ultimately, Woody and Flick and Lightning all have to learn to temper their individual desires with consideration for others. (Unlike Ariel and Jasmine and Pocahontas who have to make the stupid outside world see the error of their ways.)
Back when the current panic was getting into full swing, I was reminded of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and put up a mini-thread on Twitter. Besides being an aesthetically pleasing and fun movie, the framing device for all the various Gotham-esque tales—and the Wise Men of Gotham and those related stories fit in neatly into a discussion of crowd dynamics—is that of a rational, reasonable, official expert in things who assures the people of the city that they should remain frightened and behind the walls of the city or The Turk will get them!
Meanwhile, the Baron is recounting the story of exactly how he made The Turk so angry, and how he ultimately defeated the Turk and how, therefore, The Turk is no longer there. The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, who never once shows a drop of fear at the constant bombardment of the Turk at the city walls, becomes panicked at the notion that the people will look beyond the walls themselves. The authority, the expert, the establishment that sells its people out to the enemy has only one fear: That people will look for themselves.
Normally in movies, though, communities and crowds are little more than props, either scared or angry or gullible, or some mix of all three. The lynch mob of The Ox-Bow Incident or the munchkins under the thumb of the Wicked Witches East and West. Springfield of “The Simpsons” (speaking of the Wise Men of Gotham) tends to add lazy and incompetent to the mix—but of course in many cases they’re directly parodying classic mobs like those found in The Music Man and It’s A Wonderful Life.
IAWAL shows the community scared, turning it around at the end to show strength and, after a fashion, a kind of debt-paying to the Baileys. Another Capra film, It Happened One Night shows a random bus crowd that’s cheerful—a scene recalled humorously by Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And, come to think of it, I’m always reminded of the final scene of IAWAL by Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, where a post-9/11 New York City crowd bands together at a critical moment to stand up to much more powerful forces.
In the ’50s, you had communist and anti-communist ideologies waging war on screen. Spartacus showed the power of banding together to defy authority—and I must constantly remind myself that Marxists view themselves as anti-authoritarian—while High Noon showed…well, honestly, I never have been able to figure out what High Noon was trying to get across. Something like “the masses won’t help you save even their own skins”? On the flip side, there’s Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, which has a more sophisticated take on crowd dynamics and the urge of people to do good, generally, and how that can be corrupted and restored. Roger Corman’s only serious film (and rare money-loser) The Intruder shows a racist William Shatner firing up crowds down south in 1962.
Probably one of my favorite places for crowd dynamics is horror: Not zombies, because zombies are expressly inhuman. Sure, they’re metaphors for mindless consumerism or whatever that old hippie Romero was getting at, but I’m thinking more like when a superficially functional society is actually populated by supernatural horrors. Although edited into hash, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’ Messiah of Evil has scenes that I still find disturbing: People eating directly out of the meat area at a grocery store, a howling mob of business men in suits, a theater that slowly fills up with ghouls, and so on.
John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness (which recalls elements of Messiah) has elements of this along with the recurring Carpenterian theme of large masses of entities with menacing but vaguely defined purposes (Assault on Precint 13, The Fog, Prince of Darkness). Richard Kelly’s fascinatingly awful The Box, where a couple can receive a million dollars if they open a box but a random person will die as a result. Reality as they know it starts to fray as a consequence of their actions. Kelley’s breakthrough film, Donnie Darko also has interesting group dynamics—in essence being about how the world perceives Donnie versus the reality of Donnie’s impact on the world.
Ultimately, I think the crowd dynamic reveals a lot about…well, everyone: The clumsy filmmaker reveals himself by how he views his fellow man, and perhaps it’s not focused on as much as I’d like because it’s so easy to get wrong and have the audience laugh at or reject a crowd reaction. But when done well it can add an extra dimension to films that can’t be achieved any other way.