With the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, it’s easy to feel like we’re living in an apocalyptic movie. Many of us are stuck inside for the foreseeable future. It may be tempting to avoid watching movies about pandemics and living in quarantine.
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But there’s some value in consuming movies on the subject. Documentaries can be incredibly informative, while fiction films can help you feel a little better about the situation you’re in.
We’ve put together a watchlist for you on films about pandemics, viruses, and living in quarantine.
Best Documentaries About Viruses and Pandemics
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the value of self-isolating. Watching documentaries about earlier viral outbreaks can provide a lot of context. Many documentaries excel at making complicated concepts simple enough for laypeople.
Even if you don’t have a scientific background, these documentaries may help shed some light on our current situation.
1. Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak
In January of 2020, Netflix released this earlier prescient documentary. This film follows doctors and scientists as they work to prepare for pandemics.
The movie jumps around to different locations. Doctors work to prepare the New York City hospital system for a pandemic in the face of budget cuts. Scientists work to make free flu vaccines accessible to people in developing countries. The documentary also depicts crowded conditions in ICE holding camps and the rise of anti-vaxxer propaganda.
In short, it tries to demonstrate the many ways the world is vulnerable to a major disease outbreak. In February, executive producer Dr. Sheri Fink said the following on Twitter:
“People have said the docuseries Pandemic came out at a perfect time, but in fact, we made it because some of us had seen the system tested in smaller ways and knew its vulnerabilities. We hoped to inform before, not after, another dangerous pathogen emerged.”
2. The Coming Pandemic
In 2005, this documentary warned of the potential for a major epidemic to kill millions of people. It specifically predicted a mutation of the influenza virus that would kill both birds and humans throughout Asia.
Many people believed it predicted the 2009 novel H1N1 outbreak. But in many ways, it was also spot-on about the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19.
3. Outbreak: Anatomy of a Plague
In order to predict the future, sometimes we have to look to the past. This documentary delves into the little-known smallpox epidemic that ravaged Montreal in 1885. Though a smallpox vaccination was invented in 1796, residents of Montreal had been resistant to trying it. Consequently, 3,200 people died in the 1885 outbreak.
As a result, there was great social unrest and long-term economic implications. This was a relatively small outbreak compared to current events. However, it provides a small-scale blueprint of the implications the world might face.
4. Unseen Enemy
This CNN documentary from 2017 explored three recent major epidemics: Ebola, Influenza, and Zika. The film looked at why these outbreaks became so widespread.
Population growth and increased global travel contributed to the mutation of these diseases. These same factors are responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic we’re experiencing.
Note: The movie is not available in the United States, but changing your VPN location should allow you to access it.
5. Virus Empire: From SARS to Ebola
For many people, It was easy to believe that major illnesses had been all but wiped out. But this 2009 documentary delved into modern outbreaks of illnesses like Ebola and SARS.
Viral outbreaks like those actually killed more people around the world in the 20th century than war. This documentary foreshadowed the risks of fatalities from viruses.
6. Ebola: The Story
Between 2013 and 2016, the Ebola virus devastated several West African countries. All told, 11,325 people worldwide were killed during the outbreak. 11,310 of the dead were from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. About 40 percent of the West Africans who were infected would die from the disease.
Though this was the largest epidemic of its kind, many people outside of the hot zone didn’t realize how devastating the outbreak really was. This documentary collection puts a personal face to the epidemic by interviewing those who were most affected.
7. After Ebola: Nebraska and the Next Pandemic
As we discussed above, the 2013 to 2016 Ebola outbreak ravaged three countries in West Africa. There were, however, a handful of cases in the United States as well. All told, 11 people were treated in the U.S. (four of whom actually became ill).
Only three facilities in the United States were equipped to treat highly contagious patients. One of them was the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
This documentary interviews the doctors and nurses who cared for the first American who was treated for the disease. He himself was also a doctor who had been doing missionary work in Liberia. This brought home for them that those fighting the disease could also be infected.
8. We Heard the Bells: The Influenza of 1918
The flu continues to be a deadly virus. Despite the existence of vaccines, the flu kills tens of thousands of people every year. In 1918, it also caused one of the world’s most deadly pandemics.
Each year, the strain of the flu that goes around evolves and mutates. In 1918, this strain was particularly virulent. Very few people had any natural immunity to it.
This 2010 documentary features interviews with the remaining survivors of the pandemic. All of them were children at the time of the outbreak, and many of them were orphaned.
Outbreaks typically target infants, the elderly, and people who are immunocompromised. This influenza didn’t discriminate, though: young, healthy people also perished. Bodies piled up without receiving proper burials. Hearing firsthand accounts of the survivors is harrowing and illuminating.
Best Fiction Films About Viruses and Pandemics
A lot of people are marathoning TV shows or binge-watching romantic comedies right now. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a little escapism in troubled times.
But just like movies about death can help you feel less alone, films about pandemics can make you feel better. No matter how stressful your situation is, the people in these films are likely facing far worse problems.
Many viruses, including COVID-19, are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted between animals and people. This fictional film was based on true events. Specifically, it delves into the deadly Nipah virus that killed 75 percent of infected people in Calcutta in 2018.
The film provides a sobering look at what happens during the rise of a virus with no vaccine or treatment protocol. But it also has a positive bent as it illuminates the way the community pulled together.
10. 93 Days
This thriller is also based on true events. It deals with the events of the 2014 Ebola outbreak referenced above. Specifically, it portrays the heroic efforts made by healthcare workers in Nigeria to contain the spread. Nigerian actress Bimbo Akintola portrayed physician Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh.
Ebola was introduced to Nigeria by a Liberian-American lawyer named Patrick Sawyer. Sawyer had been exposed in Liberia, but still flew to Nigeria for a conference. However, he collapsed upon his arrival in the country.
He was hospitalized, but the Liberian government pressured Dr. Adadevoh to release him. She refused to release him for the greater public good and was instrumental in limiting the death toll to 8 people in Nigeria. Sadly, Dr. Adadevoh contracted Ebola and passed away within weeks of Sawyer.
This 2013 South Korean film dramatized what would happen if a deadly virus swept through the country. Luckily, the coronavirus hasn’t been as deadly as the film presaged.
Only 211 people have died in South Korea from coronavirus. However, there are reports that some recovered patients are now being reinfected.
There are many B-movies about virus outbreaks. This Stephen Soderbergh film from 2011 had a high pedigree, though. It featured several award-winning actors.
It’s an interesting look at the seemingly innocuous ways a deadly virus can quickly spread throughout the world.
This 1995 disaster film was based on Richard Preston’s nonfiction book The Hot Zone. It focuses on the outbreak of a fictionalized virus in Zaire that is similar to Ebola.
However, while the book was science-based and informative, the movie loses focus. It becomes sidetracked by a government plot to use the virus as a biological weapon. It’s entertaining enough, but don’t recommend this one to any conspiracy theorists.
14. It Comes at Night
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” In this claustrophobic 2017 horror drama, survivors of a pandemic struggle with feelings of isolation and distrust. How do you decide whether to ally with strangers who may or may not carry a deadly virus?
In the above-mentioned It Comes At Night, people struggle to trust strangers in a post-apocalyptic landscape. In this 2009 film, friends and loved ones are forced to turn on one another in the midst of a deadly outbreak.
16. The Hot Zone
This aforementioned film Outbreak was based on the book The Hot Zone. This 2019 miniseries also shared that book as inspiration. In the miniseries, an epidemiologist faces a potential Ebola virus outbreak in the United States.
While this is also a dramatization, it’s rooted in very real fears. The protagonist must convince people of the impending pandemic and battle misinformation.
Films That Might Help You Better Understand Pandemics
While you’re quarantining or self-isolating, you may be looking for films to help you escape your anxiety.
But sometimes becoming more well-informed can help assuage your worries. Check out these documentaries and fiction films about viruses and pandemics. You may be surprised at how much you can learn.
Want to learn more about pandemics? Read our guide on the best pandemic books.
- Delaney, Brigid “Pandemic: Netflix’s New Series About Global Outbreaks is Eerily Timed, and Moved Me to Tears.” Theguardian.com, The Guardian, 4 February 2020, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/feb/05/pandemic-netflixs-new-series-about-global-outbreaks-is-eerily-timed-and-moved-me-to-tears.
- “2014-2016 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa.” Cdc.gov, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 March 2020, www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/history/2014-2016-outbreak/index.html.