Are virus-based movies spreading?

3 February '20 2 Comments on Are virus-based movies spreading?

Today’s topic was suggested by a number of readers, all of whom asked a variation of “What has been the effect of the Coronavirus on movies featuring viral outbreaks?”

Most had presumably read the news that the 2011 movie Contagion had (albeit briefly) reached number 10 in the iTunes chart.  This is backed up by Google Trends data which shows that interest in the movie is sitting at a five-year high and related searches include: “Coronavirus”, “Wuhan” and “bubonic plague”.

The plot of Contagion is eerily similar to the current Coronavirus outbreak, save for the fact that in the movie Gwyneth Paltrow gets the virus whereas in real life she got a Netflix series.

But what of other virus-based movies?  Which are the most popular, which are worth seeing and which are the most cited when discussing such movies?

Let’s turn to the data and see what we can discover.

What is a virus-based movie?

The definition of “virus-based” movies is always going to be a contentious one. I opted for movies in which the spread of a virus plays a key role and which are widely associated with a viral infection.  I used plot summaries to judge the former and IMDb user lists for the latter.  IMDb user lists are particularly interesting as they give us a way to track how much consensus there is about the contents of a movie among film fans.

Among the rules I created for the research were:

  • Name-checking a virus is not enough. I excluded lists and films which appropriated the language of virus and contagion but which did not relate to a medical condition, such as STUPIDITY IS NOT A VIRUS, BUT IT SURE IS SPREADING LIKE ONE and Agent Smith’s assertion that humans are just “a virus with shoes” in The Matrix.
  • If the virus doesn’t get out, the movie doesn’t get in.  I chose to exclude films which have the unrealised threat of contagion, such as Mission Impossible II which centres around a messy scramble for the deadly “Chimera” virus which turns out to never actually spread (so maybe less an impossible mission than an implausible one).
  • The virus poses a current threat.  I excluded movies where a virus outbreak was the set-up, rather than the subject, of the movie.  This included such baffling classics as Repo! The Genetic Opera, which “stars” Paris Hilton and is described thusly by IMDb: “A worldwide epidemic encourages a biotech company to launch an organ-financing program similar in nature to a standard car loan. The repossession clause is a killer, however“.  There were a couple of films for which I broke this rule (such as I Am Legend) as they proved extremely popular on IMDb virus-based lists, meaning that although they aren’t technically a virus-based film, many people think they are.
  • Zombies are not automatically viral. I also took a bold decision which could ruffle the feathers of any die-hard horror fans (not to be confused with ‘Die Hard horror’ fans, who are people who liked Die Hards 4 and 5). In this research, not all zombie movies count. Each zombie movie has its own blend of lore with some using viruses (i.e. 28 Days Later) while others are quite far away from a viral contagion (i.e. Live and Let Die which instead uses voodoo).  Therefore, I did not include lists or movies which were only about zombies, unless they also included another virus-based word in their title, description or plot, such as outbreak, contagion, disease, plague, etc.  That’s because I’m interested in looking at the effect of the news on internet searches for movies, and it’s a bit of a leap to see news of a new incapacitating flu strain and immediately think “Zombies!”  If you do instantly make this leap, I suggest you quarantine yourself and seek immediate medical assistance.
  • Movies most people will have heard of.  I took the same philosophy as the American news – if it didn’t spread in America, it’s not important.  This meant focusing on feature films with a North American theatrical release.

Has the Coronavirus led to an increased interest in movies about viruses?

The Coronavirus has certainly had an impact on the number of people reading IMDb lists about virus-based movies. In the past week alone, the following IMDb user lists have increased their views:

What is the most-cited virus-based movie?

The British classic 28 Days Later… appears in over three-quarters of IMDb user lists related to viruses and outbreaks. Its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, takes second place, followed by The Crazies.

What are the best performing virus-based movies?

The post-plague apocalyptic Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend has the highest Domestic gross, followed by Dawn of the Planet of The Apes and World War Z. Our movie equivalent of a ‘patient zero,’ Contagion, is the fourth highest-grossing.

What are the best movies about viruses?

Finally, if you are on a virus movie binge and have already watched Contagion, where should you turn next?

I gathered IMDb user scores (out of 10) to reflect audience tastes and their Metascore (our of 100) to represent the views of film critics.  Given that most of the movies fall into the Horror genre, it is somewhat surprising to see such agreement between audiences and critics.  My past research has shown that horror stands apart from other genres in having the weakest connection between what the public and critics think.

While Contagion is among the better movies about viruses, there are others which are better rated, including:

  • 28 Days Later…
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Awakenings
  • Dawn of the Dead
  • Twelve Monkeys


And the virus-based movies which may leave you feeling nauseous include Ultraviolet, Survival of the Dead, Virus, The Happening, [REC] 3: Genesis and Dreamcatcher.


Today’s research is looking at live-action, fiction feature films. Data came from IMDb, Wikipedia and The-Numbers/OpusData.  Financial figures are not adjusted for inflation.




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