Epidemic Cinema as a Genre?

Epidemic Cinema

Although the term epidemic cinema is often used in Z Land, it is not known widely. It was perhaps first used as the subtitle of “Panic in the Streets,” a film season of London’s National Film Theater in 1988 (organized by film critic Judith Williamson and the late Mark Finch, film programmer), a de facto genre offshoot of the more recognized genres of horror and melodrama that emphasize “the social consequences of mass scale disease.” Williamson and Finch launched their program of films as a way of understanding how “looking at pre-AIDS films about infection made it possible … to trace certain trends which [were] woven into the complex reactions” to AIDS in the 1980s. The titular film–Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950)–dramatizes the “drive for the discovery and control of a disease which is presented among society’s outcasts” and “shows … that the language and narrative patterns associated with AIDS reportage and fictions were developed long before the illness itself existed.” (See Judith Williamson, Deadline at Dawn, 1992, 219-244, for the full program notes for the seventeen films screened.)

More comprehensively, since the 1980s, films from other genres such as science fiction and post-apocalyptic fantasy transformed epidemic cinema into an inevitable reflection of the megalopolis, especially when so many of the films carefully delineated the destruction of the metropolis because of a virulent epidemic and replaced it with an endless urban wasteland. (Like film noir, epidemic cinema, perhaps inevitably, overlaps the cinema of the metropolis.)

Williamson-Finch postulated three key themes in epidemic cinema: criminality, contagion, and medical policing and they suggested that the films inevitably were marked by a “primal plague scene” and “blood imagery” as the epidemic begins its ascent. The medical search for the first victim or Patient Zero was often compromised by “government indifference, conspiracy, or disbelief.” Some films relied on related genre elements, such as vampires and other candidates for undead status, guaranteeing that there were be numerous scenes of “body horrors.”

Since epidemic cinema is a cinema of the body, viewers must be willing to witness various bodily fluids in addition to blood, especially in sequences that deal with the destruction of the body because of the virus and its mutations.

While medical detailing dominates the visceral mise en scene of the films, “government indifference, conspiracy, or disbelief” becomes the political motor of the genre. An association with criminality, sexual activity, and an alien invasion (whether from an ethnic minority or from outerspace) all contribute as disease vectors.

On the social level, the middle class family in suburbia usually represents the standard of purity, with the infection of mothers and children the ultimate potential violation. Thus the distinction between a social phenomenon and a personal tragedy is often elided and sometimes disease itself becomes a metaphor for political and social collapse.

NOTE: The consanguinity of epidemic cinema and zombie and vampire films is deep. Leaving aside for the moment whether zombies or vampires exist, their presence in cinematic history is nonetheless secure, as their power lies in their fearsome bites and sex appeal (I know, I know, but it’s not my idea). Like their cousins, the CHUDs (cannibalistic human underground dwellers, sorry about that)–Morlocks with a really bad makeover–they pursue victims throughout the metropolis and especially underground and help transform what normally might only be a sleazy subgenre into something much more exciting, often creating an alternative post-apocalyptic megalopolis. They appear in numerous sci fi dystopias, providing the Omega men (Charlton Heston and Will Smith) and their British cousin in 28 Days Later with formidable enemies.

Selected List of Films:

The Andromeda Strain (1971; 2008)
The 11th Hour
Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America
I Am Legend
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1971; 1978; as Body Snatchers: The Invasion Continues, 1993; as The Invasion, 2007)
La Jetee
The Omega Man
Panic in the Streets
The Road
The Survivors (1975-77; 2008)
Sweet as You Are
28 Days Later
28 Weeks Later

4 Responses to “Epidemic Cinema as a Genre?”

  1. Im writing a paper on post apocalyptic films and would love to site this article. Can i get your name and the date of publication?

    • Tom Zaniello Says:

      My name is on the WordPress site: Tom Zaniello

      You’ll have to cite this blog by web/URL address etc. since the item you mention has only been “published” here. This is the usual way of doing nonprint materials in any case.


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    I’m trying to find things to enhance my web site!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

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