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How to Survive a Plague - 10 Lessons From the Movies

by Spout
April 28, 2009 2:42 AM
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By Christopher Campbell

Is the end of the world nigh? It sure seems that way. Even if the economic situation wasn’t enough of a harbinger of doom, this swine flu pandemic is a sure sign of the apocalypse. Or so it would appear through the media attention. Yes, the outbreak is tragic, and it is certainly a serious concern. And necessary, non panic-inciting developments must be reported. But when we read about how the flu might affect the box officefor X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the news coverage has clearly gone a little overboard.

We’re not saying that we should ignore the topic; in fact if there’s anything we’ve learned from Hollywood’s treatment of plots involving widespread disease and infection it’s that turning a blind eye and/or burying the story will come back to bite us on the ass (or any other part of the body that a zombie can sink its teeth into). But fearmongering isn’t helpful either. That’s another thing the movies teach us.

So, what do we do if we want to get out of this latest flu scare alive? We rent some films, and we learn how to survive from both the characters who endure and the characters who perish. Fortunately for you, we’ve already watched the films and are willing to share their lessons.

1. Don’t Write About the Plague

First rule about surviving plagues, don’t talk about plagues. And definitely don’t write about them. Obviously writing this list dooms us, but we’re taking the risk in order to save others. Take a tip from Lars von Trier and Niels Vorsel, who play themselves in Von Trier’s meta movie Epidemic. As they write a script for a movie about a spreading virus, such an outbreak occurs in real-life, as well. Did they create the disease through their writing, or is it just a coincidence? Either way, we can parallel their tale with the media’s creation, or least escalation, of a plague by writing too much about it.

2. Don’t Keep the Plague a Secret

As we already acknowledged, it’s never a good idea to attempt a complete cover-up when dealing with the discovery of a virus, plague, biochemical accident, or what have you. This is evident in all the top-secret missions and quarantines by the U.S. government that go wrong. If you think you’ve successfully confined or eradicated the virus, chances are you’re wrong. It will just resurface years later, on a much worse scale. Or, maybe you’ve secretly kept a sample of the disease in order to perform research, probably to employ it in a new/another weapon. In many films, such as Outbreak, the hushing military men involved in cover ups don’t succumb to the virus they’ve covered-up, and in other films, such as Chill Factor, the destructive scientist isn’t justifiably killed off by the vengeful biochemical terrorist, but in the real world, heroic protagonists might not be there to save you (and the rest of humanity) when your mistake boomerangs back.

3. Don’t Bomb the Plague

This is complimentary to the above lesson, because most films involving a government or military cover-up of an outbreak also involve a plan to wipe out that outbreak with an explosion of some kind. The original hushed-up outbreak in Outbreak is thought to be eradicated with a bomb, and in The Crazies the military wants to destroy an infected town with nuclear weapons. But as we see in the former, such means aren’t guaranteed to make the plague go away. In The Andromeda Strain, it’s even learned that the threatening bacteria will be strengthened by an atomic bomb, which is unfortunate since the underground facility in which the alien organism is being studied is equipped with a self-destruction mechanism employing such weaponry. Fortunately the lab also has a way to disarm that bomb, but it’s best to just not have such “safety” measures in the first place.

4. Bring Out Your Not Dead Yet

Historically people have survived plagues by quickly disposing of the victims. “Bring out your dead,” is the famous call for people to carry out those family members who’ve died, whether from the plague or otherwise, so the diseased corpses don’t spread to the remaining healthy. It’s also part of the zombie outbreak mythology. You want to destroy the brain of the dead before the corpse can turn into the undead. But we also learn from Monty Python and the Holy Grail that disposing of family members before they show symptoms can be a preventive measure. Dad might not be dead yet, but he probably will be soon, so it’s best to just isolate yourself from the threat as early as possible. The same goes for zombies. Don’t wait for the bitten to die before shooting them in the head. It may be tough, as we can see from the standoff in Shaun of the Dead, but sometimes you just have to put Mom out of her misery, especially if it will help you and your friends stay alive.

5. Time Travel to a Year Before/After the Plague

In 12 Monkeys, a virus has decimated most of the world’s population, and the survivors live underground waiting for the earth’s surface to be inhabitable again. But there’s another solution: send someone back in time to find the cause of the outbreak — not necessarily to stop it from happening, but at least to figure out a cure for those in the present (future?). Of course, to follow the lessons learned from this movie you must first survive the initial outbreak. Those of you without the patience and the hope needed for that plan may rather treat yourself with the plot of The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, in which the time travel goes the other way. In the movie, a group of 14th century Englanders escapes the Black Death by digging a tunnel through the earth and winding up in modern day New Zealand.

6. Get Pregnant

Trying to bring a baby into the world may seem like a bad idea when it seems the world is ending, but in many films a pregnant woman is actually a symbol of hope for a brighter future. The cure for the pandemic in Children of Men is literally dependent on a pregnant woman, but in other plots a knocked up character is merely a figurative reminder for the protagonist that survival is necessary and eradicating the threat of plague is urgent. See the wife of Richard Widmark in Panic on the Streets, or the fiancée of Nicolas Cage in The Rock. Or, most obviously, the woman in 1918, who gives birth to a second child after her husband and first born fall victim to the real flu pandemic of that titular year.

7. Don’t Seek Sanctuary

As much as it seems logical to hide yourself away from the plague, most sanctuaries end up being nothing more than a dead end. Whether it’s an isolated farmhouse (Night of the Living Dead), a shopping mall (Dawn of the Dead), a skyscraper in the middle of an island (Land of the Dead), a bar (Shaun of the Dead) a castle (28 Days Later…; Flesh + Blood), or any other seemed safe haven, the disease will spread to you somehow. And even if the plague doesn’t come to you via undead carrier or through the air, you might end up fighting against other potential survivors. The pressure and environment of isolation and confinement can cause primal conflicts, and you may end fending off new threats, like soldiers and biker gangs, in addition to the plague.

8. Leave Civilization

The exception to the above rule is if you can find sanctuary that’s far away from civilization. For example, the titular group of Cecil B. DeMille’s Four Frightened People escapes from a plague-ridden ship and finds a temporary safe haven in a Malayan jungle where they live more Tarzan-like. Of course, there are new threats in the form of animals and primitive tribesmen, and some of them do die, and ultimately the survivors do return to their homes, so perhaps this isn’t the film to learn from. So, what about the 1980 Japanese film Virus, in which George Kennedy, Edward James Olmos and 861 others survive the near-wipeout of humanity by being in a scientific expedition in Antarctica? Well the South Pole sounds like a good place to be, then, especially since viruses in many movies, including Chill Factor, require a hotter climate to flourish. But then again, there’s a chance the virus originated with aliens who are actually hibernating underneath the ice of Antarctica, as in The X-Files movie.

9. Don’t Take Any Vaccines, Ever

You might think that a vaccine is the best solution for surviving a plague, but that’s not necessarily true. This “cure” might have been released too early, and may actually kill you, as does the vaccine in the 1945 film Strange Confession. Maybe, like Lars von Trier’s character in the film-within-the-film in Epidemic, your doctor is accidentally spreading the virus he means to cure. Or, as happens in The Invasion, the “vaccine” could actually be the virus, which is being purposefully spread by one of its evil victims. Actually, the big lesson to learn from The Invasion is that diseases are good for us, because people who have suffered from afflictions like syphilis and scarlet fever are immune to the film’s alien fungus. Just as you shouldn’t take too many antibiotics when you’re young or else you’ll never develop a good immune system, you shouldn’t shy away from acquiring viruses that your body may fight off on its own. You might suffer a bit here and there, but what doesn’t kill you will actually make you stronger.

10. Actually, There is No Hope for Survival

Most of the movies about outbreaks, viruses, plagues, zombies, etc. that we’ve viewed actually end unhappily, or at the very best ambiguously. Even some that we’ve already mentioned, such as 12 Monkeys, fail to present us with a guaranteed method of survival. Others really are left to some military-trained scientist or super soldier to save the day (i.e. I Am Legend; The Omega Man; Resident Evil), and some of those protagonists still end up sacrificing themselves for the benefit of the rest of humanity. At best we can assume that at least a few people will survive, and then another devastating plague will come about in the future that will kill off some of their ancestors, and the cycle will continue. So, with that in mind, just cross your fingers, say your prayers and hope the media is making a bigger deal out of this swine flu than it really is.

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