The Top Ten Deadliest Movie Diseases

Contagion wasn't the first killer virus movie, and it won't be the last. Here are the scariest fictional movie ailments so far.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Contagion was not the first killer virus movie, and it sure as hell won’t be the last. The history of cinema is filled with fictional diseases tearing their way through the human body, because the real thing would be too depressing. Note the distinct differences between Outbreak and And the Band Played On, for the example. Hard to put a helicopter chase in the second one, isn’t it? So we’ve put together our list of the Top Ten Deadliest Movie Diseases to honor the made up viruses and bacteria that would destroy the world if they weren’t the result of too much writer’s block and not enough research. Enjoy.


10. The Reaper Virus, from DOOMSDAY (2008)

Neil Marshall’s apocalyptic cannibal/medieval/cyborg/epidemic film is perhaps the weirdest movie its kind, and probably the only movie in its (highly specific) sub-genre. The Reaper Virus is ravaging England to the extent that Scotland, predictably, is utterly quarantined while Londoners hide out in their posh apartments waiting for the whole thing to blow over. Years later, the virus reemerges and a badass hero girl played by Rhona Mitra is sent into the now-apocalyptic wasteland of Scotland to find a cure. The film plays like Marshall dropped acid, watched a whole bunch of 1980s genre movies and then wrote down what he remembered the next day, and sometimes that’s a good thing. It’s a lively and entertaining film, but it’s brought down by an extreme lack of focus. Until then, the Reaper Virus leads to mankind’s downfall and a whole bunch of badass action sequences and car chases. There’s a reason it’s #10, but it’s still pretty darned cool.


9. MacGregor’s Syndrome, from BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997)

We couldn’t resist putting the richly, deservedly maligned Batman and Robin on our list of the deadliest movie diseases, but really it’s just a stand-in for every stupid movie that ever made up a deadly, degenerative disease with vague symptoms that have little to no effect on the victim’s appearance. MacGregor’s Syndrome, from which both Alfred Pennyworth and Mr. Freeze’s wife suffer in Batman and Robin, was probably made up because a real-life incurable disease would bring down the lighthearted tone of the film, and would be difficult to cure in the Batman universe while actual audience members potentially suffered from it, without a cure in sight. MacGregor’s Syndrome is of course a mutation of Ali McGraw’s Disease, which was invented for the romantic classic Love Story and somehow made the sufferer even more attractive as it ravaged their body.


8. Strickler’s Disease, from MIMIC (1997)

Sometimes the deadliness of a disease is offset by the means by which it’s cured. The Andromeda Strain is an excellent movie about a scary space virus, but it didn’t make our list because the cure is (SPOILER) just breathing a lot (END SPOILER). The virus in Guillermo del Toro’s underrated horror movie Mimic doesn’t have that problem. Spread by cockroaches and killing the world’s children, scientists Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam manage to eradicate it by creating a new breed of cockroaches that destroy the carriers… and then, predictably, grow exponentially in size, start walking on their hind legs and eat people in the subways. A clever film despite the goofy premise, and boasting some solid shocks, it was nevertheless a box office dud that Guillermo del Toro openly makes fun of to this day. He’s too hard on himself, that guy. Maybe the Blu-Ray Director’s Cut coming out later this month will make him feel better.


7. Motaba, from OUTBREAK (1995)

Before Contagion, perhaps the best-known epidemic movie was Outbreak, about a mysterious African virus called “Motaba” that winds up in the Midwest after Patrick Dempsey steals a monkey. At the time, Outbreak was a pretty memorable thriller, featuring a semi-realistic portrayal of the CDC, an all-star cast that included the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr., and one of the better helicopter chases ever shot. It’s aged a bit, and its unrealistic depiction of virus control procedures seriously bring the story down. (Apparently it only takes a few hours to create, test and then produce a cure for the disease, which flies in the face of all logic.) But despite that, Wolfgang Peterson’s energetic direction makes Motaba into a memorable killer, depicting with flare how the virus is transmitted in a memorable movie theater sequence and a whirligig shot through a series of ventilation shafts.


6. The Carnosaur Virus, from CARNOSAUR (1993)

A lot of people remember Carnosaur for one of two things: that it was the “other” dinosaur movie that came out the same year as Jurassic Park, and that Gene Siskel, of all people, actually liked it. In his defense, that was the same year that Roger Ebert also gave a “Thumbs Up” to Cop and 1/2. In his better defense, Carnosaur is actually a pretty good movie. It’s got a dorky Roger Corman-ish charm (fitting, since Roger Corman produced), and more importantly, for this list anyway, one of the freakiest diseases in movie history: the Carnosaur Virus, which causes the infected women to give birth to man-eating dinosaurs and die in the process. It sounds silly, but only if you don’t think about it too hard. If you actually visualize how truly gruesome, awful and borderline apocalyptic that epidemic would be, it’ll give you some damned interesting nightmares. The Carnosaur Virus: one of many great fictional diseases to avoid at all costs.


5. The Fever, from CABIN FEVER (2002)

Flesh-eating viruses… You gotta love ‘em. Or… no, “hate” is probably the better word. (There’s a thin line, after all.) Hostel director Eli Roth made his directorial debut with Cabin Fever, a lively but scattershot horror comedy about a group of annoying teenagers who go out to a cabin in the woods and are accidentally exposed to a disease that causes their flesh to rot off. The comedy doesn’t always work (try explaining the “pancakes” scene without using the words “non sequitur” and we’ll give you a dollar), but the horror is palpable as beautiful young lads and lasses start peeling their own flesh off by the pound.


4. James Franco’s Disease, from RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was better than anyone (ever) thought it would be, thanks to some great motion-captured performances and a script that was surprisingly freed from Hollywood convention because it was a prequel. One of the better plot developments to spring from this was the introduction of a deadly virus that wasn’t stopped by the end of the film and will – as we know from the previous/future films – wipe out most of humanity. Most interestingly, it’s the result of pure intentions, created accidentally by James Franco when he tries to invent a cure for Alzheimer’s. An honorable mention here goes out to Twelve Monkeys, which we made jokes about before the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes but turned out to be a surprisingly related tale of an apocalyptic, monkey-related, San Francisco-based sci-fi epidemic.


3. MEV-1, from CONTAGION (2011)

Normally we wouldn’t consider putting a movie that comes out this very weekend on a “Top Anything” list, but Contagion’s a damned good movie so we’re cool with it this time. A seemingly realistic story (at least until the microbiologists start picking it apart), Contagion’s protagonist is actually MEV-1, a Bird Flu-like disease that’s as deadly as it is banal, since it’s contracted through mere breathing and physical contact with water glasses and doorknobs and the like. Soderbergh’s star-studded film follows a large ensemble of characters as they suffer from, profit from, try desperately to avoid, and vainly attempt to eradicate MEV-1, which is leading to the matter-of-fact downfall of society at large. A spooky, understated movie that’s as powerful as this kind of thing gets.


2. ???, from CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)

We never actually confirmed that it was a virus, but the mysterious ailment that spreads throughout the world certainly is terrifying in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi masterpiece from 2006. It doesn’t kill you; it just kills the world by preventing anyone from conceiving or bearing children. By the time the film begins, the youngest human being on the planet – already 18 – is dead, and the clock is ticking to find a cure before everyone on the planet gets too old to repopulate the Earth. Clive Owen plays a hapless but still hunky guy (it’s Clive Owen after all) who winds up protecting the only pregnant woman on Earth so scientists can study her and figure out how to save humanity. Cuaron isn’t interested in the logistics of the virus, or the will of God, or whatever, and focuses instead on how the innate hopelessness affects humanity at large. And it’s not pretty at all.


1. Every Zombie Virus Ever, from EVERY ZOMBIE MOVIE EVER (1968-Present)

The first modern zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, introduced a space virus that reanimated the corpses of the dead into mindless cannibal foot shufflers. We suspect the popularity of the genre, which quickly ballooned into one of the largest horror sub-genres around, had a lot to do with the fact that the “space disease” part of the story was downplayed. Since then, viruses have led to just about every zombie epidemic ever, from the Rage Virus in 28 Days Later (a zombie movie in everything but name) to the T-Virus in the over-the-top Resident Evil series. The focus on infection, the end of the world subplots and the overall grossness of the zombie virus has made it the most famous fictional disease in history. Everyone knows what they’d do if the zombie epidemic broke out, even if it’s just freak out and die quickly. What are the odds that so silly an idea would become one of the most popular storytelling devices of the modern age? Well, pretty good, we suppose…