The Pandemic – as a Horror Genre

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So it’s Come to This: A Reel Reviews Clip Show

Most of my writing (and time) is focused on Government IT, but movies are my escape – and always have been. (NOTE 1, notes at the end) During the pandemic I’ve been watching them at home at a steady pace, usually on assignment for Reel Reviews - a movie review show that I record with my friend Chike Coleman for Urbana Public Television. 

Chike selects the films, and we both like horror, so our films skewed that way recently. Maybe that’s what led to me this prediction…


Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.


My prediction: there will be a spurt of horror movies inspired by the pandemic released in the next few years. It will be a dominant theme for a while.

It is too easy to tap into our fears, especially in the near future, while we wait for the next COVID-like virus to hit. I see an analogy in Zombie movies, which have a similar plot (deadly virus spreads through population) and have proved an extremely effective sub-genre (NOTE 2). The pandemic genre has a scarier unseen enemy, permitting more time to build suspense… and with less gore, too. 

Actually, too late - there already was a pandemic horror movie: Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh and released in 2011 after the SARS and MERS breakouts of the early 2000s.  Chike picked this as a movie for us to watch in April 2020. 

In Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow brings a virus back to Minnesota from Hong Kong (via Chicago!) and it proceeds to spread through the population. The film moves quickly and tells the story mostly from the perspective of CDC employees who are contact tracing, researching vaccines, and creating pop-up hospitals. Many scenes show the experience of Paltrow’s husband (Matt Damon) over several months through the pandemic with food rationing, riots, a breakdown of law and order, and even a homemade prom for his daughter. 

Worth emphasizing: the virus in the film is far deadlier than COVID, with a terrifyingly fast death. Still, there was an amazing amount that the film got right about the details, even down to homemade proms. (At the time we recorded our show, our community had a small outbreak from a teen dance at a private home.)

Here’s what we said about the movie in April. The Contagion discussion starts 16 minutes in, after we discuss Heat. LinkedIn won't link to a video at a specific starting point, so here's a direct link:

After Contagion, and no doubt primed by the pandemic, I began to see echoes of the COVID experience in other films.

For the next episode we watched Vivarium and even though it’s not a pandemic film, it was about a couple trapped in a house for months.  The couple (played by Jessie Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) are house hunting at the start of the film. They follow a sales agent to a new housing development and find themselves stranded when he vanishes. They drive their car but cannot escape the tangled streets – and keep finding themselves driving in circles – until they run out of gas… in front of the same house. They see no people anywhere, and they have no choice but to stay in the home overnight. Even by day when they run and climb from one yard to the next, they wind up reaching only the same house – never seeing anyone. Then food begins appearing for them and soon a baby is left in a box for them. They learn they must raise the baby in the house, and the boy both ages quickly and quickly becomes a miserable burden on them. Things get worse. I won’t ruin the ending. 

The movie wasn’t great, but the sense of being stranded in a home had a different impact during COVID. Here’s what we said at the time, in May 2020. Our pandemic discussion occurs around 11:20 if you want to jump to that part:


Later in the very same episode, we talked about the 1992 Jackie Chan movie Supercop (recommended… if you like Jackie Chan films, which I do). Coincidentally, at a point in the film he is sent to Wuhan, China to shelter away! He’s hiding because he’s on the run from the police, even though he’s an undercover cop. Don’t ask… it’s a complex plot – watch me try to describe it in this clip: (NOTE 3)

This kept happening to us; films continued to resonate on a different level due to COVID. This is what made me think that all of us will have a new frame of reference for horror films, to trigger our collective fears about viruses… or just being stuck in a monotonous trapped existence.

For example, Palm Springs - released in July 2020 through Hulu and starring Andy Samberg. It would have had a limited theatrical release… if there were theaters to show it. (NOTE 4) At the beginning of the film, we see Nyles (Samberg) wake up with his girlfriend, who is the bridesmaid at a wedding that night. We watch Nyles drink his way through the day, give a surprisingly amazing wedding speech, and end the day by seducing the maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti) – only to get shot by an arrow and escape into a cave with Sarah following him. Turns out that Nyles is stuck reliving the same day over and over – and now that she entered the cave so is Sarah. From there, the movie milks the comedy (and pathos) in the scenario of reliving the same day repeatedly. 

The echoes of the pandemic came from Nyles’ nihilism: stuck in a loop, he has given up hope. Sheltering in place, we associate with the redundancy of his life, which plays out in the same resort, trapped with the same people. Even though he’s reliving what seems to be a pleasant day, it’s still the same thing over and over – and he hates it.

Chike and I watched it in July (and paired it with a different take on the timeloop concept: Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.) Here’s what we said about Palm Springs in July. A link that jumps to the 11:50 point:

Other films we watched also had characters trapped in a location. For example, David Franco’s The Rental takes place at a house on the Oregon coast, and shows two couples who go away for a weekend only to have a series of unfortunate events.  I’ll defer to my description in the episode here:

In fact, this was the movie that made me think about one other aspect of the pandemic: the exciting idea of filmmakers who have used the time trapped at home to create the next lo-fi horror masterpiece. Another impetus for this insight was finally watching Paranormal Activity over the break – a film I’d shown in my theater (see NOTE 1) but never actually gotten a chance to see! (NOTE 5)

Made for $15,000 and released in 2007, Paranormal Activity is the most profitable movie of all time. (This is a trivia question that comes up – now you know!) The film begins with the purchase of a camera by Micah so that he can record the strange events taking place in the house he shares with his girlfriend, Katie. Over the course of the film, Micah records events during the day and overnight. In the film, he’s a day trader (Katie’s job isn’t clear) and… they spend pretty much the whole movie in the house – it’s like they never go outside. 

Even though there’s a completely different source of horror in the film (I’m not giving too much away… the name of the film does that), filmmaker Oren Peli wrote/directed/shot/edited a stimulating film for a pittance and from within one house – and that was in 2007!  I can only imagine what some creative people are making now while sheltering in place, and I look forward to watching them with Chike.


NOTE 1: It’s becoming only a blip in my life through the rear-view mirror, but I took a 3-year detour from my career to operate a one-screen Art House movie theater. I did it because I love going to the movies, and I always wanted my own business, so this was an opportunity to live out my dream and run a business based on something I am that passionate about.   It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and also one of the most rewarding (as long as you omit “financially rewarding” from the definition of “rewarding”).  If you want to read more about my movie experience, please see this post on “How to Watch a Movie” - sadly not a pressing issue during the pandemic ( my prediction of the failure of movie theaters… BEFORE the pandemic (, or my appreciation of The Room and what I learned about running a business from one of the worst movies of all time (

NOTE 2: Zombie movies are absolutely the most terrifying genre for me. Here’s why: everyone dies, because it’s a mathematical certainty that once zombieism hits a certain rate of growth then it's only a matter of time. Even if the specific film ends with its characters alive, it’s only to fight another day against the growing zombie hordes.  This is why the genre works so well – during the short time when people are holding out against the spreading threat you have a rich canvas to tell stories. The movie that frightened me most in my life was Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, because it captures that period of growing desperation and has an ending that magnificently punctuates the bleakness of humanity’s outlook against the zombie plague. (Sorry George Romero fans, but I like the remake better than the excellent original! However, please check out Romero’s Diary of the Dead - and for a fun double feature, watch it with Cloverfield. Both used the first-person found footage format very well, and both were in theaters at the same time: February 2008!) I also want to credit Daybreakers (2009) with applying the same logic to vampire movies. If every vampire bite either kills people or creates more vampires, then there's eventually going to be a shortage of people. Daybreakers does a great job with that.

NOTE 2.1: After I wrote all of the rest of this piece, Chike and I discussed another zombie film: "Train to Busan" and during the review Chike independently brought up that the 2004 Dawn of the Dead is his scariest movie ever, too! (Jump to 26:30 for that.)

NOTE 3: Just for the record: when we narrate the movie descriptions, we are NOT watching the trailers. Jason drops the trailer videos in later, and it is just a serendipitous delight when the description seems to align with the trailer. Of course, many other times we wind up going on much longer than the trailer and it’s completely disjointed.

NOTE 4: *SIGH* I am completely depressed about the future of movie theaters as a widespread industry, as I discussed here: (

NOTE 5: This was common – there are lots of movies I showed that I never saw. Another one I watched during the pandemic was The Descent. Interesting note on that one: definitely check out the very different ending of the Director’s Cut. It’s as different from the theatrical release as the Director’s Cut of Brazil – still one of my favorite movies ever even if (and this is the weird part) I actually saw the theatrical ending first. I liked that ending at the time, but then I had my mind blown later by the Director’s Cut.

FINAL NOTE: On the sub-title of this post: I’m compelled to note that this is an arcane reference to a Simpsons episode ( – and I couldn’t pass up the chance to use it, in the hope that even one person out there read that and smiled knowingly.