The scariest things on-screen are not knife-wielding maniacs, natural disasters, monsters or Julia Roberts's teeth—they are mean microbes. Hollywood knows that nothing gets under moviegoers' skin like the prospect of picking up some nasty disease from your fellow man. If you're the type that wipes down with Purell after venturing out in public, prepare to be terrified by Steven Soderbergh's latest, Contagion, which infects the box office this weekend. In the film that stars Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Gwyneth Paltrow, a deadly airborne virus enters the human population in Hong Kong and quickly turns into a worldwide pandemic that the CDC attempts to contain as the infected die within days.
Watching Contagion in the theater makes you acutely aware of how many people around you seem to be dying. Hardly anyone smokes anymore, yet everyone seems to be hacking up tar, sniffling or sneezing, which unintentionally takes Contagion to a whole new level of audience participation.
If that sounds a little too much like life imitating art, don't worry—there are plenty of infectious films on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand that will have you reaching for the Lysol at home. In 1969's The Andromeda Strain, an army satellite infected with an alien virus crashes in New Mexico and kills everyone except an old wino and a baby. In George A. Romero's The Crazies and in the excellent 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant, it's a crashed army cargo plane that unleashes an incurable virus that turns farm folk into homicidal maniacs. The military mucks it up as well in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror by unleashing a viral-laden gas that turns a small town into oozing zombies that Rose McGowan has take out with her machine-gun leg.
A recurring theme in the annals of contagious cinema is how scientists play around with germs in the lab, which leads to worldwide pandemics. In Resident Evil the deadly T-virus, which reanimates dead tissue, is released into Raccoon City by the Umbrella Corporation and spreads across the world—and across three sequels starring Milla Jovovich. Neil Marshall's Doomsday has an entire country quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world for three decades after the Reaper virus decimates the populace. Scientists find a cure for cancer in I Am Legend, but the cure has the unfortunate side effect of turning most of humanity into cannibalistic monsters that burn in the sunlight, which makes life in New York a bear for Will Smith.
Animal activists raid a primate-research lab in 28 Days Later only to have one rescuer bitten by a chimp infected by the Rage virus, which quickly makes people want to rip each other to shreds and continues to be a problem in the sequel, 28 Weeks Later. In another simian-to-human terror scenario, Outbreak's the Motoba virus—which causes the liquefaction of organs in three days—crops up in small-town America for army colonel Dustin Hoffman to deal with before the president firebombs the area.
Got beer? The five college chums vacationing in the woods in Cabin Fever should have drank more of it instead of water that has been contaminated by a virus that makes your skin slough off, like it does for one gal shaving her legs in the tub and for everyone at prom night in Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever.
The film that takes contagious cinema to the final frontier is 12 Monkeys. In a post-apocalyptic future imagined by director Terry Gilliam, a deadly virus has eliminated all but one percent of the earth’s population, forcing them to live underground like rats. Scientists keep sending prisoner Bruce Willis back in time to collect information about the virus before it spreads, but present-day authorities just want to lock him up in a mental institution. Watch enough of these infectious movies at home and you might just end up in the sanitarium with him, along with a face mask, hand sanitizer, vitamin C, antibiotics and all the chicken soup you can carry.