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The bugs are back

Hollywood has fresh viral horrors ready to cash in on pandemic panic

Coming soon: H1N1: The Motion Picture, Days of Swine and Doses and Babe: The Final Chapter.

Hey, it could happen, obsessed as we've all become with the swine flu pandemic.

Don't worry if you're feeling nauseated or have a headache, by the way. It doesn't mean you have H1N1. Chances are they're symptoms of how much you're dreading a new wave of "epidemic" movies -- a sub-genre that, like zombies, refuses to die.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant) is already developing a new virus thriller laced with social commentary -- "Traffic meets Outbreak" he calls it -- for director Steven Soderbergh. It's on hold pending the outcome of the swine flu scare.

Fear seems almost as contagious as H1N1 during outbreaks of such bugs. And Hollywood historically can't seem to resist going viral, eager to capitalize on our fears of infection and the anxiety, paranoia and bizarre behaviour this can engender.

Some such movies -- like 1996's Virus with Brian Bosworth (enough said) -- should be avoided like the plague.

Early entries, some laughably cheesy in retrospect, turned out to be precursors to modern meditations on viruses, plagues and such. Take for example two of David Cronenberg's gruesomely cautionary 1970s virus-driven horror classics dealing with the potential consequences of sexual promiscuity.

Shivers (1975) dramatized the fallout from sexually transmitted parasites. And Cronenberg's 1977 shocker Rabid overtly revisited the theme, with a contagious motorcycle crash survivor (played by former porno queen Marilyn Chambers) infecting horny strangers by penetrating them with phallic stingers protruding from an orifice in her armpit.

While fears of nuclear attacks fuelled Cold War-era thrillers like Fail Safe (1964), mutations of a new yet familiar menace now rule. Bioterrorism, anthrax, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, germ warfare, plagues such as SARS, the Ebola and West Nile viruses, and inevitably the swine flu, provide plenty of fodder.

The calibre of such disaster flicks varies, of course, but many share similarities. Viruses tend to be fast-acting (28 Days Later), for instance; the usual ragtag group of survivors will be ethnically diverse; there will be infighting.

Memorable recent epidemic flicks include Blindness, Fernando Meirelles's controversial thriller about the social chaos that ensues when the government quarantines victims of an outbreak that causes blindness. In I Am Legend, based on Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi classic that inspired The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971), Will Smith is riveting as a scientist dodging zombie-like cannibals in a desolate Manhattan after a virus meant to cure cancer wipes out humanity.

Director Danny Boyle also did a superb job of conveying social chaos and the dark side of human nature in 28 Days Later, his brainy, unsettling twist on George A. Romero's zombie classics in which animal rights activists unleash a deadly virus in London.

For squirm-inducing entertainment it was hard to beat Outbreak, Wolfgang Petersen's gripping 1995 thriller about scientists racing against time to contain a deadly Ebola-like virus. And Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, in which convict Bruce Willis is sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic world to try to stop a virus released by terrorists, stands on its own as a cult classic.

The Host, the 2006 Korean horror flick about a river monster slithering through Seoul and believed to be carrying a virus is noteworthy for how it incorporates absurdist humour, socio-political commentary and references to germ warfare and SARS.

Going back 30 years, a favourite guilty pleasure was The Cassandra Crossing, the late Victoria-based filmmaker George P. Cosmatos's hokey but engrossing beat-the-clock thriller about an all-star cast of passengers (including Sophia Loren, Richard Harris and Ava Gardner) imperilled by a virus brought on board their European express train by a Euro-trash terrorist.

And no list would be complete without The Andromeda Strain, the riveting 1971 sci-fi thriller based on Michael Crichton's novel about scientists trying to neutralize a deadly alien virus carried on a satellite that crashes into a New Mexico town.

If you're into horror, Freddie Krueger just doesn't cut it anymore as a villain, with such real fears for Hollywood to draw upon.

Even if some hit too close to home for comfort, box-office returns suggest they won't disappear any time soon.

And if the filmmakers are doing their job right, you'll squirm the next time that guy beside you coughs at the movie theatre.