Plagues, People, Law, and Pop Culture: Some Movies, Novels, and History To Enjoy If You Have To Stay Home

If you’re in self-quarantine because of COVID19, or even if you’re not, you might be itching for some contagion movies to watch while you wait for those fourteen days to pass. What to watch? What to watch?

Vulture has some suggestions, depending on how you define “contagion.” It offers films in the categories of “Classic Contagion,” “The Zombies Are Coming,” “Postapocalypse (and More Zombies),” “Life After Infection (and, Still, Some More Zombies),” “A Little Bit Alien,” “Pandemic Comedies!” and “Outbreak Popourri,” with guidance for finding each movie on a streaming service.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, Heather Kelly discusses some of these films, as well as the Netflix series Pandemic, and novels by Ling Ma (Severance), Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), and Max Brooks (World War Z, made into the 2013 film starring Brad Pitt and a 2019 video game (also featuring lots of zombies).

Still looking for zombies? You could binge watch The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010–). The Wrap ranks 10 shows featuring zombies, including TWD, here. 

Older films that you might have missed that have to do with contagion or epidemics include 1950’s film noir Panic in the Streets, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Richard Widmark as a physician working with the U. S. Public Heath Service, who must work quickly to find the carrier of a plague, somewhere in New Orleans. Try justwatch to find streaming options for more movies and tv.

Prefer your plagues on paper? Try these novels.

Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever 1793 (2002). About Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic.

Max Brooks, World War Z (2006).

Albert Camus, The Plague (1948, many English editions), originally published in French as La Peste (1947).

Stephen King, The Stand (1978). A novel about a pandemic. Filmed as a miniseries in 1994. Currently in development as a miniseries.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014). Novel about a swine flu epidemic.

Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954). Classic post-apocaplytic novel that influenced both zombie literature and epidemic novels. Made into several films, including The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007).

Philip Roth, Nemesis (2010). A novel about a polio epidemic in Newark.

José Saramago, Blindness (1997). Originally published in Portugeuse: Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995). Mr. Saramago received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

Prefer non-fiction?

John M. Barry, The Great Influenza (2005). The story of the flu epidemic of 1918.

Molly Caldwell Crosby, The American Plague; The Untold Story of Yellow Fever (2007).

Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (1994). Discussion of past and possible future epidemics, by a public health writer.

Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map (2007). About an 1854 outbreak of cholera in London.

John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005).

Gina Kolata, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (2011).

William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (1976). A classic history of the impacts of epidemics on society.

Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (1994). About the origins of the Ebola epidemic.

Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987).


Finally, we wouldn’t want you to have too much fun, so get ready to contemplate the legal issues involved in these films. Try out the following secondary sources for more about various causes of contagion and their legal effects.

Daniel W. Drezner, Theories of International Politics and Zombies: Revived Edition (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Marouf A. Hasian, Power, Medical Knowledge, and the Rhetorical Invention of “Typhoid Mary,” 21 Journal of Medical Humanities 123-139 (2000).

Dan Hassler-Forest, Cowboys and Zombies: Destabilizing Patriarchal Discourse in “The Walking Dead,”  2 Studies in Comics 339-355 (January 2012). Subscription required.

Judith Walzer Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (Beacon Press, 1996).

Rikk Mulligan, Zombie Apocalypse: Plague and the End of the World, in End of Days: Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity 349 (Karolyn Kinane and Michael A. Ryan, eds., McFarland and Co., 2009).

Darren Peter Parker, Dark Fantasy and the Law: Explorations in Genre: Zombies and the Law–No, Seriously! 39 Alternative Law Journal (August 2014). Subscription required.

Thomas E. Simmons, What Zombies Can Teach Law Students: Popular Text Inclusion in Law and Literature, 66 Mercer Law Review 729 (2014-2015).

Frank M. Snowden, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (Yale University Press, 2019).


For more about plagues and infectious diseases in the movies, see Georgios Pappas, Savvas Seitaridis, Nikolaos Akritidis, and Epaminondas Tsianos, Infectious Diseases in Cinema: Virus Hunters and Killer Microbes, 37 Clinical Infectious Diseases 939-942 (October 2003).

And remember to wash your hands.