From Contagion (courtesy Warner Bros.)

A lot of people are currently looking at weeks, if not more, of isolation — or as we’re now calling it, social distancing — thanks to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. With various venues getting shut down, including movie theaters in cities like New York and Los Angeles, we have to keep ourselves entertained at home. To that end, here are a few timely movie options to stream … as long as you don’t mind possibly exacerbating any paranoia over infectious diseases.


There’s a good chance you’ve already watched this one recently, as it’s gotten a massive resurgence in attention thanks to the news around COVID-19. The star-studded plot, about a pandemic that originates in China and causes a widespread breakdown in the social order, superficially resembles our current situation. It’s the specific details, though, like a scene that’ll make you conscious of how often you touch your face, or a subplot about “fake news” years before we had the term, that truly resonate.

On various services.

12 Monkeys

A worldwide pandemic is just the backstory for this time travel film, in which Bruce Willis continually journeys to the past from his post-apocalyptic present in order to find the source of the outbreak so that the survivors in his own time can cure it. It’s an exploration of free will and fate carried out with director Terry Gilliam’s typical offbeat sensibility.

On various services.


A thriller taking place almost entirely within a radio station recording room, this has a sci-fi twist on the outbreak genre. The contagion (a sort of rage zombie disease) is spread not by physical contact, but the spoken word. The result is a tense game of trying to talk around certain ideas, lest the characters get infected by the mind-virus.

On iTunes.

93 Days

This is the only fiction film on this list that’s based on real events — namely, the 2014 Ebola outbreak, a situation which has been compared and contrasted with COVID in various ways. It tells the true story of the doctors who worked to contain Ebola when it spread to Nigeria. Crucially, as a Nigerian production, it firmly eschews any white savior narrative one might expect from a Hollywood film.

On Netflix and Amazon Prime.

It Comes at Night

This is basically as bleak as this genre can get. Set at the very end of an apocalyptic viral scenario, the few survivors are wracked with distrust over the possibility of infection. Death looms not as a danger but a dark inevitability over the story, which doesn’t stop the way it plays out from being any less grim.

On Netflix, Kanopy, and various other services.

Night of the Living Dead

We may not have to fear COVID sufferers attacking us, but almost every zombie film is essentially a coded investigation into group dynamics and various social ills. And that all started here, with George Romero’s low-budget classic. The zombies are merely a pretext through which we can see how people come together in a crisis … or more hauntingly, fail to.

On Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Criterion Channel, and other services.

The Resident Evil Series

On the complete opposite end of the zombie movie spectrum are these six films, based on the popular video game franchise, which downplay horror in favor of increasingly dazzling action. Unfairly maligned by too many critics, this series is actually an engaging meditation of gaming itself, told with continual visual inventiveness, particularly in the last three films. Just look at the opening of Retribution, linked above!

On various services.

28 Days Later

One more zombie film and we’re done, I promise. This one reinvented that genre for the new millennium, doing away with tropes like shambling zombies and gradual infection in favor of running ghouls, prioritizing propulsive intensity over all else. The early scenes of the protagonist wandering a deserted London have eerie fresh resonance now.

On Hulu and various other services.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Many have pointed out how institutional inadequacy has worsened COVID by drawing parallels to the AIDS pandemic, which was similarly intensified by governmental neglect. There are a variety of historical films about the worst days of the AIDS crisis, but few match up to this recent French drama. It’s deeply affecting in its portrayal of ACT UP in the 1990s, not just through its depiction of young people grappling with premature mortality, but also in how it observes the minute details of political organization, debate, and activism.

On Hulu, Kanopy, and other services.

We Were Here / How to Survive a Plague

On the documentary front are these two looks at the AIDS crisis, which make for a great double feature. We Were Here is somber and intimate, told via the testimony of just five people who lived through those days — a counselor, a nurse, an activist, an artist, and a florist who supplied flowers for countless funerals. How to Survive a Plague draws from archival materials, and is much more intense, laying out how groups like TAG and ACT UP fought to force the US government to recognize and take action on the issue.

We Were Here is on Amazon Prime, Hoopla, Kanopy, and other services.
How to Survive a Plague is on various services.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.

9 replies on ““Viral” Movies About Outbreaks and Pandemics to Watch While You Social Distance”

  1. You left out Safe, directed by Todd Haynes, starring Julianne Moore; And The Stand miniseries based on the Stephen King book.

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