“Outbreak” – A Disaster Movie for 2020

In the next of my posts about movies which I studied for my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“, I am writing about Outbreak (Wolfgang Peterson, 1995). During the COVID-19 pandemic, this movie has apparently been a popular watch due to its content.

A summary on IMDb is as follows.

Colonel Dr. Sam Daniels has just divorced his wife Robby Keough, who works at the CDC. Out of the blue, he is assigned by his superior General Billy Ford to investigate a lethal disease in an African village with his crew formed by the scientist Casey Schuler and Major Dr. Salt. They are impressed by the disease and Colonel Daniels reports to General Ford his findings afraid of contamination in the USA. However General Ford tells that the disease kills so fast that would never reach their country. However, an African smuggled monkey carrier of the disease is brought to USA and the customs employee Jimbo Scott unsuccessfully tries to sell the animal. He releases the monkey in the woods and spreads the disease in the beginning of an outbreak in a small town in California. Now Colonel Daniels, his ex-wife and their teams must fight the invisible enemy while Colonel Daniels discovers dark secrets from his superior General Donald McClintock.


As I noted in my posts about Deep Impact and Everest, there’s no “disaster” genre on IMDb, so one of the things that I had to consider in writing my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?” was how to define a “disaster” narrative. On top of this, I tried to include the movies studied by Quarantelli (1985) and Mitchell et al. (2000), but this wasn’t always possible and Backdraft (Ron Howard 1991) was eventually excluded as I concluded that there was no actual disaster in this movie (just as I argued that there was no disaster in Jaws that Yacowar included in his study). Outbreak is another which only just remained in the study, being included as much as how, if there had been a real incident like this, how it is likely to have been reported as a “disaster” by the media as much as whether there was a greater disaster or not (c.f. comments in the assessment of Everest).

Another problem with the lack of “disaster” genre on IMDb was finding disaster narratives to watch. There are some people who have provided their own lists and there are a variety of sites on the internet with lists of disaster movies. However, many of these didn’t fit with the more precise definition and consideration of what constitutes a disaster or disaster narrative that I had to take. Unfortunately, the lack of a precise disaster genre also meant that I suspect some films that could, or perhaps should, have been included in the study got missed. A probable example of this is Contagion (Steven Soderbergh 2011), a movie which is not unlike Outbreak in some ways, and which I became aware of thanks to COVID-19 and what films were popular on Netflix, etc in early 2020. Other narratives were not included in the study as I didn’t manage to access a copy in time – for example St. Helens (Ernest Pintoff 1981) which I finally got a copy of recently and watched yesterday.

Returning to Outbreak, in terms of the revised list of conventions that I developed as part of my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“, the movie has 14 out of the 17, but was close to scoring to 17 out of 17.

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