Because human beings are curious creatures, it isn’t enough to live through a pandemic—we also want to experience it through other people’s eyes. This is probably why pandemic-themed movies and television shows have seen a surge in popularity since the global health crisis set in during the spring of 2020.
For your pandemic viewing pleasure, we sifted through dozens of titles (many of which involved a whole lot of zombies) to bring you a curated list of the top 10 pandemic-themed movies and TV shows to watch. Whether you're in the mood for a dramatic sci-fi flick, an action-packed thriller, or even a real-world documentary, we've got you covered. Pandemics can change the world and our individual lives in unthinkable ways—so be sure to watch with caution after living through one of our own.
Below, buckle up for different storylines and browse our list of the 10 best pandemic-themed movies and shows.
This 2011 Steven Soderbergh drama is probably the most highbrow cinematic depiction of a pandemic you are going to find. With an all-star ensemble cast including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Bryan Cranston, Contagion is definitely a top pick for your watchlist. The film’s writer, Scott Burns, even consulted the World Health Organization to make it as accurate as possible.
Similar to the coronavirus pandemic that began to take hold in late 2019, the first character we see returns from a trip to China feeling under the weather—only to realize that this disease is like no other she's seen before. You'll see a fictional interpretation of how global society changes during a crisis, and you'll be able to compare it to the real-world events of 2020. We won't tell you who succumbs to the pandemic first (no spoilers here!), but you might be surprised.
When it came to infectious disease obsession, entertainment in the '90s was defined by Ebola-type viruses. First, there was the '94 book The Hot Zone, Richard Preston’s seriously dramatic nonfiction chronicle of the terrifying viral hemorrhagic fever. Then came Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, and Donald Sutherland, which dominated theaters.
This film takes place in a small California town that is quarantined and locked down after an Ebola-like virus that took out an entire African village is transported to America via a smuggled monkey. Somehow, the disease mutates and becomes airborne, and governmental health organizations like the CDC and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) scramble to create a vaccine before it spreads across the country.
A fictional film based on true events, this Indian movie filmed in the Malayalam language revolves around the deadly 2018 Nipah virus epidemic scare in the Indian city of Calicut. The zoonotic, which was top-listed by the World Health Organization (WHO), had a 75 percent fatality rate—and with no vaccinations or treatment protocol. The movie chronicles the community of the small town infected, who managed to prevail against the virus before it spread outside of their boundaries.
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
This Australian film focuses on a post-apocalyptic pandemic world, in which a virus has transformed the majority of the world into...zombies. The film stars Andy (Martin Freeman) as a father who is trying to protect his daughter from the evils that be. Infected himself, he has only 48 hours to find a safe place for his 1-year-old before it's too late.
Compared by many critics to The Walking Dead, this film builds a connection between the audience and the outbreak "survivors," although it's known during the film that the main character will ultimately reach his own demise. It walks the line between a suspenseful thriller and a horror movie, all while taking viewers along on Andy's journey with his wife, Kay (Susie Porter) to save infant Rosie from her father's budding disease.
Available on: Netflix
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak (2020)
The release of this Netflix documentary, chronicling worldwide efforts to find a cure for the flu, coincidentally coincided with the COVID-19 outbreak with its release in late January of 2020. The coronavirus pandemic hadn't quite made its way around the world yet, but in the coming months, people of all nations were about to experience something entirely new—and this film laid out a framework for how containing global diseases can go wrong.
The episodic docuseries was already an important watch pre-pandemic, as the flu has been ravaging humanity for far too long. But now, due to the heightened awareness of just how impactful a virus can be, it is definitely a must-add for your watchlist. Pandemics like these come around about every 100 years (a fact we all became too familiar with during 2020), and the doctors and researchers in Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak have been making an effort to save lives ahead of time since before COVID-19 was a thought in the public's minds.
Available on: Netflix
In this captivating film, an incredibly infectious and deadly disease is spreading around the world, and four friends—including Brian, played by Chris Pine—are on a mission to find a safe, plague-free haven to live out their lives until a vaccine is found. Follow the group as they make their way through the desert in search of a safe space to wait out the virus. The only problem: On their mission, they encounter infected people who spread the disease within their group, and things start to get messy. Is the disease itself their greatest challenge, or will human nature take over to come between the friends for survival?
The CW attempted to tackle pandemic potential in this short-lived series, which lasted all of one season. It centers around a mysterious virus that lands in Atlanta, where an area is contained while doctors scramble to find a cure. Sound familiar? The plot is eerily similar to Outbreak (and certainly similar to the real world since the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out). However, as far as ratings and reviews go, the show did not fare quite as well. But unsurprisingly, it has recently peaked in popularity due to the current pandemic and virus-themed entertainment popping up around the globe as we endure it.
Available on: Netflix
93 Days (2016)
Another virus film inspired by real life during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, 93 Days centers on a Nigerian epidemic and the struggle to keep it from spreading to Lagos, a large city of 21 million residents. It examines the deadly virus from all aspects, including perspectives of the people who get Ebola (like the Liberian-American diplomat who serves as an early main character) to the medical teams trying to save lives, and the complicated relationships between all involved.
The story in Lagos is eerily familiar to us now, having experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, as it documents how easily and quickly infectious diseases can spread out of control. Thanks to the exceptional teams of researchers and doctors fighting the virus, survivors were able to recount their experiences after the Ebola outbreak hit Lagos.
12 Monkeys (1995)
What do you get when you take Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, and Madeleine Stowe, then throw them into a post-apocalyptic Philadelphia ravaged by a deadly virus? 12 Monkeys: a sci-fi thriller slash time-travel pandemic movie.
Willis plays a time-traveling prisoner who heads back to the '90s to learn about the virus. Pitt is an eco-bioterrorist (who unfortunately may have something to do with the pandemic of the future). During his time travel, he ends up in the wrong year, and as a result, is hospitalized in a mental institution thanks to Stowe, a doctor. The film was also adapted into a television show, which can be streamed via a premium Hulu subscription.
Black Death (2010)
This horror-adventure film, starring Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean, is based on the bubonic plague in 14th-century England. After the Black Death takes over the country, a young monk, Osmund (Redmayne), joins knight Ulric (Bean) to investigate a small town where plague victims are rumored to be coming back from the dead. However, Osmund is also on the hunt to find Averill (Kimberley Nixon), a beautiful woman he was secretly involved with pre-pandemic, who has gone missing.
Black Death is a great pick for those who want to dive into the pandemic-themed film buzz without watching anything that hits too close to home. As a thriller that takes place far back during a time we learned about in the history books growing up, it still fits into the regular world of entertainment while still touching on pandemic themes that suit our modern times.