Introducing Pandemic Cinema in Central and Eastern Europe

Mario Slugan
Although movies representing pandemics can be tracked at least to Die Pest in Florenz / The Pest of Florence (Otto Rippert, 1919, Germany), discussion of pandemic movies as a (sub)genre of its own are quite recent. Moreover, the academic work that does exist has mostly seen pandemic movies narrowly, usually as subgenres of existing categories like horror or science fiction. And even when researchers treated the films as genres, they almost exclusively focused on English-language productions despite the international status of the phenomenon. The introduction, therefore, agitates for a need to expand the analysis to other countries and offers the special issue as an early response in that direction.
Eastern Europe; Central Europe; outbreak narrative; plague narrative; COVID-19; genre; pandemic movie; lockdown; syntactic-semantic-pragmatic analysis.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in December 2019, there has been a substantial increase in popularity of movies and TV shows depicting pandemics. Just as the first lockdowns were starting in Western Europe, Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011, USA) portraying a worldwide outbreak of an airborne virus inspired by the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak was propelled into the top 10 most popular films on IMdB in March 2020, where it stayed until April.1 Around the same time, Outbreak (Wolfgang Peterson, 1995, USA) narrating the spread of an Ebola-like virus in a small American town climbed to the top 9 of the most streamed titles on Netflix in the United States. The outbreak of Covid-19 was accompanied by an avalanche of online articles such as “The 79 Best Pandemic Movies to Binge in Quarantine” (Crucchiola and Ebiri 2020) or “Coronavirus: Filme und Serien, die für Pandemie-Zeiten geeignet sind” (Hinz 2020) suggesting what to watch while sitting at home and waiting for the actual pandemic to pass and lockdowns to be lifted.2

In fact, it has recently been argued that the explosion of such popular writings on “pandemic movies” to be found in film magazines, entertainment journals, online commentary, IMdB user generated content, etc. is a driving force behind the discursive formation of a novel film genre – pandemic (Slugan 2021). Where before the Covid-19 outbreak, films like Contagion and Outbreak were primarily categorised as members of genres such as thriller or disaster films, now they are mainly labelled as pandemic movies.

This is not to deny that there was a conception of a category of pandemic movies in the popular press or among scholars prior to the Covid-19 outbreak or that the films depicting pandemics have started appearing only recently. As New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane (2020) pointed out, films tackling the subject can be tracked back to Die Pest in Florenz / The Pest of Florence (Otto Rippert, 1919, Germany). Before 2020, however, the category of pandemic movies included a far smaller subset of films than it does now and was at best deemed to be a subgenre (most often of horror, zombie, or science fiction films) rather than a genre on its own.3

The key early works on the subject were undoubtedly Priscilla Wald’s (2008) and Jennifer Cooke’s (2009) monographs on “outbreak narrative(s)” and “plague narratives”, respectively. These narratives were treated as forms spanning different media, genres and the fiction/nonfiction divide alike, including history, popular science, journalism, literature, theatre, and cinema. When it comes to cinema, both Wald and Cooke treated these narratives primarily as subgenres: for Wald it was a subgenre of “epidemiological horror” (2008: 160) and for Cooke that of zombie movies (2009: 163-184). Undeniably, there has also been work on the representation of contagion in film and television, but again the tendency has been to treat the category not as a standalone genre but as a subset of movies belonging to medical cinema (Oestherr 2004: 155-191) or remake (Foertsch 2001: 162-188).

The author who has devoted most attention to the category of pandemic movies, with a recently published monograph on the subject, is Dahlia Schweitzer (2018). Instead of treating the category as a genre, Schweitzer discusses pandemic movies in terms of cycles which are financially viable for only 5-10 years before the cycle needs to be restarted. The cycle starts with pioneer productions, which breed spectacular productions culminating in a trailblazer hit, followed by reinforcing hits and ending in smaller productions, TV shows, and parodies trying to cash-in on the hype. She identifies three such cycles since the 1990s: globalisation, terrorism/conspiracy, and postapocalypse/zombies, with Outbreak and Contagion exemplifying trailblazer and reinforcing hits of the globalisation cycle.

Depending on how broadly or narrowly the category is construed, different general themes, motifs, and iconography will, of course, be emphasised when a general account of pandemic movies is offered. For instance, the focus on the zombie subgenre and films like Rammbock (Marvin Kren, 2010, Germany) will lead to discussions underscoring the infected undead that will not be able to do justice to films in which the afflicted suffer from a less supernatural affliction like smallpox in Zaraza / The Epidemic (Roman Załuski, 1972, Poland). Here, adopting the current broad understanding of pandemic movies and TV shows, we propose that these works are characterised by the binary opposition between the healthy and the infected, with the peril of infection driving the narrative. While the narrative may hinge on surviving, rebuilding a society, containing the infection, or even discovering a cure, the infected themselves can take the form of vampires, zombies, impassive vessels, rabid creatures, leaking bodies, gruesome corpses, or simply very sick individuals.

Next to the neglect of the discursive dimension behind genre formation and the dominant focus on what Rick Altman (1999) calls the syntactic-semantic approach to film genre, another important drawback of the existing scholarly work is the focus on American films. Even Slugan’s (2021) extension of the study of pandemic movies to pragmatic analysis – the discussion of how the category is labelled – is focused on English-language writings and as such ends up privileging English-language films. This is despite the fact that pandemic movies are an international genre boasting members from around the globe since at least Die Pest in Florenz.

To list just two per decade these films include: Häxan / The Witch (1922, Benjamin Christensen, Sweden/Denmark), The Last Man on Earth (John G. Blystone, 1924, USA), Bílá nemoc / Skeleton on Horseback (Hugo Haas, 1937, Czechoslovakia), Jezebeel (William Wyler, 1939), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (William Dieterle, 1940, USA), Singoalla / The Wind is My Lover (Christian-Jacque, 1949, Sweden/France), The Killer That Stalked New York (Earl McEvoy, 1950, USA), Det sjunde inseglet/ The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden), 80,000 Suspects (1963, Val Guest, UK), The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964, USA), Morte a Venezia / Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971, Italy), Zaraza / Epidemic (Roman Załuski, 1972, Poland), Fukkatsu no hi / Virus (Kinji Fukasaku, 1980, Japan), Variola Vera (Goran Marković, 1982, Yugoslavia), La Peste / The Plague (Luis Puenzo, 1992, Argentina/France/UK), 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995, USA), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002, UK), Pars vite et reviens tard / Have Mercy on Us All (Régis Wargnier, 2007, France), Busanhaeng / Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016, South Korea), and Virus (Aashiq Abu, 2019, India).

This special issue, therefore, is the first edited volume to be devoted to non-English-language pandemic movies and TV shows. Clearly, given the scope of Apparatus, the focus is on productions from Central and Eastern Europe, namely Germany, Poland, and Russia. While Sharon Coleclough discusses Rammbock, a zombie pandemic film, and Mikołaj Kunicki devotes his attention to a realistic depiction of an actual smallpox outbreak in Wrocław in Zaraza, Irina Souch and Greg Dolgopolov turn to Russian TV series production, with Souch focusing on a thriller pandemic Epidemiia / To the Lake (Pavel Kostomarov, 2019, TNT-Premier) and Dolgopolov on four low-budget shows depicting life under quarantine. While the range of approaches and foci differ, all these pieces, importantly, are concerned with traits which set non-English-language productions apart from their English-language counterparts and as such enrich our understanding of the pandemic category and its specific local features. We hope that this is only the first among other such contributions to pandemic movies scholarship.

Mario Slugan
Queen Mary, University of London



2 For similar pieces, see Mario Slugan (2021).

3 The prevalent label for this category was also different – before “pandemic”, the most frequent term according to Google was “virus”.


Mario Slugan is Lecturer in Film Studies and Strategic Lecturer at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. He has authored three monographs – Montage as Perceptual Experience: Berlin Alexanderplatz from Döblin to Fassbinder (Camden House, 2017), Noël Carroll on Film: A Philosophy of Art and Popular Culture (Bloomsbury, 2019), and Fiction and Imagination in Early Cinema: A Philosophical Approach to Film History (Bloomsbury, 2019, forthcoming).


Altman, Rick. 1999. Film/Genre. London.

Cooke, Jennifer. 2009. Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film. Basingstoke.

Crucchiola, Jordan and Bilge Ebiri. 2020. “The 79 Best Pandemic Movies to Binge in Quarantine.” Vulture. April 6.

Foertsch, Jacqueline. 2001. Enemies Within: The Cold War and the AIDS Crisis in Literature, Film, and Culture. Urbana.

Hinz, Anika. 2020. “Coronavirus: Filme und Serien, die für Pandemie-Zeiten geeignet sind.”, April 15.

Lane, Anthony. 2020. “Our Fever for Plague Movies.” New Yorker. May 15.

Maas, Jennifer. 2020. “‘Outbreak’ Is Netflix’s 9th Most-Popular Overall Title in the U.S. Right Now.” March 14.

Ostherr, Kirsten. 2005. Cinematic Prophylaxis: Globalization and Contagion in the Discourse of World Health. Durham.

Schweitzer, Dahlia. 2018. Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World. New Jersey.

Slugan, Mario. 2021. “Pandemic (Movies): A Pragmatic Analysis of a Nascent Genre.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 1-29.

Wald, Priscilla. 2008. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham.


Abu, Aashiq. 2019. Virus. OPM Cinemas.

Bergman, Ingmar. 1957. Det sjunde inseglet/ The Seventh Seal. Svensk Filmindustri.

Blystone, John G. 1924. The Last Man on Earth. Fox.

Boyle, Danny. 2002. 28 Days Later. DNA Films, British Film Council.

Christian-Jacque. 1949. Singoalla / The Wind is My Lover. Roissy Films, Terrafilm.

Christensen, Benjamin. 1922. Häxan / The Witch. Aljosha Production Company, Svensk Filmindustri.

Corman, Roger. 1964. The Masque of the Red Death. Alta Vista Productions.

Dieterle, William. 1940. Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. Warner Bros.

Fukasaku, Kinji. 1980. Fukkatsu no hi / Virus. Toho Company, Haruki Kadokawa Films, Tokyo Broadcasting System.

Gilliam, Terry. 1995. 12 Monkeys. Universal Pictures, Atlas Entertainment, Classico, Twelve Monkeys Productions.

Guest, Val. 1963. 80,000 Suspects. The Rank Organisation, Val Guest Productions.

Haas, Hugo. 1937. Bílá nemoc / Skeleton on Horseback. Moldavia Film.

Kostomarov, Pavel. 2019. Epidemiia / To the Lake. TNT-Premier.

Kren, Marvin. 2010. Rammbock. ZDF, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel (ZDF), Moneypenny Filmproduktion GmbH.

Marković, Goran. 1982. Variola Vera. Art Film 80, Croatia Film.

McEvoy, Earl. 1950. The Killer That Stalked New York. Robert Cohn Productions.

Peterson, Wolfgang. 1995. Outbreak. Warner Bros.

Puenzo, Luis. 1992. La Peste / The Plague. Compagnie Française Cinématographique, The Pepper-Prince Ltd., Oscar Kramer S.A.

Rippert, Otto. 1919. Die Pest in Florenz / The Pest of Florence. Decla-Bioscope AG.

Sang-ho, Yeon. 2016. Busanhaeng / Train to Busan. Next Entertainment World, RedPeter Film, Movic Comics.

Soderbergh, Steven. 2011. Contagion. Warner Bros.

Visconti, Luchino. 1971. Morte a Venezia / Death in Venice. Alfa Cinematografica, Warner Bros., PECF.

Wargnier, Régis. 2007. Pars vite et reviens tard / Have Mercy on Us All. Gaumont, LGM Productions, KL Production, TF1 Films Production, Artémis Productions.

Wyler, William. 1938. Jezebel. Warner Bros.

Załuski, Roman. 1972. Zaraza / The Epidemic. P.P. Film Polski.

Suggested Citation

Slugan, Mario. 2021. “Editorial.” Pandemic Cinema in Central and Eastern Europe (ed. by Raoul Eshelman, Mario Slugan, and Denise J. Youngblood). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 12. DOI:


Copyright: The text of this article has been published under This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner’s terms.