Biology is creeeeepy. At least, that’s the lesson I’ve learned from early readers of my new thriller, Child Zero, which takes place in a post-antibiotic near future. As a former molecular biologist, I’d been laboring under the misapprehension that biology was neato. My bad, I suppose.
Lee Child, of Jack Reacher fame, called Child Zero “really scary.” New York Times bestsellers Joseph Finder and Tess Gerritsen opted for “terrifying.” So did Edgar Award winner Lou Berney, who added that it gave him nightmares “in the best possible way.” (Sidebar: is that even a thing? God, I hope so—because otherwise, Lou secretly hated my book.) Acclaimed authors Matthew FitzSimmons and Matthew Quirk, themselves no strangers to white-knuckled entertainment, described it as “chilling.”
Since Child Zero seems to be scaring the bejesus out of everybody, I thought a fun way to celebrate its release would be an alphabetical roundup of my eight favorite biological horror movies.
Why biological horror rather than, say, body horror? Because even though the latter is an accepted horror subgenre, I’m not convinced everything on my list qualifies. Besides, I’m here to hype a biological thriller, not a body horror novel—so, y’know, synergy!
Why eight? Because that’s how many I felt like including. If you don’t like it, make your own dang list. (Seriously, please do; I’d be psyched to read it.)
Why alphabetical? Because I don’t have the heart to rank them, but my obsessive-compulsive tendencies insist on some kind of organizational schema—and if I list them by release date, two stone classics wind up buried in the middle of the list, rather than bookending it.
Why movies? Why not? God, what is this, some kind of interrogation? Let’s just get to the list, already!
Imagine walking into the theater to see Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece with no idea what it’s about. The trailer, itself a classic of the form, gives almost nothing away—containing neither a single line of dialogue, nor a glimpse of the titular creature, to say nothing of the face-hugging, chest-bursting horrors the crew of the Nostromo will soon be subjected to. In space, no one can hear you scream, but I bet the people in the theater next door sure could. There aren’t many perfect movies in this world. Alien is one of ’em.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
CHILD ZERO would not exist without Michael Crichton. Michael Crichton, as we know him, wouldn’t have existed without his breakthrough novel, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, faithfully adapted in 1971 by Robert Wise. (Wise also directed West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Haunting, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture—as well as editing Citizen Kane. Talk about range.) In 2003, the Infectious Diseases Society of America declared The Andromeda Strain “the most significant, scientifically accurate, and prototypic of all films of this genre.” I’d add that it’s also scary as eff.
Epidemiologically speaking, hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola don’t keep me up at night, because they’re bloodborne, and tend to burn so hot and fast, they don’t spread very far. What does keep me up at night? Airborne diseases with high basic reproduction numbers and mortality rates, such as COVID-19 or Contagion’s fictitious MEV-1. Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller plays like a thinking person’s Outbreak, in large part because screenwriter Scott Z. Burns really did his homework—consulting with numerous experts, including Laurie Garrett and Anthony Fauci.
The Fly (1986)
To be honest, I haven’t seen this movie in decades, and have no intention of ever doing so again. See, I’ve got a serious bug phobia, so revisiting Jeff Goldblum’s slow transformation into a grotesque, insectoid creature ain’t exactly my idea of a good time. That said, any piece on biological horror that fails to mention David Cronenberg is suspect at best, and this flick is as Cronenbergian as it gets. Be forewarned, though—even if you’ve got an affinity for creepy crawlies, this movie isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
Werewolves have long been metaphors for man’s basest urges—and, yes, my use of a gendered term is intentional. By starring two young women, and linking lycanthropy to menstruation, Ginger Snaps plays like a feminist response. It also happens to be funny as hell. Neither of those things will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with director John Fawcett’s work as cocreator and frequent director of cult series Orphan Black.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
For me, this isn’t so much a movie as it is the urtext of my nightmares. Now, of course, I realize director Philip Kaufman’s version is a queasy reimagining of a 1956 flick that was, itself, based on a Jack Finney novel. When I first saw it, way too young, all I knew was that it shook me to my core. The thought of everyone I love being replaced by monstrous replicas—or, in a common riff on the classic trope, controlled by parasites—is one that haunts me to this day. On the rare occasion I wake up screaming, it’s a safe bet body snatching is to blame.
Of the two zombie-adjacent movies I considered for this list, this is the only one that made the cut. (The other, 28 Days Later, is a terrific movie, but its rage virus doesn’t make a ton of epidemiological sense.) Why did I choose to include Pontypool? Well, for one thing, I think more people oughta see it—and for another, the notion of an affliction transmitted by spoken language is as inventive as it is horrifying.
The Thing (1982)
When The Thing debuted in 1982, it was such a critical and commercial failure, it sent John Carpenter’s career into a tailspin. That never ceases to astonish me, because I consider it the finest horror movie ever made—and, these days, I’ve got plenty of company. I don’t wanna spoil the plot, because those who’ve never seen it are better off going in (ahem) cold. A former lab-mate told me it’s tradition among those who overwinter in Antarctica, where the story takes place, to screen The Thing as soon as the last plane of the season is wheels-up—a morbid ritual I wholeheartedly endorse.