Long before the Tri-lateral Commission unleashed the Ebola Virus and Canadian flesh-eating bacteria on an unsuspecting world, conspiracy theorists and science-fiction writers were positing the “what-if” notions of extraterrestrial plagues and, even scarier, earthbound germ warfare.
Two of the best films in the deadly-virus-at-large subgenre were released at the height of the Vietnam War era, when not only the counterculture but the whole of America was abuzz with fears of the emerging biotech sciences, the prospect of space travel, a series of political assassinations and widespread government cover-ups. The science-fiction films of the time reflected those apprehensions, and The Satan Bug and The Andromeda Strain are among the best.
The Satan Bug (1965)
Director John Sturges followed up his classic war picture, The Great Escape with this adaptation of thriller writer Alastair McLean’s novel. From a secret government biological warfare laboratory, mad scientist and evil genius Dr. Hoffman (Richard Baseheart) rips off a handful of beakers containing a lethal viral culture with the nefarious intentions of loosing the “Satan bug” on the populace. In Hoffman’s confused mind, his threats of global buggery will tip the scales of his twisted notion of justice away from a government-playing-God toward a warped-scientist-playing-God.
Scientific investigator Lee Barrett tracks down Dr. Hoffman, attempting to thwart the insane savant’s plans, assisted by the lovely Ann (Anne Francis), a general’s daughter. (Not to be confused with The General’s Daughter). The harrowing film speeds along to an inevitable showdown between Barrett and the bug itself as he battles for control of a turbulent helicopter, spiraling out-of-control and filled with vials of virus. Gulp!
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
In contrast to The Satan Bug’s break-neck pace, The Andromeda Strain takes its time telling the tale of an alien bacteria germinating in the Arizona desert--so much time, in fact, that the film can actually be slow-moving. But what it lacks in fast-paced action, The Andromeda Strain more than makes up for in spooky atmospherics. Based on Michael Crichton’s novel, director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding set up an effective and suspenseful sci-fi thriller in which an extraterrestrial strain of an unknown virus is wreaked upon the Earth when a research satellite crashes near a small town in Arizona. The citizenry dies shortly thereafter, save a baby and a drunk, whose condition apparently “insulates” him from the parasite. (A concept used frequently in sci-fi films thereafter, most recently in The Faculty, where crystal meth is anathema to aliens).
The town is soon invaded by a team of scientists, recruited from labs all over the country. Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill), Dr. Charles Dutton (David Wayne), Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) and Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) race against time to isolate and eradicate the space bug. Well, they don’t exactly race, but time is of the essence as they work in their hi-tech underground research facility to destroy the interstellar microorganism. To make things even more tense, if anything goes haywire, the entire underground lab will self-detonate nuclear-bomb-style, and only the sole, spouseless doctor can reverse the countdown. Yikes!