When the Ebola virus came to America, the experts stopped it.
That’s no spoiler for The Hot Zone, which tells the real-life story of a potentially lethal Ebola outbreak in the USA in 1989. But it does make what’s often a chilling look at how easily a deadly virus can run amok (and Ebola is terrifyingly deadly: a character basically explodes from it within the first five minutes) seem almost like comfort viewing. There’s no doubt it’s an edge of your seat thriller, but seeing a crack medical team actually come together to stop a deadly disease from escaping into the general population is also surprisingly close to feel-good viewing in 2020.
Based on Richard Preston’s 1994 best-seller, the story largely focuses on the outbreak of a strange new disease amongst a batch of research monkeys at a facility in Virginia in 1989. While the lab team might not know what’s going on, we do, thanks to an extremely graphic opening sequence in which a passenger on a flight over Africa starts off with boils and vomit and ends up spraying blood all over a doctor. Bad news for the doctor: Ebola is spread via blood, and it’s 90% fatal.
The ill monkeys attract the attention of Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies), a real-life researcher with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Not everyone around her is on board with her fixation, but she has an edge; her mentor, Dr. Wade Carter (Liam Cunningham), was on the ground in Africa in the 70s researching a related virus, and he has a good idea of what they might be up against.
What follows is an edge of your seat thriller that keeps things on a knife edge throughout, whether it’s following Carter’s 70s jungle journey or watching Jaxx cut open a monkey not knowing what she’s going to find. In the way that it focuses on a bureaucratic response to a looming disaster that not everyone can see coming, it’s a lot like the recent series Chernobyl. Only here, everything is reversed. While there are plenty of people who are sceptical of the experts early on – even Jaxx’s husband (Noah Emmerich), who’s also a military man – they come around relatively early, while Jaax’s team swiftly grows to include other on-the-ball specialists like Dr. Peter Jahrling (Topher Grace). They pull together, and they get things done.
The most compelling part of this series today isn’t the obvious thrills, though they most definitely do their job well (never forget: monkeys can be deadly). It’s that it knowingly focuses throughout on the fact that the virus itself is what’s scary. Over and over again it goes through the ways the virus can spread, turning regular activities into potential chain-of-infection nightmares. All the washing and putting on of protective equipment, the way they have to work in pairs when they go into dangerous situations or labs full of virulent diseases, it’s all constantly underlining the fact that this virus is indiscriminately lethal and constant precautions are the only way to beat it.
Time and again this nails what it’s like to live with a potential pandemic in a way that feels almost eerie today. There’s a lot of information in this series about viruses and how they spread, and hearing what the experts are constantly telling us today in a fictionalised context is both weird and strangely reassuring; they’re not just making this stuff up. Even the more emotional scenes feel real in a way they probably wouldn’t have a year ago. The fear shown by Dr Jahrling when he isn’t sure whether he’s become infected or not and has to wait and see if he develops symptoms no longer seems quite so abstract if you’ve ever come home from the shops with a cough in the last few months.
The similarities to today (well, maybe not the blood explosions) are chilling. But here at least it all works out: Ebola didn’t wipe out the east coast of the United States in 1989. It’s a grim mirror reflecting our modern reality, only here the scientists were listened to, they got in early and saved the day. The Hot Zone is our nightly news, only with a happy ending. And more monkeys.
The Hot Zone is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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