THE HOT ZONE
Starring: Julianna Margulies, Liam Cunningham, James D’Arcy, Topher Grace, Paul James, Noah Emmerich, Grace Gummer
Writers: James V. Hart, Kelly Souders (Episode 5), Jeff Vintar (Episode 5)
Teleplay: James V. Hart (Episodes 1 – 6), Brian Peterson (Episodes 1, 2, 4, 5), Kelly Souders (Episodes 1, 3, 5, 6), Jeff Vintar (Episodes. 1, 2, 6)
Director: Michael Uppendahl (Episodes 1, 2, 6), Nick Murphy (Episodes 3 – 5)
Production Company: Fox 21 Television Studios, Lynda Obst Productions
Distributed by: National Geographic Channel
Horror movies can be so much fun! There are slashers where we can watch the likes of Jason hacking apart a bunch of camp counselors or Freddy slicing up his victims in their dreams. There are the haunting ones, where you never know what’s causing all that creaking and cracking or moving things around the house. And let’s not forget all those monster movies that play with our childhood nightmares with werewolves, vampires, and zombies relentlessly coming for their victims. Although some might induce a few chuckles for their absurdity, others can be really scary.
At times, it’s tough to get the images out of our heads or feelings to leave. When that happens, it helps to remember that most of these things don’t exist. Of course, serial killers do, but none of them keep coming back from the dead. It’s fiction, storytelling, special effects, and CGI playing with our imagination. But some things are real. They’re horrific and terribly frightening. And those are far more difficult to forget.
The Hot Zone (2019), a new miniseries airing on the National Geographic Channel, deals with real events that took place in 1989, in Reston, Virginia. Several monkeys used for medical testing and research purposes arrived on US soil infected with the Ebola virus. The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) gets wind of it and, being the only nearby facility to properly handle the situation, gets involved. So begins an intense race to identify, contain, and eradicate this unseen, terrifying, and deadly threat.
Julianna Margulies plays Nancy Draxx, the colonel in charge of the investigation. At the onset of the suspected outbreak, she is informally alerted of it, but it’s enough to begin an investigation. Given anecdotal evidence, she is convinced this is the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus. However, the problem is that there weren’t any protocols in place to deal with a level 4 viral outbreak at that time. Nonetheless, her training and her dedication to her work lead her to selflessly put her life in danger to deal with this crisis.
With public perception also on the line, Margulies brilliantly portrays the feelings of frustration resulting from the political battles between the various agencies and private companies. On the other hand, she exhibits a vulnerability as she’s also a mother, concerned about the safety of her children. Adding pressure is a worried husband who understands all too well the dangers his wife faces every time she works with these level 4 agents. The struggle between her work duties and her family concerns are on full display, and it’s an excellent performance.
Playing her husband Jerry is Noah Emmerich. Working at the same institute as his wife Nancy, he is fully aware of the dangers she faces. This Ebola threat terrifies him, yet he manages to remain calm. His love for her and his children take precedence over his work, which leads to some questionable decision making on his part. His personality, contrasting that of his wife, works well. The strains their work cause in their relationship is evident and elicit a sympathetic response.
Two other duos of actors merit mentioning. First, there’s Liam Cunningham and James D’Arcy who play two of the original investigators of the 1976 Ebola outbreak in Zaire. There’s a borderline mad-like intensity and obsessive approach that Cunningham displays while investigating the outbreak (both the original one and the present one). His partner played by D’Arcy is as terrified, if not more, but he is far more pragmatic in his approach. As the representative of the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), he’s as concerned with the public reaction and its dangers as he is of the outbreak itself. The tension between the two is palpable and makes for great scenes in the miniseries.
Working alongside Nancy and her team are Peter (Topher Grace) and Ben (Paul James). A little more careless, they put themselves in harm’s way with their handling of the blood samples brought to them. There are hints of Eric Forman (That 70’s Show) in Topher’s performance as he tries to downplay the danger they are in, but even that isn’t enough to quell the fear that they may been infected. Meanwhile, Ben, angry at Peter for mishandling the situation, deals with the repercussions of potentially infecting his loved ones. And though these two work for the USAMRIID, they epitomize what we civilians would feel and think in the face of a deadly viral outbreak. It’s deftly handled.
After Ben mishandles the sample, he spends a weekend camping with his family. As the realization of what’s going on dawns on him and he tells his wife, the suspicions, the doubts, and slow-burning paranoia begin to take hold and grow. Questions about what items may be infected by the virus, whether a kid’s toy or the soap in the shower, niggles at his wife. Nancy’s husband wonders if his children are safe with Nancy, even avoiding kissing her, pulling back instinctively. These are the kinds of questions anyone would ask given the relative ease of transmission and lack of cure. And as the body count rises, this is the kind of terror that instills true fear.
The true terror in The Hot Zone is that this is real. It isn’t some imaginary monster or fictional killer. It happened and will likely happen again, or at least some version of an utterly destructive virus. That is the true monster. And that is something to fear. From fever to organ shutdown and eventual coma and death, this is true mass murder. And efficient too.
First identified in Africa in the late ’70s, the Ebola virus had, at the time, a 90% kill rate. Though the odds of survival today are better, they hover around 50%. Those are scary statistics. Factor in that, by the time the presence of the virus is known, it has in all likelihood spread. And it does so with incredible ease, especially if airborne. Finding a microscopic killer isn’t easy, and to add to the cruelty, just as we think we’ve gotten it under control, the virus has the ability to mutate into an unknown strain.
The cinematography was done well. The scenes in the US (filmed in Toronto) were fairly normal. But adding the initial investigation in Zaire, shot in South Africa, was a nice change of scenery. Not only does it give an air of the exotic, but it’s a strong reminder that the world, in the most remote of places, can contain deadly diseases for which we have no cure. Whether it’s a forgotten place without hospitals or cellphones or even running water, or the most technologically advanced of places doesn’t matter. Viruses attack indiscriminately.
The suspense is great. Not only is there the viral threat to contain, wondering who might be infected as we get glimpses of people coughing and looking feverish, but there are various levels across different agencies trying to vie for control and avoid any publicly perceived mishandling of the issue. It reminded me of The Looming Tower (2018) and how the efficacy of actions was hampered by the arrogance and “territorial” obsession by those involved. I dug the music as well, as it supported in creating a tense mood.
Though the actions of those involved are frustrating to watch, the nail-biting suspense made The Hot Zone an excellent viewing experience. The intensity that starts from episode one continues throughout all six episodes and is relentless. Forget Pennywise (IT (2017)), forget John Kramer (Saw (2004)) or even Bathsheba (The Conjuring (2013)). The scariest of all mass murderers, the most terrifying monster, the most efficient killer is so small you can’t even see it without a microscope. Fear the hemorrhagic fever-causing virus. Once it has you, it will make you wish you were in a horror movie instead of at its mercy.