FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

May 16, 2024

Chilling Classics Cthursday: VIRUS (1980)

I tells ya, grabbing the ol' 50-pack every week for Chilling Classics Cthursday is a bit of a thrill. The anticipation as I dig through the box-o-movies! The moment of truth when RNGesus's selection is revealed! It feels like coming down the stairs on Christmas morning as a yoot, or reaching into the bowl at a Saturday night neighborhood key party as an elder. The movie itself may be garbage or it may be gold, of course. It might even be gold-garbage or garbage-gold. But no matter; I make high-pressure executive decisions about what to watch or not watch six days out of the week, so my seventh day of rest is appreciated. And I doubly--nay, triply--appreciate that this whole endeavor puts movies in front of my eyeballs that I may otherwise have never encountered. 

Like this week's movie, Virus (1980)...although it's strange this was not on my radar because on paper, at least, it seems like it was absolutely made just for me. So much so, in fact, that I'm pretty sure you could play Final Girl Mad Libs at a key party (that's what you do at key parties, right?) and easily end up with Virus's story and cast. 

Over in East Germany, some shady types abscond with a vial of MM88, a virus so virulent and deadly that it freaks out the scientists behind it. Unfortunately for...well, the world, the shady types crash their getaway plane and MM88 art loosed. Dubbed the "Italian Flu," the virus wipes out millions and millions of people all over the globe, including US President Glenn Ford and Senator Robert Vaughn!

Researchers at all the international antarctic research stations are safe, not only because of their isolation, but because the virus becomes dormant in below-zero temperatures. As if figuring out what the hell they're going to do as the presumed last survivors wasn't enough, they also must contend with another terrifying development: one of the scientists predicts that an earthquake is about to fuck shit up back in Washington, DC, which will surely trigger the automated nuclear response system that was armed by a hotheaded US general before he croaked. It's got to be deactivated before there's global nuclear armageddon, which means a likely one-way trip into VirusLand for some someones.

Virus is a curiosity, indeed: a Japanese disaster movie with an all-star, mostly English-speaking cast, directed by Kinji Fukasaku of Battle GD Royale fame. At the time of its production, it was reportedly the most expensive Japanese film ever made, one that producers hoped would break through in the western market. Instead, it flopped both at home and abroad, where its 156-minute runtime was chopped down to 108 minutes, its widescreen visuals were chopped down to pan-and-scan, and it was chopped plopped down into the public domain, where it landed in cheapie releases like Mill Creek's Chilling Classics. According to the legends, the full version of the film is only available in a random Sonny Chiba 3-pack (Chiba appears in the western cut for all of maybe five minutes). Essentially, they excised as much of the Japanese content as possible for the truncated cut, including the collapse of Tokyo in the wake of the virus, whole-ass backstories for major characters, and a denouement that is perhaps a bit less bleak than the one we get. They even cut the subtitles for the handful of Japanese scenes that remain. Madness. 

Also madness: that so many of the obscure Chilling Classics Cthursday messterpieces (like Drive-In Massacre, say) have received the fancy Blu-ray treatment while something like Virus, with its stacked crew and cast, is crying out for one.

Because honey when I say stacked cast, I mean a DISASTER MOVIE STACKED CAST that would make Irwin Allen proud. At the risk of sounding like imdb, can I just say:

  • Glenn Ford
  • Robert Vaughn
  • Sonny Chiba
  • Henry Silva
  • Edward James Olmos
  • Chuck Connors
  • Bo Svenson
  • Janis Ian provides the end credits song??
I am telling you, the hits just kept coming and coming. I was that Leonardo DiCaprio meme, pointing at the screen every time a beloved and familiar face appeared.

The best part, perhaps, about this insane cast is that Fukasaku did not give one flying fig about accents, or the lack thereof. Olivia Hussey is Norwegian, but just talks like Olivia Hussey (yes, it is like cashmere for your earholes). And really, what could be better than Chuck Connors as a British submarine captain saying "You chaps alright?" in his regular Chuck Connors voice? Nothing could, that's what.

"Pip pip, fellas"

Virus gets to it quickly and goes hard as MM88 wipes out humanity. Fukasaku makes liberal (and sometimes distressing) use of stock footage as the world collapses into riots and chaos. Things slow down considerably when the story shifts to Antartica, as a whole Benetton's worth of global representatives try assess, plan, and survive. Surprisingly, they only have one or two flare-ups before settling into the "let's all work together" vibe the movie seems to put out. 

It's that vibe, however, that leads to an issue I found so off-putting that it almost completely derailed the I Love Virus Express. At the combined international research bases, there are 855 men, and 8 women. Sure enough, this red flag of a demographic disparity quickly becomes a central issue when one of the women is sexually assaulted. A French scientist responds with, essentially, "Iz zis not zee way of man? Iz man not an animal?" 

The men decide that the only answer is for the women to learn "a new morality," wherein they must forget about 1:1 relationships and "accommodate more than one man." Mind you, this is not about survivors feeling tasked with repopulating the planet. It's strictly about 8 women servicing 855 men, whenever the men feel like it, through "appointments." 

This struck me as fairly appalling and completely egregious, particularly in a Japanese film given the country's dark history concerning the hundreds of thousands of women (overwhelmingly, Korean women) forced into sexual slavery as "comfort women" during World War II. It's a history that Japan has downplayed, inaccurately recorded, and even outright denied and tried to erase. Since 1992, there has been a weekly protest at the Japanese embassy in Seoul by some of the few remaining survivors and those in solidarity to receive some justice, particularly a satisfactory return of dignity to the women by means of a sincere acknowledgment and apology. 

So to watch the 8 women in Virus be told they just have to suck it up and "be accommodating" was, in a word, "not it." The icing on this repellant cake is that the women served no other purpose in the film. None. It was 1980 so surely they couldn't even be scientists at the research stations, they served as secretaries. Virus easily could have gone full The Thing and done away with female characters altogether, they mattered so little. (Honestly, I'm still mad about it as I sit here typing this!)

If there were no women in the movie, however, then you wouldn't have the limp love story between Olivia Hussey's character Marit (she's Norwegian!) and Masao Kusakari's Dr. Shûzô Yoshizumi. It may be expanded on in the Japanese cut, but here they just kind of look at each other a few times and have, like, one conversation. I get it, though, they're the two biggest babes in Antarctica and literally the hottest people left alive. Might as well fall in love! (Though Marit still has to keep all of her "appointments" with other men. New morality, remember.)

Sigh. That whole angle was a real buzzkill for me, like my bra immediately went up in flames, you know? Otherwise, though, Virus has so much going for it and is worth a view (if not some kind of reassessment) even in the heavily-edited state. The acting is largely as ham-and-cheesy as you might expect from that cast list (and from a disaster movie), but it works. The film predicts the Cold War nuclear scare downer films that would soon come along to traumatize audiences, such as The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). It's interesting that America quickly assumes the leadership position amongst the survivors, yet America is also responsible for the virus and the nuclear threat. We're portrayed as trigger-happy, gung-ho for war, and a country that denounces the Soviet Union while also engaging in Soviet tactics like developing biological weapons and erasing whistleblowers. That sounds...well, completely accurate, really.

Although now that I think about it, maybe they weren't all following "America" so much as they were just following George Kennedy. Now that's an idea I can get behind.


Steve K said...

This is a comment about Drive-in Massacre which you so kindly linked within this essay, and which I'd forgotten you'd covered because it was so long ago (six months, but in these times, that could have easily been twenty-six months ago).

The good people at Mahoning Drive-In brought Drive-in Massacre (and Bay of Blood) to Somerville, Massachusetts for a showing about six weeks ago. Even though the 35 mm print was incredibly washed out - like everything various shades of pink/red - the movie was a fun experience when you're seeing it live with a bunch of like-minded dorks. I can't imagine watching this movie ALONE - not because it's frightening or anything, but it was such a fun communal experience.

(On the other hand, wow, seeing the intended colors/lighting of Bay of Blood is SO important, because when it's a washed-out pink copy, you start to notice exactly how convoluted (and irrelevant) the plot is.)

Richard said...

Oh boy! It's my least favorite trope ("we must repopulate") made even worse ("we must nut"). Have you read Joanna Russ's short novel We Who Are About To...? It's a very satisfying challenge to the assumptions underlying this gross idea. Just reading this description of that section of Virus makes me want to pick it up again as a palate cleanser.

Stacie Ponder said...

@Richard -- to my shame I've actually never read anything from Joanna Russ. It's a gap I should close!

It's a terrible trope and it's handled as poorly as possible here, pretty much all in one scene. A woman reports her rape, the men immediately come up with this "solution," and the women basically go "Hmm. Well, okay." The only mercy is that we don't have to actually explicitly witness any of the "appointments." (Not to mention that with regards to any potential "doing it this way will be better for you women!" arguments, it did nothing to curb the number of rapes and spread of venereal diseases back in WWII.

Ugh I can't believe George Kennedy went along with this plan!

@Steve -- Ooh what a great double feature for the drive-in! I bet the meta moment at the end of Massacre was fun. And I bet Bay of Blood just seems like a completely different movie without those visuals. I LOVE the drive-in but it's its own kind of all-encompassing experience and can really change a film. There's nothing like it!

Rochester Swift said...
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