“The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is a virus.” – Joshua Lederberg, Nobel laureate 

Thinking about the above quote, it seems ironic that humans are the most intellectual beings on Earth, yet one microscopic virus can wipe out the existence of this intelligent species. This was the driving force in the movie, Outbreak. The movie shows the viewer what the consequence of an uncontainable virus could become. On the one side you have the noble scientists trying to stop the virus and on the other hand you have the personal agendas of the “people in charge.” In thinking about this, one of the themes of the movie is about control. Some examples are:

  • Control of the virus – both in 1967 and 1994 – in 1967 the military thought they had controlled the virus by bombing the infected area. In 1994 the virus came back to haunt the military because a monkey had escaped the 1967 bombing and survived. This time the virus made it to the United States and began spreading.
  • Control of information – keeping the secret of the stored original virus and anti-serum, how much information about the spreading virus to give to the public and the media as well as to health professionals.
  • Control of people – within the military hierarchy itself, among civilians.
  • Control between Sam and Robby  – who will take the pictures from the marriage, who gets the dogs.
  • Control of emotions – Robby and Sam, the public fear of the disease, resentment of orders given by General McClintock.
  • Control of the government – the government decides whether 2600 lives have any value or not.
  • The Lassa license plate in the bookcase in the office of General Ford – the virus is invincible, so is General Ford, or so he thinks in his own mind.
  • The spinning of the camera when Jimbo falls in the airport – signifying the loss of control and power of the virus.
  • The spinning of the blood in the lab container – events are spinning out of control.
  • The biohazard suits / oxygen masks – only the people working on the virus or the people in the military were given devices to keep from catching the virus. Civilians were given no protection, other than facemasks.

Another theme in the movie is “for the greater good.” Sam is trying to find the host to cure the virus for the greater good. If the host is found then a vaccine can be made and people will be saved. On the other hand General McClintock and General Ford believe they are fighting for the greater good by keeping the stored original virus and anti-serum a secret and by wiping out the town to keep the virus from spreading. They believe that the military needs access to a virus in case of biological warfare. The movie brings forward the moral issue of asking, “when does the greater good become a reasonable excuse to hurt others?” Who has the authority to make this decision?   Environmental issues also raise a concern about the “for the greater good” ideal. For example, the witch doctor’s belief that the virus was a punishment from the gods for cutting trees begs the question of, “when does encroaching into untouched land hurt the greater good?”

The movie also had quite a bit of symbolism throughout.

The way a virus moves through the air:

  • The sweeping camera movement throughout the film – the camera moves effortlessly though the labs, tents, hospitals, environment, just as the virus moves through the air once it becomes airborne.
  • The blood droplets spraying Henry’s face when the lab equipment malfunctions – the blood spews through the air hitting his face, just like the virus spreads though a cough in the theater.
  • The man coughing in the movie theater and the camera following the droplets until they fall in another person’s mouth – showing how germs spread.
  • The faster paced editing – as the virus spreads, making the viewer feel the sense of urgency.
  • The round lights from all the military vehicles at night coming into Cedar Creek – the lights are round coming toward the town like the microscopic virus is round and coming toward the people.

Some Signifiers of Color:

  • Yellow biohazard suits – yellow fever virus – the scientists wear yellow suits when they are in the field where the virus is uncontained.
  • Blue biohazard suits – are worn in contained areas.
  • Green military uniforms / green forests  – signifies sickly, mucus.
  • Red lights – blood, warning.
  • Monkey’s white face fades into, JuJu, the witch doctor’s face with white paint around eyes – foretelling of disease spreading from monkey to man.

  Some Signifiers of Sound:

  • Sound becoming chaotic and louder as the situation escalates out of control.
  • Breathing through biohazard suit and moans of sick people at same time – sounds of the protected people breathing virus-free air vs those already sick.
  • Monkey shrieking as helicopters pull away as the African village burns – signifies the horror of what has been done to contain the virus.
  • Instrumental orchestra music with African vocals – builds the tension of what is happening in the village as well as setting the stage for the audience to believe they are seeing Africa.
  • African percussion before firebomb of village – builds to the climax of the bombing and sets the tension for the audience to feel.
  • No theme for the virus, only sound effects, sound does not get more ominous as virus spreads – this helps to create the feeling that the virus is uncontainable, there is no rhyme or reason to it, the audience feels disjointed.
  • Frantic sound when Casey rips his biohazard suit followed with perilous music – helps the audience to feel the horror and fear that Casey experiences at that moment.
  • Jimbo spinning in the airport – sound resembles frantic monkeys – the moment when the virus spins out of control.

Dialogue Signifiers: People use words like killing in reference other than the taking of life:

  • Casey Schuler: How many brain cells did I kill?
  • Sam Daniels: How many? About a billion.
  • Casey Schuler: Oh, now I’m only as smart as you.
  • Sam Daniels: What can we give him to kill his sense of humor?   At one point Sam tells General Ford that he is “killing” him by not letting him work on the virus.

An “out of the box” thought about Outbreak is to compare it to the Wizard of Oz. This train of thought was derived from when Casey wakes to see Robby and he says “I had such a dream Aunty Em…and you were there, and you were there.”

Then backtracking through the film you can continue the associations: First the colors:

  • A lot of red (ruby slippers) with all the blood, the red warning lights.
  • Green (the Emerald City) with all the Army camouflage, green forests.
  • Yellow (the yellow brick road) with the biohazard suits.
  • The B&W photo of Sam and Robby with children at a refugee camp compares to Dorothy, the good witch and the munchkins.
  • When Robby is leaving to go to Atlanta, Sam has on a red jacket like ruby slippers and Robby is in a yellow cab like the yellow brick road.
  • There is a Toto-type dog emblem on the pet store door.
  • The montage of the virus spinning out of control and the spinning of the centrifuge compares to the spinning tornado behind the Wizard of Oz.
  • The carpet in the airport where Jimbo has landed has red carpet and walls – unusual décor for an airport.
  • The Wicked Witch is green – like a virus


  • Sam (Dorothy), like Dorothy is always trying to find the Wizard, Sam is always trying to find the host.
  • Sam was helped by Salt (the Cowardly Lion) and Casey (the Tin Man).
  • Sam was also helped by General Ford (the Scarecrow) until Ford faced self-preservation. However, he finally stands up to General McClintock like the Scarecrow finally stands up to the Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz.
  • General McClintock is the Wicked Witch – out for himself at all costs.
  • Robby (the Good Witch). She believes in the good and despite the divorce she sees the good in Sam.
  • The dogs – Toto, even though they were not an integral part of being seen in the movie they did keep the connection between Sam and Robby alive.
  • The monkey – the Wizard.  In the Wizard of Oz they are always trying to find the Wizard.  In Outbreak they are always trying to find the host.  Both would be able to “provide the answers.”


  • Just like Dorothy has to face all kinds of obstacles to realize there is no place like home, Sam has his own obstacles that he must overcome to follow the path trying to find the cure.  At the end he finds that there is no place like home when he and Robby reconnect.
  • The helicopters that are chasing Sam and Salt can be compared to the flying monkeys chasing Dorothy. That helicopter chase scene is also like the Wicked Witch chasing Dorothy in the woods. Plus it was a monkey that carried the virus in Outbreak.
  • The virus liquefies in the body and melts the internal organs like the Wicked Witch melting when water hits her.
Just as in Outbreak, Wizard of Oz is about control. Some examples are:
  • Control of the ruby slippers.
  • Control of fear.
  • Control of the Wicked Witch.
  • The Wizard gave the illusion of control to Emerald City.
  • Control of Mother Nature.
Even though both movies seem so different at first glance, we can see how they can be related on much deeper levels. It would be interesting to know what the director and writer of Outbreak were thinking when they added the Wizard of Oz line to the movie. I do not have the DVD to see the extras but I wonder if this is discussed on the DVD. I searched for information on this but could not find anything relevant.
 Outbreak was a visual means of understanding how viruses infect and become plagues. It correlates with all the readings because of the theme of viruses and the spread of them.  Other relations are; the second outbreak in Africa was because the water became contaminated just as the water in The Ghost Map became contaminated. The scientists in the movie mapped the incidents of the spread of the virus to find the host, just as Snow did in The Ghost Map. The virus was spread by “accident” as the computer virus is discussed in Digital Contagions.
The video game Centre of the Cell gives the player a very small glimpse into the difficulty and responsibility of making decisions in crises such as an epidemic or plague. What was interesting was that I played the game twice, giving the same answers each time, and the first play I met the challenge and in the second play I failed. Hmmmmm.?

I Love You, but. From the video it seems that hackers see planting viruses as a pastime like golf or playing sports on the weekend. If someone loses data as a result, oh well. However people have rights to privacy and hacking can take that away. Also it is to be taken seriously because it can lead to national security leaks.


The Lovers, we are so dependent on computers for communication in today’s world that should a computer become infected, communication can stop. This installation is a good depiction of how communication can be disrupted once an infection occurs.

What struck me as interesting when reading the poetry was the dichotomy of the content to the singsong of the rhyming. The poems that fit into this category are:

These poems are referring to death and yet, when read out loud they can seem almost merry or whimsical. Some people do look at death as moving on to a better place so maybe these are written as a celebration rather than as mourning.

In the other poems I could not find a rhythm.  They were written, to me, more in a narrative format.

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2 Responses to Outbreak

  1. sara says:

    Your analysis of the different characteristics of Outbreak was interesting. Like you, I took at stab at identifying major themes of the movie. I settled on conflict as one of the strongest themes.
    • Conflict between war and peace: This was epitomized by the pitting of Donald Sutherland, who advocated destroying the infected town and amassing more weapons vs. Dustin Hoffman, who wished to find a cure for the infected and prioritized saving lives.
    • Conflict between technological progress and fear of technology: The antidote to the virus existed but was hidden by Morgan Freeman’s character. Fear of its discovery was a major concern for Freeman and Sutherland, who both wanted to maintain its secrecy so that the public did not find out that there was prior knowledge of the virus.

    Like you, I played Centre of the Cell twice. What surprised me was the pressure I felt to make the “right” decisions to save people’s lives as the ominous death toll ticker kept increasing. Talk about pressure! It gave me a great insight, though, into the The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and how each decision made in regard to the virus containment had an effect, either positive or devastating.

  2. Tricia S. says:

    Teri, awesome job interpreting the film. To be sure, there were many themes and the sound and lighting were characters themselves. What I find most appealing about your analysis is the element of control.

    As a former member of the U.S. Army, the constant presence of military officials, the symbolic camoflauge uniforms and the powerful way troops descended upon the town of Cedar Creek resonated with me. It was clear throughout the film that McClintock and Ford were heavy handed and were quite comfortable exerting their rank and authority. 

    Other than the virus itself, there seemed to be little within anyone’s control. It’s interesting, tho, to think just how powerful the virus was, destroying life within a matter of hours. When Ford realized it had gone airborne, his look of fear and disbelief revealed a sense of loss – of control. His subsequent conversations with Daniels were clearly tempered by a new sense of humility. In the end, I thought it was par for the course that Ford finally relieved McClintock of his command.

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