Virus (1980)

God damn you, Ethicists!
Kinji Fukasaku
Masao Kusakari, Bo Svenson, Sonny Chiba, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey
The Setup: 
Virus destroys all of humanity except 800 people at the North Pole.

I got this movie as part of my spectacular 50 Chilling Classics boxed set, yet when I started reading about it everyone said “you may as well not even bother if you don’t have the full 150-minute full version [the other version is 100 minutes], so I bought the “director’s cut” online. Well, you’d think that the director’s cut would be the full version, but no, I now own another copy of the 100-minute version [want it?]. So I ended up renting the full version after all.

This is a Japanese film that centers on Americans and has an English-speaking cast. We open on a submarine in 1983 [the movie was made in 1980]. The submarine approached Japan and launches an air drone that sends back grisly pictures of an entire city filled with people that died where they were standing. Tons of decomposed bodies everywhere. They rouse Japanese earthquake expert Yoshizumi to come look, and he has a memory of his girlfriend telling him that she’s pregnant. She’s bitter [she’s REALLY bitter] that he’s going off to the North Pole and leaving her there all knocked up. He is haunted by her final goodbye.

Then we have the credits and… A POWER BALLAD! And it is a big, BIG power ballad, reminiscent of “The Morning After” or “We May Never Love Like This Again,” but even BIGGER! You gotta love a serious sci-fi disaster film that finds room for a power ballad. Thank God for the Japanese.

Now, some exposition via supertitles: in 1981, all genetic engineering experiments to create new viruses [uh, why?] was outlawed, however, in spring 1982… And then we flash back to that time, when this professor is stealing a vial of this virus from a lab. He sells it to these Russian thugs [we are deep in the cold war here], laying it on the line about how it will kill every living thing; people, birds, dogs, cats, marmosets. He doesn’t mention the marmosets, but it is IMPLIED. Meerkats too. He says that Americans and Ethicists developed the virus [curse you ethicists!] called the MM-88. He says he didn’t steal it for money [so then why, if it’s so dangerous?] and begs them not to use it as a weapon. Well, guess exactly what they want it for? Then there’s a shootout and the professor dies and the thugs get away in a plane, which crashes in the mountains, shattering the case and releasing the virus.

Then we meet this hot mustachioed colonel who just keeps looking better and better in every shot. The uniform doesn’t hurt. Then sensitive Yoshizumi has more painful memories, then we see that people are dying and hospitals are overrun. There is utter chaos and angry mobs in the street. People are just dropping dead. The virus is a “mimic,” which means that it replicates common viruses, like the common cold, and overwhelms the immune system, leaving people dead in three days. Of course, only the professor knew this, so the President of the United States, played by Glenn Ford, and his advisors, one of whom is Robert Vaughn, have no clue what it is. People keep barking about how they’re working on a vaccine, but the fact is that no one has the slightest clue.

Circumstances established, we now veer into melodrama. The film does a good job of establishing the creeping nature of the virus, like in one scene where a man is at home, then looks over to see that his goldfish are dead. Then Yoshizumi has a crisis moment when a talkative 5-year-old boy is picked up on the short wave. He talks about how his mommy and daddy are dead and he’s all alone and he’s scared. But—tragedy!—he doesn’t understand the radio and won’t let go of the button so they can talk to him! It gets melodramatic from there, with Yoshizumi getting quite upset, surely thinking of his own child. Then we join his wife and child on a boat somewhere in the ocean. Mom is sick, and at one point his son cries, and we are to believe that Yoshizumi receives a psychic message of pain.

So then the president and Robert Vaughn die together in office but not before making a lot of meaningful speeches, and the president calls the 11 various nations that have outposts in the arctic and tells them that since the virus cannot survive in extreme cold, they will be the last remaining survivors on Earth. He makes an impassioned plea for peace before expiring on his desk.

Meanwhile in the arctic, some people from one of the stations go to visit the Norwegians, and find them all dead! But Olivia Hussey [of Black Christmas fame] survived! They take her back, then start to form this international coalition of the willing to handle their situation. Present here is this cuuute Argentinean representative. Of course rancor prevails until Major Carter, the big, blond take-no-shit American, fires his gun into the air. “You Americans have certain… directness,” says one of the group. Recall here and going forward that this is a Japanese-American co-production.

Then a while later a woman has been raped, and the fact that there are 855 men and only 8 women becomes kind of an issue. The men are like “Yeah, you got raped, I guess we could expect that to happen,” which doesn’t sit well with the women, but neither does the next decision, that they will have to face that “one to one relationships are no longer possible,” and the women will have to have multiple partners. Like, apparently 110:1. One year later, they all have babies.

So it’s around Christmas a year later, and you’re like: “WHERE did they get all those Christmas decorations?” Not to mention, WHY are all these other nations being forced to celebrate Christmas? We see that Olivia and Yoshizumi have developed feeling for each other, even though Olivia is still required to keep her “appointments” with other men.

Then they find some earthquake prediction map in Yoshizumi’s office, and ask him about it. It predicts a big earthquake in the Washington, D.C. area, and they let him know because of the ARS—Automatic Retaliatory System—if that happens it’ll launch our nukes at Russia and they’ll launch their nukes at us, one of them which is directed specifically at the station where they are. This causes one of them to wail “How long are we to be haunted by our past?” So they’re going to draw cards to see who is gonna try to get to D.C. and shut the thing off, and when swaggery American Carter decides that he will go, and then a few minutes later Yoshizumi decides that he must go, too. You know what, I’m not even going to spoil the ending for you. It’s not necessarily that great, and a bit confusing and far-fetched, but whatever.

It started out strong, but then it just got too long. I ended up thinking it may not have been that bad to watch the shorter version! Maybe I should take a quickie look at it to see what the differences are. I know they eliminated the part where the kid calls on the short-wave, and “the walk,” which I can only assume is something that happens at the very end. This definitely lives up to its name as a Japanese-American production, because tonally, it seems like an American film with a very Japanese sensibility—that is, a fair amount of sentimentality alongside nasty doomsday scenarios, long creepy scenes and numerous spooky details. And also somewhat of a sense of the banal. Some of the hand-wringing about the end of the world and heavy-handed ironies about how mankind has destroyed itself through greed and stuff like that—yawn. I really liked the first half with the stealing of the virus and the spooky way they showed the breakdown of society and what happened after it was released, but once we got stuck in Antarctica things began to slow down. Ah well, I’m glad I watched it, but I’ll be in no hurry to see it again.

We have a reprise of the power ballad over the end credits. There are three trailers for martial arts movies also on the disc, here I guess because they also star Sonny Chiba. They are Karate Bull Fighter, Karate For Life [not an exercise DVD], and Shogun’s Shadow. They’re amusing enough, but I never made it to the end of any one of them without fast-forwarding.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, especially if you like apocalyptic movies, although you’re going to have to put up with a lot of hand-wringing about mankind living together by the end.