Outbreak (film)

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Outbreak movie.JPG
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWolfgang Petersen
Screenplay by
Based onThe Hot Zone
by Richard Preston
Produced by
CinematographyMichael Ballhaus
Edited by
Music byJames Newton Howard
Punch Productions, inc.
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • March 10, 1995 (1995-03-10) (United States)
Running time
128 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$50 million
Box office$189.8 million

Outbreak is a 1995 American medical disaster film directed by Wolfgang Petersen and based on Richard Preston's 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone.[1] The film stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland, and co-stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey and Patrick Dempsey.

The film focuses on an outbreak of a fictional ebolavirus and orthomyxoviridae-like Motaba virus, in Zaire and later in a small town in California. It is primarily set in the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the fictional town of Cedar Creek, California. Outbreak's plot speculates how far military and civilian agencies might go to contain the spread of a deadly, contagious disease.

The film, released on March 10, 1995, was a box-office success, and Spacey won two awards for his performance. A real-life outbreak of the Ebola virus was occurring in Zaire when the film was released.[2]


The single biggest threat to man's continued dominance on the planet is the virus.

— Joshua Lederberg, Ph.D., Nobel laureate, Film introduction: Outbreak (1995)

In 1967, during the Kisangani Mutinies, a virus called Motaba, which causes a deadly fever, is discovered in the African jungle. To keep the virus a secret, U.S. Army officers Donald McClintock and Billy Ford destroy the camp where soldiers were infected.

Twenty-eight years later, Colonel Sam Daniels, a USAMRIID virologist, is sent to investigate an outbreak in Zaire. He and his crew—Lieutenant Colonel Casey Schuler and new recruit Major Salt—gather information and return to the United States. Ford, now a brigadier general and Daniels' superior officer, dismisses the latter's fears that the virus will spread.

A white-headed capuchin monkey that is host to the virus is smuggled into the country. James "Jimbo" Scott, a worker at an animal testing laboratory, is infected when he steals the monkey to sell on the black market. Jimbo fails to sell the monkey to Rudy Alvarez (who also becomes infected), a pet-store owner in the coastal-California village of Cedar Creek. After releasing the monkey into the woods outside of the nearby community of Palisades, he develops symptoms on a flight to Boston and infects his girlfriend, Alice. Their illness is investigated by Dr. Roberta Keough, a CDC scientist and Daniels' ex-wife. Jimbo, Alice, and Rudy die, but Keough determines that no one else in Boston was infected.

A hospital technician in Cedar Creek is infected when he accidentally breaks the vial of Rudy's blood. The virus quickly mutates into a strain capable of spreading like influenza, becoming airborne and causing a number of people to be infected in a movie theater. Daniels flies to Cedar Creek against Ford's orders, joining Keough's team with Schuler and Salt. As they begin a search for the monkey, the Army quarantines the town and imposes martial law. Schuler is infected when his suit tears and Keough accidentally sticks herself with a contaminated needle while treating him.

When Ford provides an experimental serum which cures the original strain, Daniels realizes that his superiors were aware of the virus before the outbreak. Daniels learns about Operation Clean Sweep, a plan for the military to contain the virus by bombing Cedar Creek, incinerating the town and its residents, ostensibly to prevent Motaba's expansion to pandemic proportions. However, McClintock, now a major general, plans to use the operation to conceal the mutated virus' existence so the original strain can be preserved for use as a biological weapon.

To prevent Daniels from finding a cure, McClintock orders him arrested for carrying the virus. Daniels escapes before he and Salt fly a helicopter to the ship at sea which carried the monkey. Daniels obtains a picture of the monkey and releases it to the media; a Palisades resident, Mrs. Jeffries, realizes that her daughter Kate has been playing with the monkey (which she named Betsy) and calls the CDC. Daniels and Salt arrive at the Jeffries' house where Salt tranquilizes Betsy after Kate coaxes her out of hiding in the woods nearby. When he learns from Daniels about Betsy's capture, Ford delays the bombing.

On their return flight, Daniels and Salt are chased by McClintock in another helicopter. Salt fires two rockets into the trees to deceive him into thinking that they crashed. Once back in Cedar Creek, Salt mixes Betsy's antibodies with Ford's serum to create an antiserum; although Schuler has died, they save Keough. McClintock returns to base and resumes Operation Clean Sweep, refusing to listen to Ford. Daniels and Salt fly their helicopter directly into the path of the bomber's approach to its target.

With Ford's help, Daniels persuades the bomber's flight crew to detonate the bomb over water and spare the town. Before McClintock can order another bombing, Ford relieves him of command and orders his arrest. Daniels and Keough reconcile as Cedar Creek's residents are cured.



Scenes in "Cedar Creek" were filmed in Ferndale, California, where tanks and helicopters were a common feature of daily life during nearly two months of filming.[3] Other locations used were Dugway Proving Ground and Kauai.[4]

Harrison Ford was offered the role of Sam Daniels but turned it down.[5] Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson were also offered the role but turned it down.[6]

Producer Lynda Obst has stated that it was due to the production of Outbreak that her film adaptation of The Hot Zone was dropped by 20th Century Fox despite having, in her words, "the better package and ... the better script". She also claimed that director Wolfgang Petersen tried to entice Robert Redford, who was already cast for her film, to be a part of Outbreak, based on Redford's call to her. Obst would eventually have her adaptation of the book, but greenlit as a miniseries by National Geographic, which premiered in May 2019.[7]


Box office[edit]

Outbreak was a commercial success.[8] It topped the U.S. box-office list its opening weekend with a gross of $13.4 million,[9] and spent three weeks at number one before Tommy Boy's release.[10] It was number one in Japan for six weeks.[11] The film grossed $67.7 million in the United States and Canada and $122.2 million internationally for a worldwide total of $189.9 million.[12]

Critical reception[edit]

Outbreak received mixed reviews from critics. According to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 60% of 65 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 5.8 out of 10. The consensus states: "A frustratingly uneven all-star disaster drama, Outbreak ultimately proves only mildly contagious and leaves few lasting side effects."[13] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 65 out of 100 based on 20 critic reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[14] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A−" on an A+ to F scale.[15]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling Outbreak's premise "one of the great scare stories of our time, the notion that deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking, and if they ever escape their jungle homes and enter the human bloodstream, there will be a new plague the likes of which we have never seen."[16] Rita Kempley of The Washington Post also enjoyed the film's plot: "Outbreak is an absolute hoot thanks primarily to director Wolfgang Petersen's rabid pacing and the great care he brings to setting up the story and its probability."[17]

David Denby wrote for New York magazine that although the opening scenes were well-done, "somewhere in the middle ... Outbreak falls off a cliff" and becomes "lamely conventional."[18] Janet Maslin of The New York Times also found the film's subject compelling but its treatment ineffective: "The film's shallowness also contributes to the impression that no problem is too thorny to be solved by movie heroics."[19]

The film's scientific liberties have been criticized, especially compared to the realism of the 2011 film Contagion.[20][21] Implausibilities include the virus taking only an hour, rather than days, to reproduce itself; the synthesis of the cure taking less than a minute, rather than many months; and the injection of the cure producing immediate improvement.[22]


Later popularity[edit]

The film's popularity resurged during the COVID-19 pandemic, ranking as the fourth most streamed film on Netflix in the United States on March 13, 2020.[26]


  1. ^ Walton, Priscilla L. (2004). Our Cannibals, Ourselves. University of Illinois Press. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-252-02925-7.
  2. ^ Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) (May 26, 1995). "Update: Outbreak of Ebola Viral Hemorrhagic Fever – Zaire, 1995". Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 44 (20): 399. PMID 7746265. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
  3. ^ Haeseler, Rob (April 17, 1995). "Hollywood Invades Humboldt County". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  4. ^ D'Arc, James (2010). When Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Movie Making in Utah. Gibbs Smith. p. 297. ISBN 978-1-4236-1984-0.
  5. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (March 19, 1995). "FILM; Wrestling a Virus to the Screen". The New York Times.
  6. ^ "25 Shocking Secrets About Outbreak - E! Online".
  7. ^ Sandberg, Bryn Elise (April 2, 2019). "Lynda Obst Talks 'The Hot Zone's 25-Year Journey to the Screen". The Hollywood Reporter. Valence Media. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  8. ^ Haase, Christine (2007). When Heimat Meets Hollywood: German Filmmakers and America, 1985–2005. Camden House. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-57113-279-6.
  9. ^ Natale, Richard (March 13, 1995). "'Outbreak's' Success Only Goes So Far". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 4, 2012.
  10. ^ Natale, Richard (April 4, 1995). "Weekend Box Office: 'Tommy Boy' Tops a Weak Field". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 4, 2012.
  11. ^ "International box office". Variety. June 26, 1995. p. 11.
  12. ^ Outbreak at Box Office Mojo
  13. ^ "Outbreak (1995)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  14. ^ "Outbreak Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved March 19, 2020.
  15. ^ "CinemaScore".
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger (March 10, 1995). "Outbreak". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved February 20, 2013.
  17. ^ Kempley, Rita (March 10, 1995). "'Outbreak' (R)". Washington Post. Retrieved February 20, 2013.
  18. ^ Denby, David (March 20, 1995). "The Lukewarm Zone". New York Magazine. 28 (12): 60. ISSN 0028-7369.
  19. ^ Maslin, Janet (March 10, 1995). "Film Review: The Hero is Hoffman, The Villain a Virus". New York Times. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
  20. ^ Farr, Christina (April 14, 2020). "The medical advisors for the movie 'Contagion' saw a pandemic coming, but got one big thing wrong". CNBC. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  21. ^ "From 'Outbreak' to 'Contagion,' the Movies That Get Pandemics Right—or Not". Wired. 2020. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  22. ^ Offit, Paul (June 23, 2018). "How 'Contagion' Pushed Hollywood to Get Science Right". The Daily Beast. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  23. ^ "Awards 1995". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved July 18, 2012.
  24. ^ Levy, Abraham (December 30, 1995). "Texas film critics give 'Suspects' top honors". Austin American-Statesman. Retrieved December 17, 2010.
  25. ^ "The Society of Texas Film Critics 1995 Awards". Austin Chronicle. Vol. 15, no. 18. January 5, 1996. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
  26. ^ Clark, Travis (2020). "The movie 'Outbreak,' about a deadly virus, is now one of Netflix's most popular titles in the US". Business Insider. Retrieved April 20, 2020.

External links[edit]