by Alvin G. Burstein
Any recommended reading list for the COVID-19 era would
include Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Camus’
The Plague. With theatre going still interdicted because of the
virus, I checked Google for on-line movies of either.
Nothing for Defoe. A foreign language version of Camus’
work was listed., But, for some reason, it was said to be
unavailable. However, there was another, recent American
film called The Plague, said to be inspired by, though not a
translation of Camus’ work. Clive Barker’s 2006 film, The
Plague, was available on Amazon Prime. Three ninety-five
brought it to our big screen TV.
The litcrit concept of intertextuality argues that one’s
understanding of a story, its meaning to the reader, is
conditioned by the other stories known to one. Intertextuality
is central to any analysis of The Plague, because its codirectors/authors, Masonberg and Menton, invoke without ambiguity in the film’s opening scene.
The protagonist, Tom Russel, just released from prison, is on
the road, walking toward his home. Sound familiar?
As he passes the camera, we see him from behind. There is
a book sticking out of his back pocket. We see the title: The
Grapes of Wrath. Remember that in Steinbeck’s classic tale
of Oakie migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl, the book begins with
its protagonist, Tom Joad, just released from prison, on the
road, walking home.
Can there be doubt that the film’s creators want us to see a
link between their film and Steinbeck’s story? To jog our
memory, there is even a discussion of The Grapes of Wrath
in the movie. Tom Russel tells one of his friends that
Steinbeck’s book is about love and hope and family.
There is a second relevant text that the writers use to condition our
understanding of the film. Actually, a filmdom genre in its own right:
Zombie flicks. The Plague is a blatant Zombie flick.
It takes us to a fictional 1983 when, simultaneously, all the world’s
children under the age of nine fall into a catatonic state,
experiencing twice daily convulsions. We are told that the
international response to the catastrophe includes a ban on
childbirth—underscoring its calamitous nature.
In a flashback to that time, we see Tom’s brother-in-law startled
awake to discover his eight-year-old son unconscious, foaming at
the mouth. The boy’s father races to the hospital with him. He finds
the institution is overwhelmed with the influx of cases and feels
forced to take his son home to care for him.
The film then fast forwards ten years to Tom Russel’s arrival at the
house to meet his brother-in-law caring for the disabled boy, now
Shortly, the boy, along with the scores of other afflicted children
who have been institutionalized simultaneously wake from their
catatonia as zombies. As dictated by the genre, they wake, and
zombie-like, are infused with hate for those that are human. Bent
on extermination, they descend on humans as a ravaging horde.
The balance of the film focuses on Tom and a coterie of humans
attempting to escape the zombie cohort. The film transitions into
horror flick replete with bloody slash and splatter.
The contrast between the grounding texts—The Grapes of Wrath
and zombie horror flicks—is enormous. Steinbeck’s novel is grittily
realistic. The Okie’s enemy is climate and rapacious capitalism.
The movie’s focus is on nightmarish horror. The zombie horde is
unreal, the stuff of nightmares. What do they have in common?
In The Grapes of Wrath Tom Joad sacrifices himself fighting to
organize the Oakies against predatory employers. He is portrayed
as a Christ-like figure sacrificing himself for others. Emphasizing
the religious motif, the book closes on a scene of Tom’s family
taking shelter against a storm. They discover an abandoned old
man dying of starvation. Tom’s sister, whose infant has just died,
Madonna-like, suckles the old man. Hope and love. Faith in a
In The Plague, Tom stops fleeing the zombie horde and, inspired
by a religious text he had found, surrenders himself to them, an act
of faith and love that restores the zombies’ humanity.
The gross, gratuitous horrors of the film’s zombie component
contaminated the effort to picture Tom Russel as Christ-like.