VIRUS (1980) Reviews and overview

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‘Who will inherit the Earth?’

Virus is a 1980 Japanese science-fiction/disaster film directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale; Samurai Reincarnation; Message from Space). It was written by Kinji Fukasaku and Koji Takada, based on a 1964 novel by the prominent science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsu.

The movie stars Sonny Chiba, Chuck Connors, Bo Hopkins, Glenn Ford, George Kennedy, Olivia Hussey, Henry Silva, Robert Vaughn, Edward James Olmos and Stuart Gillard. The original title is 復活の日 or Fukkatsu no hi – literal translation: “Day of Resurrection”.

Budgeted at $17 million, the most expensive Japanese film to date, the original was a box-office hit in the Far East where it was distributed by Toho Studios. Unfortunately, it was brutally scissored from 155 minutes to 103 minutes for the English-language marketplace in 1981. It was shown on television with a 93-minute running time.

A virus developed by the military is accidentally released in a plane crash and spreads across the Earth, killing everyone who comes in contact with it. The only surviving people are the scientists and staff of a cluster of international Antarctic outposts, that were warned of the danger. They are faced with deciding the fate of themselves and of the human race…

Subscribers to movie-industry trade publications in the early 1980s probably read more about Virus than anyone did in the general public. Gargantuan in budget and scope by Japanese standards, the high-profile production even suffered the shipwreck-stranding of cast and crew when their ship, headed to toward the South Pole continent for location shoots, grounded on a reef off Chile – causing even more yen to be lost by the Kadokawa Production Company in their adaptation of a 1964 novel by revered Japanese SF author Sakyo Komatsu.

The plot starts with a frightened scientist who has stolen a biological weapon from the American military trying to beseech East Germans to find a way to neutralize the microbes in it, to prevent the demise of mankind. The crummy commies, of course, betray and kill him, but in flying the germs to the Soviet Motherland the plane goes down and the `virus’ is released in Eastern Europe.

Actually, in great faux-science talk, the bioweapon operates by latching onto existing viruses, altering their DNA and rendering them into super killer bugs. Thus for several months, a fatal illness called the “Italian flu” rages out of control throughout Europe and the world (despite the budgetary largesse, global chaos is mainly suggested using extremely violent news footage of international riots).

The American president (Glenn Ford) lives just long enough to learn his own Pentagon back-room types developed the nasty thing in the first place, even if the dirty Reds unleashed it. He dies after issuing a warning/apology to the last stronghold of uninfected people, international science stations manned by both the Warsaw Pact and NATO nations in Antarctica. It’s up to them to remain in quarantine and perpetuate the species, as low temperatures are the only thing that keeps the Italian flu dormant.

For a while, the marooned folk (headed by George Kennedy) do indeed shelve their political differences, befriend a British submarine (captained by the amusingly un-British Chuck Connors), and even commence a pragmatic lottery system of impregnating the mere eight fertile women on a continent of 800-plus men.

However, thanks to a Japanese scientist (Sonny Chiba, better known as an action headliner), survivors realise that the atomic missiles in the dead USA and extinct USSR are still in standby mode – America’s especially on a hair-trigger – with an automated nuclear doomsday imminent unless someone undertakes a virtual suicide mission back to the infected zones to switch them off.

While for Nippon Virus might have been a prestige literary property, as far as Hollywood filmgoers went the picture seemed of the notorious clan of “disaster movies” in the 1970s. And by 1980 the public and critics were no longer enchanted by all-star-casts-in-jeopardy (most of them including George Kennedy) as they had been for The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Thus Virus, though popular on Godzilla’s home soil, did little business in the English-speaking world. Disaster movies had literally become a joke (it’s often said the hit 1978 satire Airplane! literally killed the concept).

And one might even say that as Hollywood followed Ronald Reagan’s lead of heating up the Cold War US-versus-Them dichotomy, the script’s neutral apportionment of blame, its plea for unity (and a catastrophic conclusion) wasn’t going to appeal to the bloodthirsty American hoi-polloi moviegoers. Thus an open-ended quarantine for poor Virus.

Pity, really, as something at least as serious in intent and scope as this cri du coeur for tolerance and understanding deserves better. Performances are serious across the board, and there’s a veritable frisson for prophecy when the UK submarine surveys the skeleton-strewn dead Japan by remote, using a device called a… camera drone.

Janis Ian warbles a heartrending closing theme, and Sonny Chiba, while known largely as sword-fighter type, is cast against the grain as a field researcher who, in an unalterably Japanese moment, has to prove his courage and will to sacrifice by relentlessly attacking (and getting beaten up by) a hulking American comrade (Bo Hopkins).

A title sequence only hints at the original film’s farfetched payoff, a sole-survivor type character reduced to a ragged caveman lookalike, who accomplishes an unlikely feat of walking all the way from Washington DC to Antarctica. You know if that sort of thing were ever to occur in real life, the Japanese would probably create a TV game show around it.

Charles Cassady Jr. – MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:
” …the end result isn’t disastrous, and at about the halfway point a new development (involving an earthquake and an automatic missile launching system) gives the movie some much-needed focus just when it needs it. I do like the international flavor of it…” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

” …a film that exhibits a touching faith in the ability of human beings to survive no matter how bad things get. Are there any flaws in this epic? Sure, a couple of scenes tip over into melodrama, a few minor performances seem a bit OTT and there’s a bland title ballad as a main theme. But this is all minor stuff and far outweighed by its strengths.” Neatly Arranged Rubbish

Virus is filled with strong imagery, but I think the final scenes, when Masao Kusakari almost seem like walking back in time, through ancient civilisations, through dead religions, through the past until he reaches his goal, is the most powerful sequence in the whole movie. It’s a sign both of a humanitarian view on life, death to religion and maybe even a way to find what we’ve forgotten and start all over again.” Ninja Dixon

Main cast and characters:
Masao Kusakari as Doctor Shûzô Yoshizumi
Tsunehiko Watase as Yasuo Tatsuno
Sonny Chiba as Doctor Yamauchi
Kensaku Morita as Ryûji Sanazawa
Toshiyuki Nagashima as Akimasa Matsuo
Glenn Ford as President Richardson
George Kennedy as Admiral Conway
Robert Vaughn as Senator Barkley
Chuck Connors as Captain McCloud
Bo Svenson as Major Carter
Olivia Hussey as Marit
Henry Silva as General Garland
Isao Natsuyagi as Commander Nakanishi
Stephanie Faulkner as Sarah Baker
Stuart Gillard as Doctor Edward Meyer
Cec Linder as Doctor Latour
George Touliatos as Colonel Rankin
Chris Wiggins as Doctor Borodinov
Edward James Olmos as Captain Lopez
Colin Fox as Agent Z
Ken Pogue as Doctor Krause
Alberta Watson as Litha

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