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Image: Contagion
Warner Bros.
It's too easy to imagine a disease spreading as it does in "Contagion."
updated 8/30/2011 1:46:58 PM ET 2011-08-30T17:46:58

“Contagion,” opening Sept. 9, looks scary, and not just because of Gwyneth Paltrow’s face in the poster. It’s about the worldwide outbreak of a deadly virus that threatens to kill the entire human population, and if you think about it, that could actually happen.

At the very least, it’s easier to believe in a killer disease than, say, a zombie apocalypse.

CDC scientists excited about 'Contagion

'That’s why movies such as “Contagion” are so creepy: They’re tinged with the sense of an actual threat. Here are four more plausible disaster movies that give us the shivers.

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Video: Watch the 'Contagion' trailer (on this page)

'127 Hours'
Some movies are scary because they really are based on true stories. Take “127 Hours,” which stars James Franco as Aron Ralston, a real-life hiker who got pinned under a boulder in Utah. He famously cut off his arm to escape, but even if you don’t know that, the movie is gripping. Franco’s performance (which earned him an Oscar nomination earlier this year) makes us feel every minute of Ralston’s ordeal.

Story: Realistic 'Contagion' infected with terror

'Silence of the Lambs'
Forget the ludicrous sequels “Hannibal” and “Hannibal Rising.” We get chills from “Silence of the Lambs” because psychotic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) isn’t a superhero or a demon: He’s just a very smart, very disturbed man who can’t control his urges to eat people. Toss in the movie’s other villain — serial killer Buffalo Bill — and you get a double dose of plausible fear.

Slideshow: 10 horror-movie icons (on this page)

'The Strangers'
This 2008 horror film stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a suburban couple terrorized by three people in masks. We never see their faces, but otherwise, the bad guys seem normal. They wear regular clothes, they speak like everyday people and one of them is a little out of shape. That makes them more terrifying than Hannibal Lecter, even, because unlike him, these three creeps don’t seem extraordinary. We can picture almost anyone beneath those masks, which implies that danger could be stalking us anywhere.

Story: Gwyneth Paltrow adds to list of gruesome death scenes

You can’t talk about “Contagion” without mentioning “Outbreak,” the all-star 1995 movie about a worldwide monkey-spread plague. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson (who also directed “Poseidon” and the ocean disaster movie “The Perfect Storm”), the film unites A-listers Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey as they try to stop a disease from wiping out humanity. Likewise, “Contagion” stars Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and several other top-tier performers. While it might be hard to imagine all those famous people running around in surgical masks, it’s still easy to picture the fallout of an infection spreading around the world.

Slideshow: End-of-the-world movies (on this page)

Did any realistic disaster movie frighten you? Discuss with us on Facebook.

Mark Blankenship is on Twitter as @CritCondition

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Video: Matt Damon’s ‘Contagion’ portrays medical nightmare

  1. Closed captioning of: Matt Damon’s ‘Contagion’ portrays medical nightmare

    >>> winner matt damon , one of the stars of the new thrill ever "contagion." in the film his wife returns home from a business trip and is stricken with a lethal illness.

    >> honey? no, no, no. stay there, clark. no, just go -- go up to your room, honey. honey, honey.

    >> her eventual death sets the medical community racing to find a cure for a virus that quickly becomes a pandemic. matt damon , good morning.

    >> hey, man.

    >> we've known each other for a while, right?

    >> yeah, years now.

    >> so you know i'm a guy that uses purell six, seven times a day, right?

    >> yeah.

    >> why would you do this to me?

    >> this movie, you're not going to like this movie.

    >> i saw it yesterday. i haven't taken this off since. this is -- this is scary stuff.

    >> yeah, yeah, scary because, i mean, well, steven who directed it really wanted to make it a completely realistic pandemic movie. rather than doing an over the top thing, do the most accurate science we can and that will be the most terrifying.

    >> you're a little like me and your wife nicknamed you red alert because you're constantly saying what can go wrong. after you dive into this for six months do you walk away confident or panicked about what could happen?

    >> good question. i think confident.

    >> that we can handle it?

    >> i'm optimistic. one big take away for us is that all of these scientists who work at the cdc and who, amazing.

    >> like crime solvers.

    >> they're really competent, capable, just dedicated group of people. and so, you know, the doctor who was the neurologist who worked with us who consulted for us, he's the guy they will send samples to. so i feel like there's a great group of minds that really just are kind of constantly vigilant about protecting us. so that's the good part.

    >> the bad part is that how quickly something can spread.

    >> yeah.

    >> the movie makes a great deal of travel. we live in an age where people jump on a plane and go around the world in one day. and along that route they could spread something like this to countless people.

    >> sure, yeah, if it was the right kind of thing.

    >> the movie talks about that. and then it goes into the other area. not only the logistics of the spread of a virus but the ethics involved. how much information should people have. how much is too much. who should perhaps benefit from a situation like this. what's the message that you want people to take away?

    >> well, i think don't panic, is a good one. i mean, that's the quandary that a lot of these people that have this information, how do we disseminate this information in a way that creates the least amount of panic because the panic can be the most dangerous thing. when we think about anthrax that killed two people and shut down the entire airline industry. so if -- if we can't kind of take a deep breath and count to ten and kind of make a reasonable assessment of what we need to do. and the media is a big part of that.

    >> i was going to say that. there's a slight touch of that in the movie. we have covered in real life things like sars and bird flu .

    >> right.

    >> do you think, because i've often tried to analyze it's, that we make too much of these things and scare people too much or would we be criticized if we didn't prepare things.

    >> you have to strike a balance.

    >> like the hurricane that just came.

    >> right. but you're under pressure to get people to tune in, but in a real situation like that, i think the media would have to resist the temptation to sell the panic because that could be putting gas loon lien on a fire.

    >> no question, buzz on this. what's happening with the lib liberace movie?

    >> what is it about him that you work so well with?

    >> he's just -- he's -- i could talk your ear off act him. he's a a brilliant director. this movie, you know, he used just two lenses, used a 35 and 18 for master shots and then he used the cameras at eye level the entire time. it moves only when characters move. he's a established a bunch of rules for his. he's rigid about forum and he's just kind of doing it at a level that very few people can and ever have been able to do it. and so when i'm standing next to him he's directing, i just learn so much. and i'm always very proud of the movies that we make.

    >> you're also involved, shooting another movie right now. i would like to they thi your hairstyle is an homage to me but it more has something to do with the role you are playing.

    >> it is. but it is called the laure, you know that.

    >> me.

    >> what is that movie?

    >> it's going to be out at 2013 . the guy that directed "district 9." he's a fantastic director.

    >> big day tomorrow. girls head back to school .

    >> yes.

    >> one heads to school for the first time.

    >> right.

    >> and the others back to school ?

    >> yes.

    >> is red alert going to be there?

    >> red alert is going to be there. a lot of dropoffs tomorrow.

    >> do you like that part?

    >> i love it. i love the -- you know, here because it's walking to school , i used to walk to school when i was a kid. i just love that part of it. and just -- particularly the first day, you know, the jitters.

    >> do they have the jitters?

    >> the 3-year-old doesn't. she doesn't know where she's going.

    >> what time is snack time .

    >> she still doesn't know she's going to school . but we have a seventh grader starting a new school . and you know, my kine kindergarten is

Photos: End of the world as we know it

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  1. It's the end of the world as we know it

    The end of the world has been often recreated in movies and on TV. Often it's a danger from space that ruins our planet. In 2011's "Battle: Los Angeles," heavily armored aliens attack Earth, but America's military fights back. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Don't cross me

    2011's "Priest" is based on a Korean comic. In it, humans and vampires war for control, and Paul Bettany plays a warrior priest who must rescue his niece. (Screen Gem) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. It's all in the 'Book'

    In 2010's "Book of Eli," a nuclear apocalypse has devastated Earth, and Denzel Washington plays Eli, a nomad who carries a rare copy of the Bible with him on his journey. (Courtesy Of Alcon Film Fund / Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Where did everybody go?

    Hayden Christensen stars in 2010's "Vanishing on 7th Street," playing a TV anchor who seeks answers after a mysterious global blackout results in most people on earth vanishing, and shadows coming to life. (Magnet Release) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Zombies, always a good world-ender

    Zombie master George A. Romero returns with 2010's "Survival of the Dead," following the fight against the living dead as waged by a group of National Guards. Most of the action involves two feuding Irish families who are holding a small island off the coast of Delaware. One family is keeping their undead loved ones alive, hoping to find a cure, while the others want to kill the zombies. (Magnet Release) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Crazy for you

    2010's "The Crazies" was a remake of George A. Romero's 1973 original. A small town's water supply is accidentally infected with a virus that turns the humans who drink it into infected killers. (Overture Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. When angels fall to earth

    Dennis Quaid stars in 2009's "Legion," in which the Archangel Michael falls to Earth, cuts off his wings, and leads a small group of humans in an apocalyptic battle. (Courtesy Of Screen Gems / Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Prawn of the dead

    In the 2009 sleeper hit "District 9," aliens who come to Earth don't conquer us, but are instead treated as refugees, derisively dubbed "prawns," and stuffed in refugee camps. As you can imagine, they don't much like that, and violence eventually erupts. (Sony Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Vamping

    In 2009's "Daybreakers," Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe exist in a 2019 world where a plague has turned most of the planet's human population into vampires. A vampiric corporation sets out to capture and farm the remaining humans while researching a blood substitute. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The final countdown?

    "2012," released in 2009, revolves around cataclysmic events that strike the Earth just as the Mayan calendar is coming to a close. Over the decades, many have prophesied that the world will end when the ancient calendar ceases on Dec. 21, 2012. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The long walk

    Cormac McCarthy's bleak novel "The Road" became a 2009 movie. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee star as a father and son who face starving stragglers and marauding packs of cannibals after a nuclear explosion destroys America. (Dimension Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Heads up!

    In 2008's "Cloverfield," a group of young people at a going-away party must flee for their lives when a seemingly unstoppable monster rampages through New York. Even the Statue of Liberty doesn't escape unscathed. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Man and his dog

    In 2007's "I Am Legend," Will Smith plays Robert Neville, one of the last survivors of a viral pandemic that turned most people into flesh-eating mutants. The story is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and this is its third film adaptation. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Save the children

    In 2006's "Children of Men," humanity faces extinction after two decades of global infertility, a common theme in apocalyptic literature. Clive Owen plays a disillusioned bureaucrat who must somehow protect a pregnant African refugee (Claire-Hope Ashley). (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Going to 'War'

    H.G. Wells wrote the alien-invasion classic "The War of the Worlds" in 1898, but more than a century later, it's still chilling audiences. Perhaps the most famous adaptation was Orson Welles' radio drama, which terrified many listeners into thinking it was real when the show aired in 1938. In 2005, Paramount released the latest movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. When the weather turns bad

    The weather is the villain in 2004's "The Day After Tomorrow," which depicts the catastrophic effects of both global warming and global cooling. Football-sized hail hammers Tokyo and tornadoes destroy Los Angeles International Airport as the world falls into a new Ice Age. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. All quiet on the London front

    When a bicycle courier named Jim awakens from his coma in a London hospital, he finds the world around him completely changed. "28 Days Later" tells of a virus that turns its victims into violent killing machines. Jim teams up with the few survivors he is able to find and tries to find safety and a cure. Three alternate endings offered on the DVD release gave viewers plenty to talk about. (Fox Searchlight Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Journey to the center of the earth

    In a novel twist on apocalyptic fiction, 2003's "The Core" delves into what would happen to our world if the Earth's inner core suddenly stopped rotating.With the planet's magnetic field rapidly deteriorating, our atmosphere literally starts to come apart at the seams with catastrophic consequences. To resolve the crisis, a team of scientists must find their way to the planet's center and set things right. (Paramount) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Collision course

    How is it that Hollywood often makes two films on strikingly similar concepts at the same time? In 1998, two movies dealt with the problem of a space object heading directly for Earth. "Armageddon" was generally considered the better film, and featured Bruce Willis as the tough driller who must make the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Collision course, take two

    "Deep Impact" follows a similar plot to that of "Armageddon," with a comet plotting Earth's destruction as opposed to "Armageddon's" asteroid. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. And the rockets' red glare

    When aliens try to take over the world in 1996's "Independence Day," they learn the humans won't go down without a fight, especially not on July 4. Bill Pullman plays a war hero president whose military expertise comes in handy. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. No monkeying around

    Life is bleak in the 2035 setting of "12 Monkeys," released in 1995. Humankind subsists in a desolate netherworld following the eradication of 99 percent of the Earth's population and a holocaust that makes the planet's surface uninhabitable. A convict played by Bruce Willis volunteers to attempt to travel back in time to try and rebuild the future. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. He'll be back

    In Arnold Schwarzenegger's most famous film, 1984's "The Terminator," the future California governor plays a cyborg assassin. The seemingly unstoppable machine is sent back in time to try and kill Sarah Connor, who will eventually give birth to John Connor, who leads the human resistance against the killing machines. The film spawned multiple sequels and a short-lived television series. (Orion Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. After the mushroom cloud

    Many young viewers were traumatized by the 1983 TV movie "The Day After," which focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., after a nuclear attack. (ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A world gone 'Mad'

    In the "Mad Max" franchise, Mel Gibson stars as a policeman in a world gone mad, where fuel is scarce and law and order has broken down completely. Gibson, little known at the time of the first film's 1979 release, became a major star thanks to this role. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Who can you trust?

    1978's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is a remake of the 1956 film of the same name. In both films and the original Jack Finney novel, a small group of humans discover that people are being replaced by alien replicas grown from plantlike pods. (United Artists) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Unlikely survivors

    Michael Crichton, who would go on to even greater fame with "Jurassic Park," also wrote "The Andromeda Strain," which became a 1971 movie. Scientists must frantically investigate a fatal illness of extraterrestrial origin in a town where only one infant and one elderly man seem to be immune. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. You eat yet?

    The title of 1973's "Soylent Green" has become a punchline in the years since its release. Charlton Heston starred as a New York detective in a world where most of humanity survives on mass-produced rations that turn out to have a secret, and grotesque, ingredient. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. There is no law but Ape Law!

    "Soylent Green" star Charlton Heston also starred in 1968's "Planet of the Apes," playing an astronaut who crash-lands on an unknown planet and discovers that apes are in charge and humans are enslaved. The Statue of Liberty makes a cameo appearance in one of filmdom's most classic, and oft-parodied, endings. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Searching for home

    In 1959's "On the Beach," World War III has broken out and only Australia, far away from the fallout, is somewhat habitable. Aussie survivors know they will soon be contaminated with radioactivity, and try to follow a mysterious wireless signal in the hopes that somewhere, an uncontaminated world still exists. (United Artists) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Columbia Pictures
    Above: Slideshow (30) End of the world as we know it
  2. Universal Pictures
    Slideshow (10) 10 horror-movie icons
  3. Image:
    Seth Poppel / Yearbook Library
    Slideshow (13) Gwyneth Paltrow's transformation

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