By David Sturm, Copyright 1996

Medical thrillers about bizarre epidemics have untapped potential as movies.

"Outbreak" cashes in on the frightening outbreaks reported recently in Africa of diseases like ebola, which basically turn people into bags of blood.

Unfortunately, "Outbreak" squanders its terror potential because it is too busy indulging a fetish for military hardware, filling the screen with dueling helicopters and exploding fuel-air bombs.

As the movie begins, the virus crosses from Africa to the U.S. in the bloodstream of a monkey being smuggled aboard a freighter. This kind of monkey spits and bites people. Soon, the infected are being rushed down hospital corridors on gurneys.

Dustin Hoffman is a U.S. Army doctor who heads a kind of SWAT team of microbe hunters, ready to leap out of helidopters into a "hot zone" in their nylon suits. The disease is isolatedin a small town in southern California, which is promptly turned into an armed camp.

Most lines are barked rather than spoken, such as "These numbers can't be right!" or "I don't need evidence--I have a feeling!" or "These are not statistics--they are flesh and blood!"

Meanwhile, Pentagon higher-ups are taking a cold-blooded interest in the virus and there is the usual "national security" and "secret experiment" huggermugger.

Toward the end, the movie turns into something akin to an armed forces recruitment commercial--eerily reminiscent of a station break during an NFL game. Military transports roar off runways, soldiers in humvees kick up dust clouds and helicopters race to beat the clock. The big climax is an airborne showdown involving several heavily armed helicopters and a transport bearing a deadly cargo.

I guess it's all supposed to make you proud to be an American.

One scene, in which a man's coughing fit in a movie theater launches a cloud of germy droplets that we see going down the throats of laughing people, captures the creepy spirit of what the movie should have been. If only David Cronenberg were directing instead of Wolfgang Petersen.

"Outbreak" is a movie that chose not to be all that it could be.

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