Credit: Amanda Matlovich/National Geographic

In one of The Hot Zone’s more suspense-filled moments, Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) freaks out when the previously frozen corpse of an Ebola-ravaged monkey starts to thaw in the trunk of a car, and its contaminated blood begins to drip onto the road. Nancy is then forced to break out the bleach and literally scour the asphalt of the deadly virus.

Over the top, perhaps? But not if you are familiar with the 1994 nonfiction best-seller by Richard Preston that inspired this limited series about how the virus made its first known appearance on U.S. soil. Co-starring Topher Grace, Robert Sean Leonard, and Noah Emmerich, The Hot Zone—which will air over three consecutive nights—kicks off in 1989, when a colony of primates becomes sick at a research facility in Virginia. Margulies’ Nancy is the one who starts putting the fear of God into everyone. Ergo, the dripping monkey.

“There are some things that people say are so crazy that we must have created it ourselves,” says Kelly Souders, who wrote the series with her longtime collaborator Brian Peterson (Smallville, Under the Dome, and Salem). Though the contaminated monkey juice didn’t end up leaking in real life, someone did actually transport an infected corpse (Imagine rear-ending a car with that!). “The truth of the matter is, those things are real,” Souders adds. “All of this is based on real aspects.”

And it’s more relevant than ever: An Ebola epidemic is currently out of control in the Democratic Republic of Congo—not to mention the outbreak of measles in the U.S. “One aspect of the show that really drew us in was the question, ‘Who would I protect?’” says Peterson. “Would I sacrifice my own family over the lives of thousands? Are we looking at ourselves as part of a global community?”

The Hot Zone premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on Nat Geo.

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