We examined five patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus who developed a rapidly progressive necrotizing retinitis characterized by early patchy choroidal and deep retinal lesions and late diffuse thickening of the retina. In all but one case, the retinitis began in the posterior pole with little or no clinical evidence of vasculitis. All five patients had relentless progression of disease and were left with atrophic and necrotic retinae, pale optic-nerve heads, and narrowed vasculature. None of the patients developed aqueous or vitreal inflammation or retinal detachment. Clinical and laboratory evidence suggested that varicella-zoster virus was the causal agent in all five cases. First, the onset of retinitis in four cases either succeeded or was coincident with an eruption of dermatomal zoster. Second, varicella-zoster virus was cultured from the two chorioretinal specimens and varicella-zoster virus antigen was detected in the vitreal aspirate from one case. Third, by means of immunocytochemistry, varicella-zoster virus antigen was found in the outer retinae of both enucleation specimens. Fourth, viral capsids with the size and shape of herpesviridae were found in the outer retinae of both enucleation specimens. The clinical features observed in this study are distinct from those described for the acute retinal necrosis syndrome and appear to constitute a new and highly characteristic pattern of varicella-zoster virus-induced disease.