Disaster Epics

Some film buffs call the 1970s the decade of disaster epics. The basic run-down of the plot usually was: A natural disaster takes place (earthquake, fire, tidal wave, avalanche etc.) and a bunch of righteous characters (usually played by very big names in the movie business) set out to escape from the catastrophe surrounding them. Important ingredients of disaster films were: star-studded casts, over-the-top special effects (generally high production values) and a soap-opera-like level of (melo-)drama in the plot following the GRAND HOTEL-formula of movie-making. Central figure (and occasional director) of the ‘movement’ was producer Irwin Allen.

Of course, hundreds of disaster films were made in film history, the first notable ones being THE WIND (1928), SAN FRANCISCO (1936) and HURRICANE (1937). In these films the the actual disasters were mere (usually climactic) set-pieces. In later films the disasters became the plot premises of the movies themselves.

With bigger budgets and colorful scenery, the 1950s were a decade in movie-making that offered more and more action. One of the most notable features to premiere was William Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) starring John Wayne, which was one of the blueprints for the starting-point of 1970s disaster-craze, the Arthur Hailey adaptation AIRPORT (1970).

The 1980s and 1990s (especially the mid-90s) proved very fruitful for disaster films. The climax of this sub-genre was reached in 1997’s TITANIC, directed by James Cameron. (Of course, the sinking of the famous ocean cruiser was the theme of many films before that).

In the following, www.cultmovies.info features (open) lists of notable disaster films. The twenty films which are at the center of attention are big-budget, star-studded action blockbusters produced for the cinemas in the 1970s. The best ones are usually regarded to be AIRPORT (1970) and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), two of the earliest examples. Many disaster films were made for television, they are treated separately below.

Theatrical disaster epics:

Airport (1970; dir by George Seaton, Henry Hathaway)
The Poseidon Adventure (1972; dir by Ronald Neame, Irwin Allen)
Skyjacked (1972; dir by John Guillermin)
The Towering Inferno (1974; dir by John Guillermin, Irwin Allen)
Earthquake (1974; dir by Mark Robson)
Airport 1975 (1974; dir by Jack Smight)
The Hindenburg (1975; dir by Robert Wise)
The Cassandra Crossing (1976; dir by George Pan Cosmatos)
Two Minute Warning (1976; dir by Larry Peerce)
Rollercoaster (1977; dir by James Goldstone)
Airport '77 (1977; dir by Jerry Jameson)
Gray Lady Down (1978; dir by David Greene)
The Swarm (1978; dir by Irwin Allen)
Avalanche (1978; dir by Corey Allen)
Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979; dir by Irwin Allen)
The Concorde: Airport '79 (1979; dir by David Lowell Rich)
Meteor (1979; dir by Ronald Neame)
City on Fire (1979; dir by Alvin Rakoff)
When Time Ran Out... (1980; dir by James Goldstone)
St. Helens (1981; dir by Ernest Pintoff)

Other examples of the 1970s:

The Andromeda Strain (1971; dir by Robert Wise)
The Crazies (1973; dir by George A. Romero)
Juggernaut (1974; dir by Richard Lester)
Dawn of the Dead (1978; dir by George A. Romero)

Later blockbusters:

Alive (1993; dir by Frank Marshall)
Apollo 13 (1995; dir by Ron Howard)
Outbreak (1995; dir by Wolfgang Petersen)
Daylight (1996; dir by Rob Cohen)
Independence Day (1996; dir by Roland Emmerich)
Twister (1996; dir by Jan de Bont)
Volcano (1997; dir by Mick Jackson)
Dante’s Peak (1997; dir by Roger Donaldson)
Titanic (1997; dir by James Cameron)
Armageddon (1998; dir by Michael Bay)
Deep Impact (1998; dir by Mimi Leder)
Hard Rain (1998; dir by Mikael Salomon)
The Perfect Storm (2000; dir by Wolfgang Petersen)
The Core (2003; dir by Jon Amiel)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004; dir by Roland Emmerich)
Poseidon (2006; dir by Wolfgang Petersen)

Non-American imitations:

Nippon Jinbotsu (1973; aka TIDAL WAVE)
Shinkansen Daibakuha (1975; dir by Junya Sato; aka THE BULLET TRAIN) Cyclone (1977; dir by René Cardona Jr.)
Concorde Affaire ’79 (1979; dir by Ruggero Deodato)
Jishin Retto (1980; aka DEATHQUAKE)
Fukkatsu no Hi (1980; aka VIRUS)
the later Godzilla movies


The Big Bus (1976; dir by James Frawley)
Drive-In (1976; dir by Rodney Amateau)
Airplane! (1980; dir by ZAZ)
Airplane II: The Sequel (1982; dir by ZAZ)

Previous Films:

The Wind (1928; dir by Victor Sjöström)
San Francisco (1936; dir by W.S. van Dyke)
Titanic (1943; dir by Werner Klingler, Herbert Selpin)
Titanic (1953; dir by Jean Negulesco)
The High and the Mighty (1954; dir by William A. Wellman)
A Night to Remember (1958; dir by Roy Ward Baker)
La Morte Viene dallo Spazio (1958; dir by Paolo Heusch; aka THE DAY THE SKY EXPLODED)
The Last Voyage (1960; dir by Andrew L. Stone)
Krakatao, East of Java (1969; dir by Bernard L. Kowalski)
all previous Godzilla movies
all previous American monster movies of the 1950s (TARANTULA, THEM, etc.)


The Savage Bees (1976)
Terror out of the Sky (1978)
Crash (1978)
S.O.S. Titanic (1979)
Testament (1983)
The Day After (1983)
Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land (1983)
Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac (1984)

© Ron Altman (last update 01/21/07)