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Disaster Movies of the 1970s
February 24, 2011 11:50 AM   Subscribe

Disaster movies are as old as cinema itself. But their golden age began in 1970 with Airport - which, despite being an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, is now remembered chiefly for the parody it inspired. Earthquake - exhibited in Sensurround - set a record for the number of stunt performers used. But the Master of Disaster was Lost in Space producer Irwin Allen. His The Poseidon Adventure grossed the equivalent of $450 million in today's money. And The Towering Inferno - the filming of which destroyed all but 8 of its 57 sets - is still unsurpassed.
posted by Joe Beese (66 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
yeah!!! great post. I loooove disaster movies and the (original) poseidon adventure set the high mark :)
posted by supermedusa at 11:55 AM on February 24, 2011


I saw The Poseidon Adventure when it came out...there was only one movie theater in the small town in Indiana where I found myself that week in the Seventies. I thought it was pretty laughable. Looking back on it, I realize the only thing it really missed was Leslie Nielsen.
posted by kozad at 11:56 AM on February 24, 2011


The end of EARTHQUAKE is sublime in an awful sort of way: Charlton Heston getting sucked down a sewer drain in a vain effort to save his wife, Ava Gardner, who he no longer loves. Kind of speaks for the whole culture at that strange mid-70s moment.

It's in here somewhere, I suspect.
posted by philip-random at 11:58 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I loved the Towering Inferno when it came out ( I was ten), haven't seen it since, I'm guessing that it hasn't held up that well.
posted by octothorpe at 11:59 AM on February 24, 2011


I like these movies for their no-nonsense approach to naming:

Earthquake — I bet I know what that's about!

The Towering Inferno — Does what it says on the tin!
posted by Mister_A at 12:00 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I realize the only thing it really missed was Leslie Nielsen

You realize that Leslie Nielsen was actually in The Poseidon Adventure, right?
posted by lordrunningclam at 12:02 PM on February 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Airplane wasn't really a parody of Airport. It's actually a startlingly close remake of 1957's Zero Hour! How close? See for yourself.

Zero Hour!, in turn, was a remake of 1956's Flight Into Danger. Which, in, was novelized, and the novelization was remade as the 1971 film Terror in the Sky. All were based on the original script by Arthur Hailey. Who also wrote Airport.

I'm most interested in Haley's structure, which he uses in almost all of his novels, like Hotel, which is almost like a disaster movie without a disaster. Instead of focusing on one character, he tends to like to focus on a number of characters, all with their own separate problems, who all converge on a single place and event and have their stories occur at the same time -- but with unexpectedly little overlap. I call the the Hailey Approach, and not only is it the structure used by almost every single disaster movie of the 70s, but, as a result of the influence of Hotel, it also became a common structure in 70s narrative storytelling, particularly on television, where it was the structure favored by shows like The Love Boat, which was the Poseidon Adventure without the shipwreck, and Fantasy Island, which was Hotel with a magic host who could make your dreams come true.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:06 PM on February 24, 2011 [26 favorites]


I loved these movies as a kid. My brother and I watched The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, every chance we got.

A couple of years ago I discovered my wife had never seen Poseidon, and made her watch it. I was aghast at what a horrible, horrible movie it was despite a decent cast. I'm scared to rewatch any of the others now.
posted by never used baby shoes at 12:08 PM on February 24, 2011


Surely you must be joking.
posted by Ber at 12:11 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Astro Zombie's right. "Airplane!" is almost shot-by-shot the same flick as "Zero Hour," except it's a parody and the original is meant as high drama. Both are well worth seeing because both are a hoot.
posted by blucevalo at 12:11 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, bother. You couldn't even mention that the last Sensaround movie was BSG's Saga of a Star World?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:13 PM on February 24, 2011


Is there a disaster movie more gleefully sadistic than 2012?
posted by Burhanistan at 12:19 PM on February 24, 2011


Is there a disaster movie more gleefully sadistic than 2012?

You mean sadistic to the viewers, right?
posted by mark242 at 12:21 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


> You mean sadistic to the viewers, right?

Both the viewers and all the random people getting smushed.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:23 PM on February 24, 2011


Back in the days of Dynamite Magazine, they used to have pull-out posters in most of the issues. One of them was for a disaster movie, and came with gum-backed lick-and-stick letters so you could put your name on the poster as one of the headlining stars. I had it hung in my bedroom for ages. I probably still have it stashed at my parents' house someplace.

Can't find an image of it online right now. Sadly.
posted by hippybear at 12:25 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, now you've got me feeling nostalgic for the tornado craze of 1996.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:26 PM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


My favorite disaster film, which isn't really a disaster film but still sort of counts, is The Forbin Project.
posted by mark242 at 12:26 PM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]



I realize the only thing it really missed was Leslie Nielsen

Thank you, lordrunningclam. It has been almost forty years since I saw the Poseidon Adventure, and I totally forgot Leslie Nielsen was in it. How strange!
posted by kozad at 12:26 PM on February 24, 2011


I realize the only thing it really missed was Leslie Nielsen

You realize that Leslie Nielsen was actually in The Poseidon Adventure, right?


I think he was saying that the movie got everything right, except that it didn't show Leslie Nielsen enough.
posted by Melismata at 12:26 PM on February 24, 2011


> Astro Zombie's right. "Airplane!" is almost shot-by-shot the same flick as "Zero Hour," except it's a parody and the original is meant as high drama. Both are well worth seeing because both are a hoot.

Wow, just like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe...except that Fail-Safe is most emphatically not a hoot.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:26 PM on February 24, 2011


Oh, now you've got me feeling nostalgic for the tornado craze of 1996.

Oh, now you've got me feeling old...
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:27 PM on February 24, 2011


> Oh, now you've got me feeling nostalgic for the tornado craze of 1996.

Twister: It Blows
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:27 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I was eight or nine, my dad showed me "The Poseidon Adventure" after telling me it was a comedy. It's silly now in an ironic, overdramatic way, but at the time it was totally terrifying. Thanks dad.
posted by Rinku at 12:28 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't get me started on the asteroid craze of 1998. But at least that was more interesting than the volcano craze of 1997. Those were sad years.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:28 PM on February 24, 2011


I was a kid just starting to watch movies when these all came out. For a long time I thought "movies" meant "disaster movies" which led to some confusion when I was taken to see "The Cannonball Express".

On the plus side, that decade made for some awesome Mad Magazine parodies.
posted by Aquaman at 12:30 PM on February 24, 2011


I saw The Towering Inferno as a thirteen-year-old kid from Grimsby, UK. I would venture to suggest this may have been the ideal condition in which to see it. There was no building above about eight stories in Grimsby, back then. 99.99% of buildings were two stories or fewer. We hadn't had a decent fire since being bombed in WWII. I don't think there was a single tuxedo in the whole town. Only one of my friends' parents owned a car. Yes, really.

The world of The Towering Inferno was another world. The world depicted in that film was every bit - no, I am not exaggerating, every bit - as alien as any of the worlds of Star Trek: possibly moreso, since I could imagine those. This was a huge, alien world being burnt and ruined and collapsing under the weight of its own unimaginable yet lovingly-portrayed hubris. I was thrilled by it in a way I can't hope to describe.
posted by Decani at 12:32 PM on February 24, 2011 [17 favorites]


When I was a little kid, my father took me to see all these disaster films. It wasn't until I was much older did I understand that he didn't really like them at all. The reason he took me was because he, an immigrant with barely a grasp of the English language, found that disaster movies were the easiest kind of Hollywood films to understand. Basically bad shit goes down and people are in a desperate need to survive. Some of them will prove to be heroes. But most die.

His second favorite genre was When Animals Strike Back.
posted by cazoo at 12:33 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Both the viewers and all the random people getting smushed.

I was going to reply to octothorpe to say that Inferno held up very well for me when I watched it yesterday - and largely because it's so merciless in dealing out death to sympathetic characters. And though the pre-CGI effects weaken some scenes, they make others more powerful - since all the flame and water are palpably real.

If nothing else, watching it today is a useful reminder of how attractive Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway used to be.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:35 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, to be fair to Paul Newman, he's dead. Nobody looks their best like that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:39 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I just want to tell this thread good luck. We're all counting on you.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:40 PM on February 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


So this is where we talk about Batman and Robin and the works of Uwe Boll?

Oh I see, "disaster movies" not "movie disasters"... my bad.
posted by quin at 12:41 PM on February 24, 2011


> Don't get me started on the asteroid craze of 1998.

My sister went to see Deep Impact with her boyfriend at the time. Sitting in front of them was another teenaged couple, who proceeded to bicker and then the guy just straight-up dumped the girl during the trailers. For some reason they both stayed for the movie. The girl sniffled her way through it, but every time something sad happened to the romantic leads she'd start sobbing and whispering stuff like "I thought we were going to work on things" while the guy did his best to ignore her. When I asked my sister what she thought of the movie she told me she barely paid attention to it, so compelling was the drama being played out in front of them.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:42 PM on February 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


I also was around 10-12 when all these movies came out. My friends and I went to see The Poseidon Adventure at least three times and the others at least once, probably more.

I just saw last week that The Towering Inferno is streaming on Netflix, and I was torn about whether to watch it RIGHT THAT SECOND or never see it so as not to break the spell because I'm pretty sure it will totally blow, except for watching Paul Newman. I have withstood the temptation so far, but I'm sure I'll cave soon.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:43 PM on February 24, 2011


Is there a disaster movie more gleefully sadistic than 2012?

You mean sadistic to the viewers, right?


Oh come on, this is the movie that had the last second narrow escape of a plane making it off a runway before the ground underneath was destroyed... three times.

Three times. That's so offensively bad that it comes back around to being funny again.

Ok, not really.
posted by quin at 12:45 PM on February 24, 2011


When I was eight or nine, my dad showed me "The Poseidon Adventure" after telling me it was a comedy. It's silly now in an ironic, overdramatic way, but at the time it was totally terrifying. Thanks dad.

When I was in 1975, when I was 8, our Dad took us to see some beach flick.

"Thanks dad", indeed!
posted by mikelieman at 12:46 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I loved the Towering Inferno when it came out ( I was ten), haven't seen it since, I'm guessing that it hasn't held up that well."
posted by octothorpe

i was the same until i saw it again last year. it was cheesy, but still very watchable. it is one of those films where you just wonder how it was all done. (yes i watched the "filming" link in the op)
posted by marienbad at 12:49 PM on February 24, 2011


Obligatory Killdozer video.

Man vs. Nature lyrics:
On the television, a ship was sinking
it seemed so real, but it was just a movie
made by Irwin Allen (my, what a relief)
and on this ship was Ernest Borgnine,
brave in the face of certain death
he played a cop on a pleasure cruise
along with his wife, an ex-prostitute
Shelley Winters, she was on the ship
she was good, too- but she died
as did Gene Hackman, a preacher,
who gave his life so that others could live
he died shouting "how many more lives?!"

On the screen, the city crumbled
so realistic, but but yet another film
by the master of realism, mr. Irwin Allen
no less a man than Lorne Green, and mr. George Kennedy,
risked their lives to save the lives of strangers
their selflessness was moving
Chuck Heston was in the movie too- but he was just a ham.

On the tv, a building in flames
it was "Towering Inferno" by Irwin Allen
O.J. Simpson led the cast
in a man-against-nature fight-for-survival
it was awesome!
yeah, man, it blew me away.

posted by NoMich at 12:53 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


One summer before cable came to my small hometown and when the local broadcast networks still had "The Late Show", on a series of Sunday nights, one of the channels showed 70s disaster movies each Sunday for a month. My best friend who lived across the street took turns on those nights having sleep overs (or "camping" in the backyard) with our portable TVs (obviously, not the best screen for such things), and absolutely loving it.

I think why it sticks in my head so much is because it was the first time I noticed a "formula" all by myself. "Hey, this movie is ALSO introducing a bunch of unrelated characters and it ALSO feels like forever until the titled disaster is happening and wow, the boring stuff was ALSO so worth it for the ending." (Yes, the formulas here is obvious, but give me a break - I couldn't have been more than 10 years old.) We, of course, thought we were being clever when we decided that we should create a story and cast them with our own favorite celebrities (like a pre-teen geek Love Boat it was) but set it somewhere else (train, sports stadium) or make the disaster different (volcano, tornado) Little did we know, those movies already existed or would soon.

Reading Towering Inferno is on Netflix Streaming pretty much guarantees what I'll be doing this Saturday afternoon. And a disaster marathon, depending on what's available, probably isn't far off.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:57 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, just like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe...except that Fail-Safe is most emphatically not a hoot.

You just have to think of it as a prequel to every Walter Matthau vehicle that followed. So when you're watching The Bad News Bears, say, you'll understand why he's so grumpy: Nuclear holocaust.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:00 PM on February 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


I just want to say that this thread and all the talk of 70s earthquake movies reminded me of my on-going quest to find the soundtrack record that came with the Earthquake Tower toy I had when I was a kid. The toy, being made mostly out of cardboard, was thrown out a year or two after I got it. Being the nostalgic type, I've been trying to find a recording of that record for, oh, twenty five years or so. I've even mentioned it a couple of times here.

Frickin' YouTube, man. I should have known.

Anyway, thank you Mr. Beese, and all the rest of you for talking about cheesy Earthquake movies. My quest has ended.

Anyway, back on topic. No love for The Big Bus?
posted by bondcliff at 1:04 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I f'in LOVE The Big Bus. Wow, thanks, I hadn't even thought of that.
posted by hippybear at 1:07 PM on February 24, 2011


You just have to think of it as a prequel to every Walter Matthau vehicle that followed. So when you're watching The Bad News Bears, say, you'll understand why he's so grumpy: Nuclear holocaust.

The "stunt" link includes Matthau's appearance in Earthquake.

The amusing part of which is that his role - as opposed to, say, Charlton Heston's - doesn't require him to disguise the fact that he's disgusted with himself for cashing this particular paycheck.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:13 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


His second favorite genre was When Animals Strike Back


Then he must have loved the movie Frogs.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:15 PM on February 24, 2011


Reading Towering Inferno is on Netflix Streaming pretty much guarantees what I'll be doing this Saturday afternoon

I think that I may be doing the same.
posted by octothorpe at 1:16 PM on February 24, 2011


Obligatory Killdozer video .


Killdozer? KILLDOZER?

Oh Lord. You know you want it.
posted by Decani at 1:23 PM on February 24, 2011


What, no love for The Core, featuring Oscar winner Hillary Swank, the repulsive Aaron Eckhart, and a black guy?
posted by Mister_A at 1:26 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The comedy trailer That's Armageddon probably deserves mention, as it was among the first to make fun of the whole disaster genre.
posted by crapmatic at 1:32 PM on February 24, 2011


If I remember my film school correctly, the popularity of the genre in the seventies is explained as follows: The disaster itself is a metaphor for social upheaval and the threat of revolution, and the narrative of what follows celebrates the reestablishment of traditional patriarchal order. Often there's also an indictment of corporate neglect (cf Towering Inferno) to make the politics a little more palatable. Later directors, having gone to film school, make this sort of thing nauseatingly obvious, as in the references to LA riots and race in Volcano.

What film school can't quite explain is the constant presence of George Kennedy and/or Ernest Borgnine, and why everyone's skin looks so greasy.
posted by condour75 at 1:42 PM on February 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


Wow, just like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe...except that Fail-Safe is most emphatically not a hoot.

Especially not the last 60 seconds. Talk about an ending that makes you want to go out and shoot yourself in the head.
posted by blucevalo at 1:43 PM on February 24, 2011


You know we were pretty lucky tonight, gross is over $450M.

You know, one of these days, you're going to spend $1 Billion on one of these firetrap flicks, and I'm gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us... how to film them.

     Ok, I'm asking.

Like this.
posted by mazola at 1:51 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


This needs more Black Sunday. I mean, it was filmed at the ACTUAL SUPER BOWL, making extras out of an Orange Bowl full of fans, the entire Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers rosters, coaches, CBS announcers, and they even gave Joe Robbie some lines. Also, Jimmy Carter lookalike.
posted by evilcolonel at 2:02 PM on February 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


evilcolonel: "This needs more Black Sunday."

So does Netflix. I've never seen it and given that I've obsessions with both disaster movies (there was something about it when it used to be on TBS (I think) when I was a kid that made it seem too scary) and John Frankenheimer, my ignorance of it is unacceptable.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:14 PM on February 24, 2011


and why everyone's skin looks so greasy.

It was the '70s. A greasy time to be alive.
posted by quin at 2:19 PM on February 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Sensurround?!?! Pfft. For B movie cheese, go to the source, William Castle, and marvel at his marketing genius.

For the curious, and even just the bored, I cannot recommend too highly Whatever Happened to Showmanship? in John Water's wonderful book Crackpot. He really should write more, our John.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:27 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, just like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe...except that Fail-Safe is most emphatically not a hoot.

The New Beverly here in Los Angeles will every so often show those two movies as a double feature.
posted by sideshow at 5:08 PM on February 24, 2011


This is a great post thank you. The Poseidon Adventure was one of the first grownup movies I saw at the theater.
posted by marxchivist at 6:01 PM on February 24, 2011


The Mad Magazine interpretations of all of these disaster movies were all really excellent.
posted by ovvl at 7:37 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm going to out on a limb and guess that I'm the only one here that really liked 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. Those movies get so much shit talked about them when all they are are modern-day disaster flicks, bad science, screwy dialog, and all. Fantastically entertaining, though.
posted by item at 8:21 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


These films had a profound effect on me growing up. I think Ava Gardner's Earthquake persona turned me gay (DISASTER within a disaster, was she supposed to look like Joan Crawford a la Baby Jane?). And I still can't watch Alien Resurrection without flashing back on Shelley Winters' final moments. So, so moving. I model all my relationships on hers. I know, objectively, that they perhaps haven't aged as well as some movies, but they still resonant with me now because of their rich landscape of characters. And also the melodrama; who doesn't like to think their life is just one epic disaster waiting to happen?
posted by londonmark at 12:33 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you like The Poseidon Adventure, you'll love the musical, including the show-stopping tune "Just Panties (What Else Do I Need?)".
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:45 AM on February 25, 2011


My favourite disaster film is actually Dante's Peak.

It's just a weird film. Aside from the sight of Brosnan prancing around a volcano (which is an intrinsically deranged idea), the main characters are very dismissive about the particularly cruel deaths that go on.

The grandmother who dies hours after deciding to take a plunge into an acid lake. Skinny-dipping teenagers getting boiled alive.

The sceptical scientist boss guy who dismisses Pierce's gut-instinct-"I'm-telling-you-it's-gonna-blow"-type pleas -- well he gets swept downstream in a torrential river. Or the greedy helicopter pilot, who amazingly has no idea that ash might fry his engines. He of course crashes and explodes, along with a few passengers.

And amid all this death... there's Brosnan, who just wants to poke Linda Hamilton. The spattering and messy volcano is a metaphor for their love.
posted by TheAlarminglySwollenFinger at 3:08 AM on February 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Disaster movies are wonderful because they're two hours of pure moralistic schadenfreude, except for the sympathetic character killed near the start of Act 3.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:20 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw "The Towering Inferno" on TV as a kid -- I want to say it was around the holidays, too -- and it totally sucked me in. (Might they have showed it a couple of years in a row around 1980?) Great stuff.

Then again, at that age I compulsively watched Jacques Cousteau shows about sharks on PBS through my hands, despite living 1000 miles from the nearest salt water (and that being Hudson Bay!).
posted by wenestvedt at 6:02 AM on February 25, 2011


Instead of focusing on one character, he tends to like to focus on a number of characters, all with their own separate problems, who all converge on a single place and event and have their stories occur at the same time -- but with unexpectedly little overlap. I call the the Hailey Approach

To be sure, AZ, the idea dates at least back to Grand Hotel^, which itself had precedents in the vaudeville revue format. See revue, anthology, portmanteau for the various flavors.

In any event, it's suited for the disaster film, which tends to show groups of people reacting in different ways to the MacGuffin that is driving the story.
posted by dhartung at 11:58 AM on February 25, 2011


If we're going to count Black Sunday (we should) we should also probably count Two Minute Warning, which freaked me right out as a kid...
posted by drmanhattan at 3:05 PM on February 26, 2011


It was the '70s. A greasy time to be alive.

My wife, who was born in 1980, constantly makes reference to how sweaty and greasy people looked in 70s films. Often, this comes in context of watching 70s films on old episodes of MST3K...which reminds me, if any film could use a RiffTrax, it's either Poseidon or Inferno.

(Side note: The less said about the Poseidon sequel, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, or its weird TV offshoot Goliath Awaits, or the fact that Poseidon spawned a disastrous Oscar-winning song...the better.
posted by stannate at 9:06 PM on March 1, 2011


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