The disaster movie. What is it? Where did it come from? And why are so many of them both wonderful and terrible at the same time?
The “disaster movie” label usually brings to mind epic examples from the ’70s — films in which a catastrophe in a boat or an airplane or a building wreaks havoc on a group of strangers, disrupting their otherwise ordinary lives. These movies are indeed the genre’s heart, but they’re also only the tip of the boat-sinking iceberg: There’s a complicated and fascinating history here that also involves everything from aliens and zombies to viruses and animals running amok.
What do they all have in common? Disaster, of course. An event from somewhere else — nature, fate, the cosmos — that makes survival the name of the game.
Below we outline the Disaster Movie From the ’60s to the ’80s: A Story in 20 Films. Some of them are the best, and some of them are the worst, but they’re all entertaining. They demonstrate not only the various permutations of the disaster movie but also its evolution over time, reflecting the way the fears of our society continually change — and always stay the same.
Day of the Triffids (1962)
The first real disaster movies originated in the ’30s. San Francisco (1936) tells the story of the famous 1906 earthquake in that city, and In Old Chicago (1938) details the fire that consumed much of that city in 1871. After this, during the ’40s and ’50s, large-scale adventure mostly consisted of war and alien-invasion films. By the ’60s, though, the disaster genre really started to take form, and the British movie Day of the Triffids is as good a place as any to pinpoint that beginning. Is it campy? Yes. Is it also far more intelligent than its goofy plot would seem to indicate? Yes. After the light of a meteor shower blinds most of Earth’s population, spores from those meteors land and create massive man-eating plants that threaten our survival. It’s up to a scientist stranded in an island lighthouse to figure out a way to stop them. Triffids weaves into this tale a ton of elements that would become staples of the genre: aliens coming to Earth, the natural world rising up and threatening to annihilate us and small groups of survivors fighting the menace.
The Birds (1963)
More frequently described as a horror film, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece shows the overlap between the two genres. Set in San Francisco and the sleepy northern California town of Bodega Bay, the plot revolves around the psychosexually loaded story of a love triangle among an ordinary man, the wealthy socialite he courts and the schoolteacher he used to be in love with. This drama is interrupted by the appearance of innumerable, murderous birds. These avian monstrosities darken the sky, peck people to death and dive-bomb the windows of houses survivors try to hide in. Like Day of the Triffids, this movie highlights the idea that nature itself can turn from being beautiful into an existential threat to humanity; unlike the earlier film, it gives no reason for this violent shift. The protagonists are up against something akin to a natural disaster that occurs for no rhyme or reason. And it doesn’t end on a happy note: Like so many disaster movies to follow, The Birds concludes by indicating that the threat might still be out there.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Who says a disaster movie can’t be drenched in comedic irony? While not the first film to depict the potential end of humanity at the hands of the madmen controlling the world’s nuclear arsenal, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove may be the best — and it’s certainly the funniest. The disaster here doesn’t come from what happens after the bombs go off but from watching the insane and inevitable buildup to the launch. A crazy Air Force general — who’s convinced the Soviets have been using fluoride in the water system to undermine the bodies and minds of American citizens — initiates a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Although those in charge of both countries try in their own ridiculous way to stop the escalation, they find there’s no way to do so. In an iconic image, the first nuclear weapon dropped from a U.S. bomber is ridden by a soldier like it’s a rodeo bull. Both satirical and deadly serious, Dr. Strangelove introduces nuclear anxiety to the disaster-movie mix and it articulates the notion that sometimes catastrophe descends upon us because of our own idiocy.
Night of The Living Dead (1968)
The movie that introduces the zombie in its modern conception, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead also brings to a head many of the social concerns touched on in ’60s disaster movies. The plot is so skinny as to be not the point at all. Something (possibly rays from space, but no one is certain) has turned a good deal of the population into man-eating zombies. If these zombies bite you, you turn into one of the living dead, too. These abominations shamble around unstoppably, constituting a slow-creeping doom that threatens all of humanity. Like The Birds, it highlights the crossover between horror and disaster, telling the story of a threat whose origins are unknowable; like Day of the Triffids, it features an extra-natural hazard to mankind; and like Dr. Strangelove, it uses this threat to address the anxieties of the age. Here, those anxieties are conformity and middle-class society. Do the zombies represent the horrors of bourgeois life? Or do they — as indicated by the climax, in which a gang of rednecks pick off the zombies one by one — indicate the social “radicalism” that seemed in 1968 to be taking over the planet? Who knows. It’s probably best just to lock yourself in the attic and hope they go away.
In 1970, the disaster film went mainstream with Airport. As the new decade dawned, America turned its eyes to the subject that would define so much of ’70s filmmaking: the social and physical structure of society itself. On the night of a terrible snowstorm in Chicago, a Boeing 707 takes off with a cast of characters embroiled in melodrama: The pilot is having an affair with one of the stewardesses; there’s a septuagenarian stowaway; and one of the passengers is so financially distraught that he’s brought a bomb onboard, intending to kill himself so his wife gets the insurance money. When the plane is forced to turn around and try landing again, the action shifts to the ground crew desperately trying to clear snow from a runway. Every element of the large-scale ’70s disaster cycle are present in Airport: a municipal setting, a big cast, romance, quirky characters and epic action sequences. But many elements of the preceding ’60s films are also present: love stories interrupted, acts of nature (here, the massive storm) and a focus on small groups of people trying to keep their heads amid the madness.
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
What if a virus came from space and, instead of making man-eating plants or changing us into zombies, just decided to kill us by turning our blood into powder? Then you have Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, which introduces the deadly virus concept to the big screen. While not as riveting as many of the movies it inspired, it does have its ’70s-era charms. It’s light on action sequences (until the end) but heavy on then-cutting-edge tech: molecular-level scanners, bodily disinfectors that operate by shining trippy lights in your face, a secret government-run lab that extends for five stories underneath the Earth. It’s here scientists race to defeat a constantly mutating virus before it escapes and kills us all. At the dawn of the decade that brought deadly viruses into public consciousness — both Ebola and AIDS would make their first appearances in the years after the movie — The Andromeda Strain keyed us to fear the life-destroying possibilities of sickness.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
By setting its action on a huge ocean liner that not only sinks but turns upside-down, The Poseidon Adventure – directed by Ronald Neame and produced by disaster-movie maestro Irwin Allen – introduces a glorious idea to the genre. Now the setting isn’t just the place where things happen; it becomes an enormous obstacle course our heroes must navigate to survive. The success of projects like Airport meant that such movies could increasingly tempt top-shelf Hollywood talent to join their ensembles, and here Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters headline a cast that features five Oscar winners. Although it’s jam-packed with melodrama, the large-scale action defines The Poseidon Adventure. It set a new standard for the genre: The sequence of a massive ballroom filled with people slowly turning over is a classic, as are the various scenes of survivors facing the perils of fire and seawater as they struggle to reach the bottom of the ship – which is now its highest point – to be rescued.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
The Boss. The Big Kahuna. The emperor of the ’70s action film, and Irwin Allen’s greatest triumph as a producer. The tallest building in the world has been built in San Francisco by an architect who also turns out to be an action-movie badass, and it catches fire on the night of its dedication. Hundreds of people attending a swanky gala are trapped above the flames, and their only hope is to be rescued by the San Francisco Fire Department. A heroic fireman teams up with the heroic architect; there are explosions and flaming helicopter crashes; people fall from high heights; and a zip-line rescue leads to calamity. And at the end, they must try to put out the fire by releasing millions of gallons of water stored in the tanks high up in the building. Yes, there’s a flood scene in a movie about a burning building. The Towering Inferno smashes together elements from many of the earlier movies on this list: the doomed location, the band of trapped survivors, the experts who struggle to save them and the feeling of horrific impending doom. It also features easily the best cast of any film on the list: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Susan Blakely, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and more. Influencing movies far and wide, it represents the genre’s high water mark in the ’70s.
Probably the first movie on this list included because of its failings, Earthquake signals the moment when the tide begins to turn, the formula threatens to get stale and the over-the-top theatrics — while still pretty great — start to turn indulgent. The story involves a small quake hitting Los Angeles and causing some minor problems for the population, while also tipping off some scientists that a much larger tremor is on the way. But before these scientists can do much about it, this second quake hits, registering 9.9 on the Richter scale. It wipes out a good deal of L.A. and also causes numerous disasters within the disaster: a building fills with deadly gas; people get stranded on a bridge and surrounded by high-voltage cables; the triage center for the city is itself destroyed in an aftershock. All good stuff. But the cast is composed of mostly second- or third-tier stars, and other than its sheer multitude of casualties, the movie brings little new to the genre. Actually released a month before the far-greater Towering Inferno, it shows how short and sweet the peak ’70s disaster moment was.
The Swarm (1978)
If Earthquake represents a tipping point after which the large scale-disaster movie began to decline, The Swarm finds it rocketing down into the subterranean depths of film purgatory. From a certain point of view, the plot seems logical enough: It combines the epic disaster flick and the animals-attack genre that began with The Birds and had taken on something of a life of its own in the ’70s, including such astounding oddities as Night of the Lepus (rabbits), Phase IV (super-smart ants) and Frogs (not just frogs but all the animals in a swamp). In The Swarm, bees secretly engineered by the military get loose and start laying waste to the citizens and cities of Texas. Only after all of Houston is evacuated and set on fire by soldiers wielding flamethrowers do our plucky band of soldiers and scientists manage to lure the bees out to a floating oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico and burn them to a crisp. Everything about this movie is wrong. The A-list cast — including Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens and more — seem either faintly embarrassed by the proceedings or confused about what’s supposed to be actually happening. The action scenes border on parody. It’s a mess, and might have heralded the end of the genre.
When going big fails, sometimes it pays to go small. And funny. Written by legendary indie filmmaker John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante, who would go on to make ’80s stalwarts like The Gremlins, Innerspace and The ‘Burbs, this movie helped pull the disaster film in new directions. Intended as a spoof of Jaws (and working equally as well as a spoof of something like The Swarm), it tells the story of a school of government-bred piranha introduced into a river. They munch a number of bathers on their way downstream, thwart the attempts of our band of heroes – both military and civilian – to save them and eventually make it to the ocean. Like so many of these movies, Piranha ends with the notion that these horrible creatures will soon spread the world over, threatening all of humanity … or at least those who like to swim in natural watercourses. (The sequel, directed by James Cameron, solves this limitation by turning them into flying fish.) The film was enormously profitable and helped create a template followed by everything from Dante’s own Gremlins to projects like Arachnophobia and Tremors: Think small, make the monsters kind of scary but kind of funny at the same time and lean into the connection of disaster and horror.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of the 1956 sci-fi classic, sparked another new but old direction for the disaster film: invaders from space who overrun the Earth. Dormant for much of the ’70s, this strain of the genre came roaring back to life with this story of space pods that take over people and replicate them as happy minions of an evil intelligence. It also features one of the great feel-bad endings in the entire disaster oeuvre when a human survivor spots a man she thinks is still human as well, only to have him open his mouth and scream the alien scream at her: The Earth is lost, and the invaders have won. In addition to inspiring several other remakes, this magnificent chiller helped set the stage for a continuing series of alien-attack films in the ’80s and beyond, including the TV miniseries V, Independence Day and many more.
By combining alien invasion and ship-in-peril elements of earlier disaster movies with an intimate (even claustrophobic) horror atmosphere, director Ridley Scott added some radically new spice to the genre. When a deep-space commercial freighter is attracted to a seemingly lifeless planet by a distress beacon, a crew member comes back onboard with an alien life-form attached to his face. What follows is an extraordinary melange of scares, action and conspiracy, all centered on perhaps the greatest imagining of a hostile alien in movie history. Although worked out on a small scale, the classic disaster tropes are all here: the ship as a threat in itself, a band of ordinary people thrown together in an attempt to survive, human mismanagement in the form of an android programmed to bring the monster home, psychosexual overtones and a threat to all humanity. Both in Alien and in the sequels it spawned, it’s intimated that if the creature ever makes it to Earth, we’re all cooked.
While Piranha was satirical, Airplane! was absurdist. David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams kicked off the ’80s by taking the elements of a movie like Airport, twisting them into knots and wrapping the whole with a zany bow. Nominally about a traumatized pilot with a drinking problem trying to land a plane full of very silly people at an airport run by a man who picked the wrong day to stop sniffing glue, the movie is actually more concerned with parodying everything from the conventions of the disaster film to the question of what it means when your husband decides to have a second cup of coffee. The ’70s iteration of the genre had become so familiar that its tropes had become laughable — always a sign that a movie cycle has become both stale and a part of the canon. And so much the better, because it gave us Airplane!, one of the greatest American comedy films ever.
The Road Warrior (1981)
George Miller’s seminal film (also known as Mad Max II) arrived like a lightning bolt out of Australia to inject new blood into the genre. Although post-apocalyptic movies were not entirely new, The Road Warrior matched them with what became a massive ’80s filmmaking trend: the action movie. By placing the story after the kind of catastrophe other movies in the genre lead up to, it cemented its place in that genre — allowing us to imagine the consequences of a disaster, rather than just the disaster itself. The plot embodies this mindset through a mesmerizing sequence of chase scenes. After human society has fallen to pieces, Max needs gasoline so he can continue to survive in the automobile-dominated outback landscape. So he cuts a bargain with a band of survivors whose compound includes an oil derrick: Help them escape the rabid band of leather-clad killers surrounding them, and he can have all the gas he can carry. The film influenced an enormous number of post-apocalyptic and sci-fi disaster films (Pitch Black and The Road, for example), along with a wide range of disaster-styled action flicks from the ’80s and beyond.
By the early ’80s, a new peril was encroaching on the American consciousness: the computer. WarGames plays on this fear with a fascinating plot. When the U.S. government gives control of its nuclear arsenal to a supercomputer, it thinks it’s found the perfect solution to the Soviet nuclear threat. Until, that is, a precocious young hacker finds his way into that computer and ends up challenging it to what he thinks is a nuclear-war simulation game, which the computer thinks is the real thing. As in classic ’70s movies, the problem here arises not because of aliens or fate or animals driven insane, but because of our own hubris. In the same way The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno make it clear that our faith in big ships or big buildings can be misguided, WarGames highlights our fears that entrusting everything to a machine we built but can’t control has the potential to go very, very bad.
The Terminator (1984)
Computers gone bad, you say? Welcome to The Terminator. In the future, an artificial intelligence is waging a war to wipe out humanity, and it comes up with a plan: Send an unstoppable robot — the titular Terminator — back in time to kill the mother of the leader of the human resistance, thus preventing that leader from ever being born. What ensues combines the straight-line, action-oriented approach of The Road Warrior with an alien-invasion storyline that has antecedents stretching back all the way to the ’50s: They’re here to get us — and even though there’s only one of them, like the alien from Alien, it’s basically unstoppable. The film nests all of this in a plot exploring the same uneasiness about computer intelligence that WarGames explored — tossing in James Cameron’s impeccable direction virtually guaranteed a genre-changing hit. Without it, a good deal of our cinema, including contemporary over-the-top superhero franchises, might never have been born.
Red Dawn (1984)
The only film on the list with direct ties to the war-movie genre, Red Dawn tells the story of a successful Soviet invasion of the U.S. With most of the country under Soviet control, a small band of freedom fighters — high-school kids who take as their fighting moniker the name of their school mascot, the wolverines — struggles to rescue their parents from internment camps and link up with other American patriots in the resistance. The disaster here is a political and military one, and the tone is pure ’80s propaganda, but the tale is familiar: ordinary folks trying their best to survive in extraordinary circumstances. The movie also highlights how films of this decade shift toward high-school protagonists — other than a child here or there, the majority of characters in earlier movies have all been full-fledged adults.
They Live (1988)
A pure call-back to past movies with a sly satirical twist, John Carpenter’s stem-winder plays as a combination disaster flick and acerbic social jeremiad. In They Live, the aliens don’t land among us — they’re already here. Their presence is only discernible through the use of sunglasses specially designed by the human resistance; these glasses reveal that the aliens control us through subliminal messages present in virtually every element of our lives. Humanity is definitely in peril — it’s another movie with an ending that suggests all is already lost — and the catastrophe is unfolding beneath our noses. As in Dr. Strangelove and Night of the Living Dead, the commentary takes aim at our own foibles. Here, it’s our submersion in our own consumerism that will doom us.
Die Hard (1988)
It’s fair to say that the disaster movie run of the ’80s ended with a bang. John McTiernan’s Die Hard is often regarded as the greatest action movie of all time, but it also lovingly participates in any number of tropes that have attended the disaster genre from the start. Terrorists have taken over a skyscraper in Los Angeles, and the only one who can foil them is a rogue cop in town to visit his wife — who also happens to be one of the people being held hostage by the terrorists. With a setting that directly recalls The Towering Inferno (the exterior visuals and interior action sequences bear a striking resemblance) and themes that highlight a number of ’80s obsessions (greed, the decimation of blue-collar life and the beginning of the end of American international economic dominance), Die Hard sums up a great deal of what makes disaster films great: over-the-top threats, domestic-life plotlines, zany characters and a vast number of lovingly orchestrated, death-defying moments of peril.