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Good Disaster Movies (1980-85): When Planes, Caves and Automobiles Came A-Crashing

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David Appleford itcherEver wondered what the movie industry considers to be the first official disaster film? It was a silent, black and white short from 1901 of a burning house. Firemen arrived to the douse the flames and to rescue its occupants. It was called simply ‘Fire’ and it was quite the success, plus it proved one thing – audiences love a good disaster movie. ~ David Appleford

How to Categorize a Disaster Movie?

The problem when categorizing films is how do you properly categorize a disaster flick? ‘King Kong’ was considered a disaster movie, but it’s also a horror film. Depending on the perilous subject that happens to be in trouble, many disaster films often crossover into other genres. For example, the 1953 thriller ‘The War of the Worlds’ crossed genres; many call it science-fiction, others hold it as a fantasy adventure, but often you’ll find it under the disaster category.  

The way we think of disaster films today really began in the seventies with big name casts. Recognizable faces would play a character with a soap-opera styled conflict that was either resolved by the end or they drowned, as in ‘The Poseidon Adventure,’ burned as in ‘The Towering Inferno,’ or they slipped through the cracks, as in ‘Earthquake.’

Film historians often state that the end of the seventies was the end of the disaster movie, particularly when ‘The Swarm’ flew in, but that wasn’t quite true. Be ready to drink shots at key moments as we explore what happened once the eighties arrived.

The following five suggestions crossed all kinds of genres, but make no mistake; in one way or another, all of them are hugely entertaining, but for different reasons.  


Eclectic Disaster Movie Recommendations

‘When Time Ran Out…’ (James Goldstone, 1980)

The tidal wave was on top of them before they ever saw it!

When Steve McQueen said no to ‘The Towering Inferno 2,’ producer Irwin Allen, better known as the king of all disaster flicks, scrapped the idea and instead developed a new script about an erupting volcano on a Hawaiian island.   

Like all of the big-budget Irwin Allen disaster productions of the seventies, the formula remained the same; a cast of famous names, all with their own issues and conflicts, band together while vacationing at a Hawaiian resort just at the moment when the nearby volcano pops.

It starred Paul Newman, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons, and even though it’s on record from Newman himself as stating that both he and everyone else knew the film would be awful from the beginning, they had no choice but sign up; they were all under contract with Irwin Allen.

William Holden was treated for alcoholism during production and was in hospital for six days after the director convinced the producer that Holden was a danger to both himself and the rest of the cast, Ernest Borgnine wrote in his memoirs how cheap the special effects looked, and Paul Newman never referred to the film by it’s name, calling it “that volcano movie,” instead.

The entertainment value might not be what producer Allen had in mind, but if you gather a group of friends over for the evening it might just be the most entertaining couple of hours you’ll ever spend watching a movie.

‘Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land’ (Jerry Jameson, 1983)

Carrying on the tradition of the ‘Airport’ movies, director Jerry Jameson gathered a few big names from the movies, added a whole slew of actors usually seen on TV and put them in a hypersonic plane with a problem. Disaster followed.  

Loosely based on a book called ‘Orbit’ by Thomas H. Block, a plane makes a flight from New York to London, but something happens along the way. For reasons we won’t go into here, the commercial craft literally leaves Earth’s atmosphere and finds itself circling the planet, unable to return. With oxygen running out, the captain, played by TV’s Lee Majors, grits his teeth, tells the passengers to buckle their seats and does whatever a commercial airline pilot in space needs to do in order to get his plane back on earth.

What’s amusing about ‘Starflight’ is that it really takes itself seriously and, for the time, its production values are surprisingly high. In some quarters around the world it was actually released theatrically, but this Lee Majors adventure can’t escape the look and feel of being anything other than a made-for-TV movie. It’s a hundred minutes of preposterous fun, and that’s what makes it worth it.

‘The Night the Bridge Fell Down’ (Georg Fendy, 1983)

You have to give him credit for never giving up. Yet again, producer Irwin Allen assembled another cast for yet another disaster flick. This time it’s all on a bridge and it’s collapsing.

Staring known names from TV, including James MacArthur, Desi Arnaz Jr. and Leslie Nielsen, the plot is exactly as the title suggests. Here’s the setup: The fictional Madison Bridge is the longest bridge in America. One night, a multiple-car pileup, caused by a police chase, results in cables snapping and concrete crumbling down into the river below. All that’s left is a small group of innocent bystanders stranded somewhere in the middle, needing rescuing before everything around them comes crashing down.  

‘The Night the Bridge Fell Down’ sat unreleased for a few years before anyone saw it, and when it finally had its showing it wasn’t in theatres, it was on TV, but even then things were against the film.

In America the movie was aired the same night as that the historic final episode of ‘M*A*S*H.’ The whole country watched as Alan Alda’s Hawkeye bid farewell. No one saw the bridge fall down. But that was over thirty plus years ago. Today there’s no baggage of a timing issue or viewing competition. Rent and enjoy.

‘Virus’ (Kinji Fukasaku, 1980)

If I were to open this ampoule to the air, you would be dead within three days…

There are several disaster films titled ‘Virus,’ which is perhaps why in some parts of the world this 1980 epic is called ‘Days of Resurrection,’ but there’s something special to know about this particular ‘Virus.’ To date, it’s the most expensive Japanese film ever made, and when it was first released it became a colossal box-office bomb.  

The lead characters were Japanese actors, but the supporting players were surprisingly well-known American names such as Robert Vaughn, Chuck Connors, George Kennedy and even Glenn Ford. A deadly virus is accidentally created then inadvertently released, creating a global pandemic. Soon, the whole world has died off with the exception of a few hundred men and only eight women stationed in Antarctica. It’s the cold that’s protecting them.

Because of its failure to attract an audience, and because it cost a fortune to make, there are several versions floating around. In order to keep attracting audiences each version features cuts, added scenes, alternate endings, various titles and different running lengths. Find the original, it remains the best, and like many features that failed with audiences the first time around, if anything deserves a second chance, this is the one.

‘Cave-In!’ (George Fenady, 1983)

You know a film is in trouble when production is completed and no one, not even TV, wanted to air it, and that alone deserves the attention of any disaster-movie aficionado in search of the unfamiliar.

‘Cave-In!’ is as it sounds; a cave collapses trapping a small group of people, all of whom, for one reason or another, have to get out as soon as possible. The real problem isn’t so much the surroundings – though being trapped in a cave doesn’t help; it’s that one of the team members happens to be an armed convict who recently escaped prison and has a reputation for turning violent when things don’t go his way.

In order to enhance the film’s entertainment value and your disaster-movie viewing pleasure, there are a few things to know when watching ‘Cave-In!’ 1) The caves look fake, but in a fun film like this, would you want it any other way? 2) Caves don’t cave in, only mines do. And, 3) it was produced by Irwin Allen.  

For me, number 3 remains the key for all viewing pleasure. If Allen’s name is on it, considering his history, the film deserves attention. You may laugh from time to time, but that’s all part of what makes films like ‘Cave-In!’ worthy of your time. You’ll still be biting those nails.      


Of Epic Proportions

The thing to remember when it comes to the disaster genre is that you’re never going to see something of an Oscar winning mode, so never expect one. Even those pioneering disaster flicks like ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ or all the ‘Airport’ movies were never great, but they were and remain big time fun. In truth, the more absurd the situation and the conflicts, the more entertaining they are to watch.  

And here’s the good news. Even though that master of disaster Irwin Allen never produced another after ‘Cave-In!’ there were thankfully plenty more producers ready to grab the baton and run with it, as the latter half of the eighties would show. Keep reading.

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