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Good Disaster Movies (1985-90): Wild Winds & Killer Zombie Birds

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David Appleford itcherWhen it comes to the disaster movie genre, the eighties are considered a bridge between the seventies heyday and a nineties re-emergence. Those huge, high-budget, high-profile pictures of ocean-going cruise liners flipping upside down or tall buildings setting aflame may have burned out by ’79, but that was never going to be the end of the story, as the eighties showed, particularly during the decade’s final five years where low-budgets with creative ideas and small casts suddenly hit the screens. ~ David Appleford

Mixing Genres

Following a similar pattern that occurred with Christmas movies, disaster films may have shrunk in both lengths and budgets on the big screen but it was the smaller screen that kept the genre alive.

The way it was often done was either by incorporating other themes such as horror or science-fiction with a disaster and creating situations that blended the two, as in ‘Solarbabies,’ or taking a real-life story and framing it as though it was tailor-made for a disaster feature, such as ‘The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story.’  

The following five suggestions mix the genres and were all released during a time that movie purists often refer to as the non-disaster film period. Despite the unfair title, considering that some of the more interesting films of that style emerged during the decade’s final five years, even if the hype and the large-scale effects were absent, there were still good films to enjoy.


Inventive Disaster Movie Recommendations

‘Miracle Mile’ (Steve De Jarnatt, 1988)

Mike, I want you and Susie to make a list for me. People who we might want to bring along. Scientists, leaders, great minds. I want it in five minutes, okay?

When it was theatrically released, the tagline read: There are 70 minutes to the end of the world. Where can you hide?    

‘Miracle Mile’ received great reviews but took a dive at the box-office, which was unfortunate as the film is truly an effectively tense disaster thriller. Starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, the adventure tells of a young couple who meet in an area of Los Angeles known as the Miracle Mile and fall in love. But there’s trouble and everything is about to change. Nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union is unfolding, and the clock for the world, and for the young lovers, is ticking.  

Within the industry, the film’s script was famous. It had circled the Hollywood studios for ten years before anyone took it seriously. ‘American Film’ magazine even called it one of the best unmade screenplays in the system. Once it was finally filmed and earned the praise of early viewers, the box-office surprisingly dropped.

Fortunately, because of television and the home-movie market, ‘Miracle Mile’ has developed a small but dedicated cult following. If this is a title that slipped under your radar, consider becoming a cult member and get ready for some real terror. It doesn’t disappoint.

‘World Gone Wild’ (Lee H. Katzin, 1988)

It’s Earth of 2087. There is no rain and there are no laws. After the holocaust that ravaged the planet, the most precious commodity of all is now water. ‘World Gone Wild’ is the battle between good and evil and the fight for the ownership of the world’s water supply.

The good is represented by the villagers who survived the blast and now they guard the water. The evil is a cult of organized renegades who want the drinking fountains for themselves and they are quite happy to wipe out anyone who gets in their way. There’s only one man who can help those helpless survivors against the more powerful and thirsty cult, but he lives miles away and even he may be no match for the militaristic force of the bad guys.

There were two cuts of this low-budget but undeniably fun film. The first slyly suggested that the cult of evil renegades were inspired to be as bad as they were by finding one of the last remaining books lying around after the holocaust and taking its suggestions to heart. It was ‘Dianetics’ by L. Ron Hubbard. Lawyers for Scientology heard about this and promised to sue if this unflattering plot point was publicly used. The second cut was absent of any Hubbard references or Scientology quotes, and that’s the one you’ll see.

‘When the Wind Blows’ (Jimmy Murakami, 1986)

Don’t, don’t, don’t worry, Dearest! Don’t worry! Don’t worry! Women don’t go bald. No! That’s a… that’s a scientific fact!

Both sides of the Atlantic know the charming animated short ‘The Snowman’ but stateside audiences are less familiar with full-length animated feature ‘When the Wind Blows’ from the same team, while British releases of the film are often difficult to find.

Based on a Raymond Briggs graphic novel, the story tells of an elderly retired couple who live a nice and tidy life in a nice and tidy country cottage somewhere in Sussex, England. The radio warns that a world war with the Soviet Union may only be three days away.  

Horrified that the threat of a nuclear attack is about to become a reality, the husband busies himself in the house to prepare for the worst while the wife dismisses the notion. Because she survived World War ll she believes she can easily survive another. Then the worst imaginable thing happens; the missile is fired.

Unlike the dialog-free ‘The Snowman,’ the charm to ‘When the Wind Blows’ is the mixture of Briggs’ signature animated style blended with stop-motion animation – this is where real life objects are mixed with animated characters – plus the wonderful voice work of John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft.  

The film played in just one American theatre before closing. In Britain, the film has found its way on all formats, including tape, laserdisc and DVD. It’s certainly not as well known by the mainstream as either ‘The Snowman’ of ‘The Snowman and the Snow Dog,’ plus its more serious theme of radiation threats from a nuclear format ensures a completely different audience, but if you can find a copy, grab it and hold on to it.  

Today, ‘When the Wind Blows’ is a great film that only a few know and even fewer have seen.

‘Killing Birds’ (Claudio Laatanzi, 1988)

A true oddity and even though no one’s kidding anyone about quality, this is perfect for when friends are over and you’re in the mood to gather around the TV for something diabolically fun in a group setting.  

A soldier returns home from Vietnam, finds his wife in bed with another and kills them. Years later, the man is now a bird specialist and living alone. When a group of college students ask for his help to find a rare bird in the Louisiana swamp, he directs them to the area where those murders happened. It’s during the night when the students stay at the same house where the jealous rage took place that strange things begin to happen, involving – get ready for this – zombies and killer birds.

First thing to remember is that this Italian-made but American-based horror/disaster movie was released under several different titles. There’s a good chance that if you look for ‘Killing Birds’ you may be directed to something called ‘Raptors,’ or maybe ‘Zombie 5,’ or even ‘Zombie 5: Killing Birds.’

If you find an original Italian copy it might even be called ‘Bird Murderers.’ As long as the label says it stars Robert Vaughn and there’s a picture of someone being attacked by birds on the DVD cover, you’ve found it.  

‘The Quiet Earth’ (Geoff Murphy, 1985)

Zac Hobson, July 5th. One: there has been a malfunction in Project Flashlight with devastating results. Two: it seems I am the only person left on Earth…

Filmed in New Zealand, this science-fiction disaster tells of three people trying to survive a worldwide cataclysmic disaster. It was the first sci-fi feature ever to be made and produced in New Zealand.

The film begins when a man wakes up only to find he’s alone in the world. He’s not altogether sure, but he thinks that a government program with which he assisted may have had something to do with the disappearance of the world’s population, but why he survived is unclear.

The man will eventually find two others, but it’s only after they get over their individual differences that they begin to trust each other and work as one in order to piece together exactly why the disaster happened.

At the time of its release, the movie was praised for its pacing and imagination, and even though it has never enjoyed a big following, there is a dedicated group of fans who continually try to get the word out about the film. Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson – the brain behind the remake of the TV series ‘Cosmos’ – is on record as saying it’s one of his favorite films.


A Storm Was Brewing

By the end of the eighties, the invention of computer generated imagery was about to have a consequence on all areas of movies. Both science-fiction and horror benefited from smoother looking special effects, but it was the disaster film that would benefit the most.  

In fact, it would completely change the disaster genre game plan. Before turning to the next decade, have fun with the above-mentioned eighties features; they’re all good examples of disaster movies of their time, then be ready to see a change. Disasters in space, on Earth, in a plane or in a burning building were about to get the CGI treatment.

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