DISASTER FILMS


Description and Examples



Disaster Films
See also this site's Greatest Disaster Film Scenes (illustrated)

Disaster Films: Disasters have been the subject of film-goers' fascination since the time of silent film epics, and this interest continues to exist up to the present time. Catastrophes can take so many different forms - but they are mostly man-made or natural. They can be either impending or ongoing, or they can exist locally or globally.

The most commonly portrayed disasters in films are:

  • natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tropical storms, etc.)
  • accidents (skyscraper fires, plane crashes, ocean liners capsized or struck by icebergs, viruses unleashed)
  • planetary-related (asteroids or meteors off-course)
  • criminally-instigated (bombs planted in planes, terrorist conspiracies)
  • alien invasions and rampaging creatures (often mutant)
  • nuclear-related crises
  • millennial-related (the end of the world, or end of the century tales)
  • about failed technology or technology-gone awry (computers running amok)

Along with showing the spectacular disaster, these films concentrate on the chaotic events surrounding the disaster, including efforts for survival, the effects upon individuals and families, and 'what-if' scenarios. The best disaster films comment upon the negative effects of advancing technology, demonstrate the 'hubris' of scientists and other individuals, deliver uplifting moral lessons of sacrifice, and provide a 'how-to' in terms of survival skills.

Most disaster films have large-scale special effects (especially in the recent past's mega-budget spectaculars), huge casts of stars faced with the crisis, a persevering hero or heroine (i.e., Charlton Heston, Steve McQueen, etc.) called upon to lead the struggle against the threat, and many plot-lines affecting multiple characters. In many cases, the 'evil' or 'selfish' individuals are the first to succumb to the conflagration. As in any sub-genre, the move to capitalize on the 'disaster film' trend has led to many sub-par disaster films, with weak and unsubtle, formulaic plots, improbable circumstances and bad science, poor character development, and laughable acting from third-rate stars portraying cliched characters.

The Greatest Disaster and End of the World Films: Pre-1970s

Before the 1970s when disaster films underwent a strong revival, there were many earlier action/adventure disaster films, such as The Hurricane (1937) - including one of the most spectacular tropical storm scenes ever shot in film history. And two 50s films, The High and the Mighty (1954) and Zero Hour (1957) - were the inspiration for all the airplane disaster films of the 70s. [Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) also contained a harrowing airplane crash sequence.] The real horrors of World War II, and the perceived threat of nuclear annihilation and radioactive mutancy during the resultant Cold War led to a further onslaught of disaster-related films in the 50s.

Pre-1970s disaster films included:

  • Pompeii's Volcano Eruption: The Last Days of Pompeii (1913), The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
  • Flood Disaster in a CityScape: Metropolis (1927)
  • War Film with Deluge: Noah's Ark (1928)
  • San Francisco - 1936Arid Winds, Drought: The Wind (1928)
  • Comet on Collision Course with Earth: La Fin Du Monde (1931, Fr.) (aka End of the World)
  • Giant Ape Rampaging in New York City: King Kong (1933)
  • Volcano: The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
  • Gigantic Insects (in Dream Sequence): cartoon Mickey's Garden (1935)
  • San Francisco 1906 Earthquake: San Francisco (1936)
  • Cautionary, Epic View of the Future (Including WWII): Things to Come (1936, UK) - remade as The Shape of Things to Come (1979)
  • South Seas Tropical Storm: The Hurricane (1937), remade as Hurricane (1979) (aka Forbidden Paradise) with Mia Farrow
  • Locust Attack: The Good Earth (1937)
  • Massive Urban Fire: In Old Chicago (1938)
  • Earthquake and Horrific Flood: The Rains Came (1939)
  • Luxury Liner Disaster at Sea: Titanic (1915), Titanic (1943, Ger.), Titanic (1953), A Night to Remember (1958), The Last Voyage (1960)
  • New Zealand Earthquake: Green Dolphin Street (1947)
  • Nuclear Holocaust Disaster Survival: Five (1951)
  • Vegetable-Based Alien Organism Found in Arctic: The Thing (From Another World) (1951) - remade in 1982
  • Aliens With Message of Peace: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) - remade in 2008
  • Otherworldly Alien Visitor: The Man From Planet X (1951)
  • Threat of Plane Crash: No Highway in the Sky (1951, UK)
  • Planetary Impact Between Earth and Rogue Planet: When Worlds Collide (1951)
  • Communist A-Bomb Attack Upon US: Invasion USA (1952)
  • Civil Unrest After Fake Messages From Russian-Influenced Man About Utopia on Mars: Red Planet Mars (1952)
  • Red Planet Invasion: Invaders From Mars (1953)
  • Martian Invaders: The War of the Worlds (1953), remade as War of the Worlds (2005)
  • Amphibious, Fire-breathing Monster Brought to Life by Nuclear Testing: Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954), and Gojira (1954, Jp.)
  • The High and the Mighty - 1954Loss of Airplane Engine During Trans-Pacific Flight: The High and the Mighty (1954), a precursor to later airplane disaster films
  • Alien Crash-Landing in Arizona Desert: It Came From Outer Space (1954)
  • Radioactive Giant Ants: Them! (1954)
  • Extra-terrestrials Kidnap American Scientists: This Island Earth (1955)
  • Survival After a Nuclear Attack: Day the World Ended (1956), remade as In the Year 2889 (1966)
  • Malevolent Pod-Creatures Take Over Human Bodies: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - remade in 1978, 1993 and 2007
  • Giant Pterodactyl On the Loose: Rodan (1956, Jp.)
  • Alien Invasion and Attack by Flying Saucer-Spacecraft: Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)
  • Giant Carnivorous Praying Mantis: The Deadly Mantis (1957)
  • Murderous Stowaway Life Form on Manned Mission to Mars: It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958)
  • Imperiled Ocean Liner: A Night to Remember (1958), a documentary-like chronicling of the Titanic disaster when the ocean vessel hit an iceberg
  • End-of-World Tale - Meteors On Collision Course With Earth: The Day the Sky Exploded (1958, Fr/It.)
  • Post-Apocalyptic Tribal Society: Teenage Cave Man (1958)
  • Giant Texan Lizards: The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
  • Survivors of Nuclear Devastation (WWIII) Awaiting End in Australia, As Radiation Drifted South: On the Beach (1959)
  • Sole Survivors in a World Decimated by Radioactive Cloud: The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959)
  • Shipwreck: Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
  • Inexplicable Bird Swarms and Attacks: The Birds (1961)
  • Nuclear Explosions Causing Planetary Imbalance, Floods, Fires: The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
  • Gigantic, Worshipped Moth (Nuclear Radiation-Produced) on Japanese Island: Mosura (1961, Jp.) (aka Mothra) - remade in 1996
  • A Regenerated, Indestructible, Prehistoric Reptile On the Loose in Denmark: Reptilicus (1961)
  • Nuclear Submarine Mission to Save the Earth: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)
  • Monster Super-Fest: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964, Jp.)
  • Threat of Cold War Nuclear War: Fail-Safe (1964), and spoofed in Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Loved the Bomb (1964)
  • Planetary Split: Crack in the World (1965)
  • Documentary About Nuclear Attack on Britain: The War Game (1965, TV)
  • Threats of Giant Asteroid and Slimy Green, One-Eyed, Power-Hungry, Tentacled Mutants: The Green Slime (1968)
  • Simian Apes Enslave Humans After Apocalypse: Planet of the Apes (1968) (and entire franchise-series from 1968-1973), plus remake Planet of the Apes (2001)
  • Sci-Fi Comedy About Existence in Post-Nuclear Holocaust England: The Bed Sitting Room (1969, UK)
  • Volcano: Krakatoa, East of Java (1969)
  • US Astronauts Stranded in Space: Marooned (1969)

The Major Era of Disaster Films: The 1970s

In the 1970s, actual disasters, such as the Watergate crisis (from 1972 to 1974), the collision of two 747s in the Canary Islands (in late March, 1977), and the Three Mile Island incident (in late March, 1979) made the time ripe for Hollywood to contribute. Big-budget disaster films provided all-star casts and interlocking, Grand Hotel- or "Ship of Fools" type stories, with suspenseful action, races against time, and impending crises in locales such as aboard imperiled airliners, trains, dirigibles, crowded stadiums, sinking or wrecked ocean-liners, or in towering burning skyscrapers or earthquake zones.

Producer and director Irwin Allen was nicknamed "The Master of Disaster" in the 1970s due to the tremendous success of his films. The three films most responsible for jump-starting the renaissance of spectacular disaster films were Airport (1970), and Allen's two special effects-laden epics The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). These kinds of films would often receive numerous special/visual effects Oscar nominations, but were often neglected for their acting performances:

  • Airport - 1970Airliners Imperiled:
    • Airport (1970), a devastating blizzard, and a man with bomb in briefcase threatening to detonate it; with an Oscar-winning role for Helen Hayes!
    • Airport 1975 (1974), cockpit of 747 airliner hit by small plane
    • Airport '77 (1977), passengers trapped in a jet 50 feet underwater in the Bermuda Triangle
    • Airport '79: Concorde (1979), bomb on-board plane bound for Moscow Olympics, which must fly upside down to avoid missiles
    • Spoofs: Airplane! (1980); also Skyjacked (1972)
  • Computers Running Amok and Threatening Global Destruction: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
  • Virus Epidemic: The Andromeda Strain (1971)
  • World Ravaged by Biological Warfare and Nocturnal Mutants: The Omega Man (1971) - remade as I Am Legend (2007)
  • Luxury Liners:
    • The Poseidon Adventure (1972), New Years Eve tidal wave flips passenger ship upside down
    • Juggernaut (1974, UK), bombs planted inside steel drums on ocean liner
    • Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), Poseidon salvage crew trapped again
    • Poseidon (2006), another rogue wave capsizes the ocean liner
  • Menacing Swampland Creatures: Frogs (1972)
  • Monster Movie Parody (Attacking Giant Breast): Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)
  • Mutant Flesh-eating Rabbits: Night of the Lepus (1972)
  • Encounter With Tralfamaforians Aliens: Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)
  • Biochemical Killer Virus: The Crazies (1973) (aka Code Name Trixie)
  • Endangered Underwater Research Station by Giant Fish: The Neptune Factor (1973)
  • Futuristic Overpopulated Society in 2022 Facing Famine and Unknown Food Source: Soylent Green (1973)
  • Burning-Blazing in 138-story Skyscraper in San Francisco: The Towering Inferno (1974)
  • Los Angeles Earthquake: Earthquake (1974) - presented in Sensurround
  • Great White Killer Shark: Jaws (1975) and its sequels in 1978 and 1983
  • Phallic-shaped Parasitic Infection in Canada, Causing Sex-Crazed Behavior: David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975) (aka The Parasite Murders)
  • Dirigible or Zeppelin: The Hindenburg (1975) - the Hollywood version of events leading to the 1937 disaster
  • Disaster Film Parody: The Big Bus (1976)
  • Comic Look at Nuclear Apocalypse: A Boy and His Dog (1976)
  • Torrential Rains and Threat of Bursting Dam: Flood! (1976, TV) - Irwin Allen's first TV movie with Warner Bros.
  • Vicious African Killer Bees in New Orleans during Mardi Gras: The Savage Bees (1976, TV)
  • Meteor - 1979Animals Running Amok - Bloodthirsty Worms: Squirm (1976)
  • Giant Mutant Creatures on a Remote Island (rats, chickens, wasps, and worms): The Food of the Gods (1976)
  • Sniper in Football Stadium: Two-Minute Warning (1976)
  • Out-of-Control Raging Fire: Fire! (1977, TV) - from producer Irwin Allen
  • Trains: The Cassandra Crossing (1977)
  • Super Bowl Stadium and Goodyear blimp: Black Sunday (1977)
  • Giant Mutant Attacking Ants: Empire of the Ants (1977)
  • Zombie Vampires: Rabid (1977)
  • Amusement Park Terror: Rollercoaster (1977)
  • Ski Resort Avalanche: Avalanche (1978)
  • True Account of Eastern Airlines 1972 Florida Everglades Crash: Crash (1978, TV)
  • Unexplained Re-animated Zombie Attacks: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
  • Nuclear Submarine Wreck: Gray Lady Down (1978)
  • Clones Replicate Humans: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - a remake of the 1956 classic, and remade in 1993 and 2007
  • Deadly Psychokinetic Powers to Induce Disasters: The Medusa Touch (1978)
  • Deadly Gemini Strain (M3) Virus: The Plague (1978)
  • Killer Bees from S. America Invading Houston: The Swarm (1978)
  • More Rampaging Killer Bees: Terror Out of the Sky (1978, TV) - sequel to 1976's TV movie, The Savage Bees
  • Oil Refinery Explosion: City on Fire (1979)
  • Nuclear Plant Meltdown: The China Syndrome (1979)
  • Lawless Brutality and Biker Gangs in Dystopian Australian Society Facing Depletion of Global Oil Supply: Mad Max (1979, Aust.) - (also entire series: 1981, and 1985)
  • Wayward Meteors: Meteor (1979)
  • Dramatization of Titanic Disaster in 1912: S.O.S. Titanic (1979, TV)
  • Threatened Moon Colonization Following Earth's Destruction: The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

Disaster Films in the 1980s:

There were only a few notable disaster films in the 1980s.

  • Nuclear Accident: Chain Reaction (1980)
  • Volcano: When Time Ran Out... (1980)
  • Dramatization of 1980 Volcanic Mountain Eruption: St. Helens (1981)
  • Post-Apocalyptic Australia - The Road Warrior vs. Motorcycle Gangs: The Road Warrior (1981, Aust.) (aka Mad Max 2)
  • Threatening Shape-Shifting, Infectious Creature in the Antarctic: The Thing (1982) - a modern remake of the 1951 classic
  • Deadly Virus and Threat of Nuclear Holocaust: Virus (1982, US/Jp.)
  • Realistic Recreation of Nuclear Disaster in US: Testament (1983, TV)
  • Effects of Nuclear Holocaust in US Heartland (Kansas): The Day After (1983, TV)
  • Machines Ruled Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in Year 2029: The Terminator (1984)
  • Nuclear Explosion: The Quiet Earth (1985)
  • Collision-Course Runaway Trains: Runaway Train (1985)
  • Mysterious Military Nuclear Submarine Crash, and Aquatic Aliens: The Abyss (1989)

More Recent Resurgence of Disaster Films:

There was a modern-day resurgence of disaster films, beginning in the mid-1990s. The sub-genre was really revived at this time with the emergence of advanced special effects techniques. The focus of such films is on the spectacular calamity and a small group of people in imminent danger, and how they must cope or devise a method of escape, or more recently, to survive in the apocalyptic aftermath. Disaster films from the recent past and present have included similar and more imaginative kinds of catastrophies (or threats of disaster), such as killer viruses, deadly terrorists, tornadoes, asteroid impacts, ecological disasters, among others:

  • Threat of Global Nuclear Annihilation: The Hunt for Red October (1990)
  • Underground Worm-like Creatures: Tremors (1990)
  • Deadly Spiders: Arachnophobia (1990)
  • Terrorists, Assassination Plot: Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), The Jackal (1997)
  • Out of Control Fire: Backdraft (1991)
  • Terrorists: Patriot Games (1992)
  • Alien Clones Replicating Humans: Body Snatchers (1993)
  • Prehistoric Dinosaurs: Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Jurassic Park III (2001)
  • Oil Company Corruption Endangering the Alaskan Ecosystem: On Deadly Ground (1994)
  • Giant Mutant Ticks: Ticks (1994) (aka Infested)
  • Nuclear Weapons: True Lies (1994)
  • Titanic - 1997Giant Mosquitos: Mosquito (1995)
  • Space Capsule Pending Disaster: Apollo 13 (1995)
  • Post-Apocalyptic Doomsday World Besieged by Pirates After Melting of Polar Icecaps: Waterworld (1995)
  • Killer Virus Epidemic Threat: Outbreak (1995), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Virus (1999), Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
  • Attacking Alien Invaders: Independence Day (1996) (the highest grossing film of 1996), spoofed in Mars Attacks! (1996)
  • Chemical Truck Explosion in New York City's Holland Tunnel: Daylight (1996)
  • Stormchasers Following Dangerous Killer Tornadoes: Twister (1996)
  • Hijacked Cruise Liner: Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)
  • Giant Carnivorous Anaconda: Anaconda (1997)
  • Iceberg in North Atlantic and Imperiled Luxury Liner: Titanic (1997)
  • Destructive Erupting Volcanoes: Dante's Peak (1997), Volcano (1997)
  • Asteroid/Comet Impact Threatening to Collide with Earth: Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998)
  • Fire-breathing 'Nuclear' Monster in NY: Godzilla (1998)
  • Severe Torrential Rains and Flooding in Indiana Town: Hard Rain (1998)
  • The Last Six Hours at the End of World - Drama: Last Night (1998)
  • Armageddon - 1998The Devil Looking to Plant His Evil Seed: End of Days (1999)
  • Computer Simulated Reality (the Matrix) Within a Scorched Earth: The Matrix (1999) (and the entire franchise-series)
  • Plane Crashes or Crises: Alive (1993), Fearless (1993), Air Force One (1997), Con Air (1997), Cast Away (2000), Jurassic Park III (2001)
  • Genetically Engineered Sharks: Deep Blue Sea (1999)
  • Monstrous Crocodile: Lake Placid (1999)
  • Nuclear Annihilation: Deterrence (2000)
  • Toxic and Carcinogenic Ground Pollution Due to Chromium 6: Erin Brockovich (2000)
  • Airplane Crash Followed by Freak Accidents: Final Destination (2000)
  • Tropical Hurricane Sea Storm: The Perfect Storm (2000)
  • Rescue Mission on K2 Peak: Vertical Limit (2000)
  • Terrorism with Deadly Strains of Bacterial Infection: Anthrax (2001) - preceding the actual "anthrax" scare of late 2001
  • Deadly Apocalyptic Plague Unleashed by Virus-Infected Monkeys in London: 28 Days Later (2002)
  • Flesh-eating Virus: Cabin Fever (2002)
  • Giant Spiders: Eight Legged Freaks (2002)
  • Nuclear Submarine Reactor Failure: K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
  • Aliens and Mysterious Crop Circles: Signs (2002)
  • Nuclear Weapon Detonated at Baltimore's 'Super Bowl': The Sum of All Fears (2002)
  • Inexplicable Worldwide Phenomena Caused by Collapsing Electromagnetic Forces in Earth's Core: The Core (2003)
  • Genetically-Transformed Raging Green Monster: Hulk (2003)
  • Divers Accidentally Left in Shark-Infested Waters: Open Water (2003)
  • The End of the World due to Climactic Change (Greenhouse Gases Melt the Ice Cap) and Global Warming: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
  • Attacking Extraterrestrial Aliens: War of the Worlds (2005)
  • Impending Extinction of the World (A Hostile Police State) Due to a Female Infertility Pandemic: Children of Men (2006)
  • Imperiled Wildlife in Antarctica due to Overfishing: Happy Feet (2006)
  • Global Warming and Melting Ice Threatening Creatures of the Ice Age: Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)
  • The End of the World due to Global Warming: (Documentary) An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
  • Rogue Wave Capsizes Luxury Cruise Ship in North Atlantic: Poseidon (2006) - a remake of the 1972 classic
  • Venomous Snakes Set Loose on an Airliner Over the Pacific: Snakes on a Plane (2006)
  • September 11, 2001 Airliner Tragedy: United 93 (2006)
  • Shifting of Tectonic Plates Dooms Japan: Japan Sinks (2006, Jp.) (aka Nihon Chinbotsu) - a remake of the 1973 film
  • Terrorist Bombing at WTC (9/11/2001) and Survival Under Rubble: World Trade Center (2006)
  • Devastating Flood Hits London: Flood (2007)
  • Spread of a Mutant, Lethal Man-Made Virus, and Vampiric Predators (Dark Seekers): I Am Legend (2007)
  • Alien Epidemic of Human Cloning: The Invasion (2007) - a remake of the 1956 classic and 1978, 1993 remakes
  • Mysterious Mist Opens Portal, Allowing Bug-Like Alien Creatures Into Earth's Dimension: The Mist (2007)
  • Earth in Peril From Dying Sun 50 Years in Future: Sunshine (2007)
  • War Between Alien Robots: Transformers (2007)
  • Resurfacing of Devastating Rage Virus: 28 Weeks Later (2007)
  • Gigantic Monster Attack on NYC: Cloverfield (2008)
  • Lethal Plague ("Reaper"): Doomsday (2008)
  • Alien Confrontation with Message of Peace: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) - remake of classic 1951 film
  • Global Environmental Crisis - Airborne Neurotoxins Causing Suicidal Behavior: The Happening (2008)
  • Human-Abandoned, Consumer Trash/Garbage-Littered Earth-World (Animated): Wall-E (2008)
  • Global Cataclysm with Earthquakes, Molten Lava, and Tsunamis (Fulfilling Ancient Prophecy) and Epic Survival Story in the Near Future: 2012 (2009)
  • A Time Capsule of Disasters, Including the End of World (from Solar Flares): Knowing (2009)
  • Post-Apocalyptic Tale (Animated) of Nine Mechanical Dolls vs. Destructive Sentient Machines: 9 (2009)
  • Father-Son Post-Apocalyptic Survival against Cannibals: The Road (2009)
  • Black Horror Comedy of Post-Apocalyptic Survival by Remaining Few Against Zombies: Zombieland (2009)
  • Deadly Japanese Pandemic of Infectious Diseases: Pandemic Archipelago (2009, Jp.) (aka Kansen Retto)
  • Post-Apocalyptic Tale of Ravaged Earth and One Man's Survival: The Book of Eli (2010)
  • Space Alien Invaders Attack Los Angeles: Battle Los Angeles (2011)
  • Deadly Contagious Virus: Contagion (2011)
  • Survival in Wilderness Against Hungry Wolves After Alaskan Plane Crash: The Grey (2012)
  • One Family Caught in the Asian Tsunami of 2004: The Impossible (2012)
  • Futuristic Earth as a Savage, Inhospitable Planet Inhabited by Fierce Animals: After Earth (2013)
  • Pandemic Caused By Virus That Killed Victims and Reanimated Them as Savage Zombies, Threatening to Destroy Humanity: World War Z (2013)
  • Post-Apocalyptic Earth (With Only A Few Human Survivors) Was Decimated by Warring Aliens: Oblivion (2013)
  • In the Year 2159, an Overpopulated, Ruined Earth Caused the Wealthy to Live on a Private Space Station Off-Planet: Elysium (2013)
  • In the Near Future, Massive Giant Alien Monsters (Kaiju) Emerged from the Sea To Invade Earth, to Be Counter-Attacked by Enormous Humanoid Robots (Jaegers) Controlled by Mind-Linked Pilots: Pacific Rim (2013)



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