The Birth of the Disaster Genre: A Look Back at the 1970s Disaster Epics

The Birth of the Disaster Genre: A Look Back at the 1970s Disaster Epics
1970s Best Disaster Films

In the 1970s, disaster films experienced a surge in popularity, fueled by the socio-political climate of the time, which was marked by heightened awareness of environmental issues, technological advancements, and Cold War anxieties. Hollywood studios capitalised on this fascination with disaster scenarios, releasing a "swarm" of 56 disaster movies throughout the decade.

Disaster movies from the 1970s were famous for their amazing visuals and special effects. They used cutting-edge techniques like models, explosions, and tricks to create incredible scenes of destruction happening right before your eyes.

Join us as we take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of the most iconic disaster films of the 1970s. Our curated list showcases the best of the decade's disaster epics, highlighting their spectacular visuals, technical achievements, and star-studded casts. Don't miss out on this opportunity to relive the thrills and chills of these classic films!

Most Iconic Disaster Movies Of The Era

The Towering Inferno (1974)

  • Director: John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
  • Genre: Disaster, Action, Drama
  • Cast: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden
  • Type of Disaster: Skyscraper Fire
The Towering Inferno (1974)

This epic collaboration between two powerhouse production teams was a spectacular showcase of cutting-edge special effects that realistically depicted a towering inferno consuming the world's tallest skyscraper. With a star-studded cast and heroic firefighter action, it defined the vision and ambition of 1970s disaster movies.

A true cinematic spectacle and critical/commercial smash that pioneered cutting-edge special effects for its stunning towering inferno scenes. Its ambition and star power still make it an entertaining classic.

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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

  • Director: Ronald Neame
  • Genre: Disaster, Adventure, Drama
  • Cast: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters
  • Type of Disaster: Capsized Ocean Liner
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

As one of the first major hits, this film amazed with the daring upside-down set piece of an ocean liner capsized by a freak wave. The desperate struggle of the eccentric survivors to escape the doomed vessel was gripping entertainment that kicked off the disaster craze.

Despite some dated elements, this suspenseful tale of survivors overcoming a capsized ocean liner remains gripping thanks to its ingenious upside-down set piece that was revolutionary in 1972. A definitive genre hit.

Airport (1970)

  • Director: George Seaton
  • Genre: Disaster, Thriller, Drama
  • Cast: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bisset
  • Type of Disaster: Bomb Threat on Airliner
Airport (1970)

The original that invented many disaster movie tropes still used today. Burt Lancaster's performance as the heroic pilot anchored the suspense around the bomb threat storyline. Its success paved the way for increasingly far-fetched yet thrilling scenarios.

The originator of many disaster tropes that have since become clichés, Airport has struggled to stay relevant over time. However, Burt Lancaster's charismatic performance still makes it a pioneering cult favorite.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

  • Director: Robert Wise
  • Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller, Drama
  • Cast: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson
  • Type of Disaster: Extraterrestrial Virus Outbreak
The Andromeda Strain (1971)

While most focused on large-scale calamities, this intelligent sci-fi thriller stunned by showing how a microscopic extraterrestrial virus could potentially wipe out humanity as an unseen yet highly lethal disaster.

Exploring a scientifically plausible doomsday scenario, this intelligent thriller has held up better than most thanks to its restraint and leaving room for the imagination regarding the unseen virus threat.

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Airport 1975 (1974)

  • Director: Jack Smight
  • Genre: Disaster, Thriller, Drama
  • Cast: Charlton Heston, Karen Black, George Kennedy
  • Type of Disaster: Mid-air Collision
Airport 1975 (1974)

This big-budget sequel ramped up the mayhem and spectacle with jaw-dropping stunts rivalling the original, including a certifiably crazy mid-air collision sequence that audiences had never seen before.

An over-the-top sequel that leans too heavily into disaster movie excess even for the era. The audaciously bizarre mid-air collision still shocks, though the soapy drama falls flat.

The China Syndrome (1979)

  • Director: James Bridges
  • Genre: Thriller, Drama
  • Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas
  • Type of Disaster: Nuclear Meltdown

The China Syndrome (1979)

Bolstered by powerhouse performances, this prescient drama explored the frightening possibility of a nuclear meltdown years before the Chernobyl disaster made the threat terrifyingly real for moviegoers.

A thought-provoking and chillingly prescient drama anchored by phenomenal performances from Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon that still resonate as a vital social commentary piece.

This film recently made our List of Movies from the 70s-2000s We Should Not Forget

Black Sunday (1977)

  • Director: John Frankenheimer
  • Genre: Thriller, Drama
  • Cast: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller
  • Type of Disaster: Terrorist Attack on the Super Bowl
Black Sunday (1977)

Pushing boundaries, this underrated suspense gem traded city-sized destruction for the plausible, grounded threat of a terrorist attack - an audacious premise that still feels shockingly relevant today.

An underrated gem that explored the frightening plausibility of a terrorist attack in a restrained, suspenseful way before many other films. Its grounded approach has allowed it to age well.

The Omega Man (1971)

  • Director: Boris Sagal
  • Genre: Sci-Fi, Action, Drama
  • Cast: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash
  • Type of Disaster: Post-Apocalyptic Pandemic

The Omega Man (1971)

While revolving around a global pandemic, the film uniquely focused on one survivor's journey in a deserted, post-apocalyptic world - a pioneering and philosophical take on the disaster subgenre. The film would later be remade under the title "I Am Legend" with Will Smith.

While some viewers find Charlton Heston's performance over-the-top, this unique post-apocalyptic take on the genre has gained a cult following for its distinctive visual flair and philosophical undertones. Understandably, the special effects fall short in today's standards.

Earthquake (1974)

  • Director: Mark Robson
  • Genre: Disaster, Action, Drama
  • Cast: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy
  • Type of Disaster: Earthquake in Los Angeles
Earthquake (1974)

Cutting-edge Sensurround audio pulled audiences into the devastation as an all-star cast tried to survive the complete decimation of Los Angeles by seismic shocks. The gripping action seamlessly blended visceral disaster effects with human drama.

While the melodramatic acting hasn't aged gracefully, the cutting-edge special effects depicting LA's destruction remain genuinely impressive technical achievements that still entertain today's audiences.

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

  • Director: Joseph Sargent
  • Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller, Drama
  • Cast: Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinsent
  • Type of Disaster: Artificial Intelligence Takeover

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

This chillingly realistic sci-fi tale about an AI system that takes over nuclear weapons resonates even more in today's technology-driven era as a sober warning about the unforeseen perils of technological progress.

Originally a box office flop but now regarded as an intelligent, ahead-of-its-time cautionary tale about AI that still feels frighteningly relevant today.

The Hindenburg (1975)

  • Director: Robert Wise
  • Genre: Historical, Drama
  • Cast: George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, William Atherton
  • Type of Disaster: Airship Disaster
The Hindenburg (1975)

A meticulous and heartbreaking recreation of the infamous 1937 airship tragedy. The human stories anchored the spectacle of the massive blimp's destruction in one of the most stunningly realized disaster set pieces.

A technically brilliant and heartbreaking recreation of the real-life disaster, though some find the melodramatic script and characterizations haven't aged as well as the special effects.

Raid on Entebbe (1976)

  • Director: Irvin Kershner
  • Genre: Drama, Thriller
  • Cast: Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, Yaphet Kotto
  • Type of Disaster: Hostage Crisis at Entebbe Airport

Raid on Entebbe (1976)

Based on the real-life hijacking, this underrated suspenser ditched city-wide cataclysms for the tautly realized terror of an airport hostage crisis, delivering gripping tension from the confined, high-stakes scenario.

A gritty and suspenseful dramatization of the real hijacking that trades spectacle for believable tension. Regrettably overlooked in its time but has developed a following as an underrated gem. The film would get a fresh remake in 2018.

There you have it peeps! The enduring legacy and cultural impact of 1970s disaster films have shaped audience expectations, cinematic conventions, and popular perceptions of catastrophe and survival. The genre has evolved in subsequent decades, from nostalgic tributes and parodies to contemporary reimaginings and reinventions in response to changing tastes and technological advancements.

These films continue to shape the disaster genre and influence contemporary filmmaking, leaving a lasting impact on popular culture.

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