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States of Emergency! Rating the Disaster Movie Canon

Raging floods, runaway blazes and perfect shark-stuffed storms — we break down the catastrophes of the disaster-flick classics

Disaster

A scene from 'The Day After Tomorrow.'

Courtesy: Everett Collection

Four-alarm fires, devastating tsunamis and floods, seismic rumblings and crumblings — disaster movies live or die by how well they present their fictional rage-of-nature spectacles. Take the latest example to hit the multiplexes: Into the Storm, a 21st-century take on the genre that uses "found footage" culled from storm-chaser videographers, smart phones and surveillance cameras to portray a town literally torn apart by numerous tornadoes. (Call it Meteorological Activity.) Were you to rate this would-be blockbuster according to an adherence to the rules of found-footage movies, the quality of the line-readings or, say, simple logic, you'd find it wanting. If you were to assess the movie by its sequences involving flaming twisters and far-flung semi trucks and jet airliners, however, you'd probably be inclined to be way more generous, if not downright giddy, when it comes to pointing your thumbs up or down.

So we've taken a look back at some of the best-known disaster flicks of the past 30-plus years and have sized them up according to their sound and fury: How well do they level small villages and big cities? Are they creative in how they unleash the elements, or do they cravenly cop out with cut-rate CGI effects? Is the destruction horrifying realistic or hilariously cheesy? Here are 12 titles that demand to have their wreckage checked.

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THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2004, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘Earthquake’ (1974)

Inspired by the 1971 San Fernando earthquake that registered a 6.6 on the Richter scale, this disaster movie shook up its audience as well as its all-star cast. The studio employed an innovation known as "Sensurround" that involved giant speakers blasting low frequencies throughout theater auditoriums — the better to make filmgoers feel as if they were in the middle of real rumbler. The use of the aftershock-and-awe ballyhoo admittedly helped sell the abundance of shakicam on display, as well as temper some of the more genuinely giggle-inducing moments of mayhem (debris rains down, the earth cracks open…and then a stunt rider falls off his bike). Yet our favorite WTF moment doesn't involve a technological gimmick; it's the introduction of a truckload of cows (?) that careens off the Los Angeles freeway. Every time we watch that bovine nosedive, we can feel the earth move.
Disaster rating: 6

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THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2004, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘The Towering Inferno’ (1974)

Even by the marquee-name standards of most Seventies disaster films, this extravaganza has a hell of an A-list lineup: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire (earning his one and only Oscar nomination) and O.J. Simpson! None of which would matter, really, if the film's flaming set pieces didn't feel like they were slow-roasting these superstars to within inches of their lives — which the film succeeds in doing, one fireball-filled elevator shaft and flaming corridor at a time. Stuck in the world's tallest skyscraper, Newman and company battle an out-of-control blaze in scenes that, at times, seems uncomfortably close to cooking lots of famous folks. The story is stock, but thanks to the behind-the-scene fire wranglers, you can practically feel the heat. "Burn, Hollywood, burn" indeed.
Disaster rating: 8

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Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘Twister’ (1996)

The entry that Into the Storm owes the biggest debt to, Jan De Bont's tale of competing tornado chasers left an impression the moment its trailer chucked a giant tractor tire at the camera. The era of Nineties digital-effects-driven blockbusters seemed tailor-made for making steroidal disaster flicks, and spectacle-wise, this ridiculous movie was still one of the better examples of a pixelized meteorological phenomena: houses are ripped apart with a vengeance, cows are swirled about in the air (again with the cows!), and as this first tornado sequence demonstrates, not even all-terrain vehicles are safe from an angry Mother Nature.
Disaster rating: 7

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THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2004, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972)

Where would the genre be without Irwin Allen? The Walt Disney of disaster flicks, Allen had spent most of the 1960s creating TV sci-fi series like Lost in Space; Paul Gallico's 1969 novel about a luxury ocean liner that capsizes after being hit by a ginormous tidal wave, however, would help offer him big-screen immortality. Even more than its predecessor Airport (1970), this movie would provide the template for how to do it: Gather a movie-star-to-character-actor cast; introduce a natural disaster of one sort or another; proceed to knock off your characters at will and fuck shit up. The effects here run the gamut from grandiose to goofy, but watch the upside-down ballroom sequence again. It's a set piece of pure destructive bliss, set to a symphony of screaming and breaking glass. Awesome.
Disaster rating: 9

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THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2004, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘Avalanche’ (1978)

"A mountain explodes, in a shattering blast of white fury!" Well, okay, if by "blast of white fury" you mean "the appearance of a thousand fire extinguishers going off at once." All Rock Hudson wanted was to open up a nice ski resort and impress ex-wife Mia Farrow — how was he to know that a nearby plane crash would set off "20,000 tons of icy terror"? Directed by Corey Allen (no relation to Irwin, clearly) and produced by schlockmeister extraordinaire Roger Corman, this disaster movie features the sort of laughably bad set pieces that make you wonder if the special-effects budget exceeded three figures. Even the flooding of a hotel lobby by a giant snow drift feels MST3K-ready from the get-go.
Disaster rating: 3

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Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘Volcano’ (1997)

Volcanoes had been given the disaster-movie treatment before — see Irwin Allen's slice-of-melted-Velveeta When Time Ran Out… (1980) — but 1997 proved to be the year when magma pits blowing their tops was the season's cool catastrophe. Both Dante's Peak and Volcano vied for de rigueur disaster supremacy, yet only one of these films featured hot lava running down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles…which is why the latter emerges as the victor. ("Moses couldn't reroute this shit!" cries Don Cheadle.) That scene alone bumps up this potboiler's disaster rating substantially, along with sequences of exploding buildings, flaming palm trees and a burning Angelyne billboard. Even the occasional cut-rate special effect can't deter the gleeful schadenfreude of watching the City of Angels reduced to a fiery hellpit.
Disaster rating: 7

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Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘Deep Impact’ (1998)

If 1997 was the year of the angry volcano, 1998 was the year of the cosmic debris headed for a collision course with our great blue marble. Michael Bay's Armageddon will always be remembered for two big disasters — a set piece in which Paris is wiped away and its transformation of Aerosmith into pop power balladeers — but for sheer across-the-board destruction, we prefer Mimi Leder's end-of-days take. The big moment is indeed awe-inspiring, moving from the micro (Tea Leoni's whimpering "Daddy" right before a wave hits) to the macro (the floating head of the Statue of Liberty) in one fell swoop. This is primo guilty-pleasure disaster-porn, at least until the scene of downtown New York being devastated by a tsunami — specifically the Twin Towers being engulfed — gives you that pit feeling in your stomach.
Disaster rating: 8

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‘Flood!’ (1976)

Not content to merely terrorize movie stars on the big screen, master-of-disaster Irwin Allen turned to TV to expand his cinema-du-catastrophe empire and gave the world this torrid made-for-TV tale of a town hit by a near-biblical torrent. "A million tons of fury sweeps through a terrified community!" intones the trailer's narrator, though you couldn't be mistaken for thinking it was really just several guys standing offscreen with firehoses or tipping over large kiddie pools. Scenes of crowds running around screaming interspersed with close-ups of floating furniture do not a disaster flick make, though we'll be forever grateful to this movie for giving us what may be our favorite primetime-TV promo ever.
Disaster rating: 2

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‘The Swarm’ (1978)

Remember when killer bees were all the rage? Torn from the Seventies evening news' perpetual top story, this attempt to exploit the public paranoia over possible attacks from these deadly little guys is a strong contender for the most laughably bad disaster movie ever. We can forgive the filmmakers for forcing Michael Caine to say such ripe lines as "I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees…they were always our friends!" but making an all-star cast fight off what appears to be swarms of tiny black dots crudely etched onto the film — it's a bit tougher to turn the other cheek for that. We still feel stung over it years later.
Disaster rating: 2

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‘The Day After Tomorrow’ (2004)

And what happens on that particular day in question, you ask? Just the start of a new ice age, that's all. Capitalizing on the chatter over global warming, director Roland Emmerich — the man who blew up the White House in Independence Day (1996) —turns Manhattan into a giant metropolitan popsicle, as skyscrapers and city streets ominously freeze over. (You've seen a million sequences of folks outrunning fireballs, but how many times have you seen people sprinting in front on oncoming superfrost?) The landmark-destroying tsunami and car-flung-by-tornado sequences feel a little bit by-the-numbers, but any disaster movie that can make the New York Public Library the safest place on earth is okay by us.
Disaster rating: 5

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Courtesy: Everett Collection

‘Contagion’ (2011)

Natural disasters, we imagine, come in giant packages — but what if something microscopic could wipe out towns, cities, civilizations? We tip our hazmat-suit headgear to Outbreak (1995), a fine disaster film that watches as Dustin Hoffman and friends try to contain a dangerous airborne virus, yet when it comes to eerie epidemic thrillers, we go straight for Steven Soderbergh's procedural that imagines a deadly disease rapidly spreading out of control. There are no major CGI-filled scenes of bad weather, raging waters or flaming horizons; just the occasional crowds-going-apeshit riots, a lot of coughing and an abandoned San Francisco that fills borrowed from a postapocalyptic sci-fi movie. Soderbergh adds his usual layer of chilliness to the chilling proceedings, which makes the catastrophe here seem that much more ominous. We might deduct points for a lack of spectacle, but we'll gladly give it a bonus-round prize for sheer disaster-movie spookiness.
Disaster rating: 7

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‘Sharknado’ (2013)

It's been a long-standing conversation between fans for as long as the genre has been around: Sure, floods, erupting volcanoes and superstorms will test a movie star's mettle, but how would a group of actors fare against a hurricane that rained man-eating sharks? Former Beverly Hills 90210 stalwart Ian Zierling leads a D-list cast against a perfect storm of toothy predators (and social-media snark), and the result is like a fever dream of disaster-movie kitsch. We're admittedly torn here: The effects look like they were made for less than the cost of a hot lunch, but the sheer imagination on display here — sharks eating people falling out of helicopters in mid-air! throwing bombs into the middle of shark-filled tornadoes! chainsaw surgeries conducted inside sharks! — makes us want to give this a 10-out-of-10 rating. So we're splitting the difference here.
Disaster rating: 5

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