Whatever happened to the all-star-cast disaster movie? A staple of the box office charts for a good decade, disaster movies were to the 1970s what the superhero movie may be to the 2010s: a cash cow that was eventually milked dry. Starting today the Quad Cinema in New York is reviving the brand with a terrific series called “Disasterpieces,” featuring eight classics of the genre alongside its greatest parody and two precursors.
Disaster movie posters are a genre unto themselves. For the most part they have three major elements: an eye-grabbing tagline—“91,000 People. 33 Exit Gates. One Sniper...”, “One Tiny Spark Becomes a Night of Blazing Suspense”, “Something hit us... the crew is dead... help us, please, please help us!”—a painted backdrop of catastrophe in medias res, and, most importantly, the grid of stars.
Disaster movies require a large cast because they require a high body count and a measure of who-will-make-it-and-who-won’t suspense that is much more effective if the who in question is a household name. In the early 70s there were enough golden age Hollywood stars looking for a gig in the new economy to fill a boat-load of blockbusters. All of which led to a new problem for studio graphic designers—how to represent such a large cast and give the disparate likes of Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson equal billing—a problem which was solved in the easiest way possible: put their faces in a series of boxes at the bottom, or along the sides, of the poster. If you wanted to parody a 70s disaster movie today your go-to move would be that grid of faces. (Though notably the poster for Airplane! eschews such an easy target.)
I think I may have found the precursor to the trend: a poster for a little-known 1958 movie called Crash Landing. The one difference is that the grid denotes the character types and not the actors, but otherwise it's all there: Airport ’77 twenty years before its time.
Another precursor may have been the film that kick-started the trend in 1970: Airport. The poster for that film is nothing but a grid of smiling faces surrounding a list of names, nothing at all to tell what the film is about (beyond an airport) nor even what kind of film it is.
But with The Poseidon Adventure—to me the greatest of all disasterpieces—the brand finds its footing with its grid of faces, almost all of them in distress, above a scene of mayhem and the tagline “Who will survive...”
What follows are the rest of the best of the era’s lurid and exclamatory one sheets in all their panicky glory. All are in chronological order, leading up to the most recent film in the Quad’s series, 1980’s When Time Ran Out, which seems to be paving the way for the next great trend in action movie promotion: the Big Head poster.
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions. Disasterpieces runs through April 23.