Often when I think of the 1970’s disaster movie boom there are three films I instantly call out as the big blockbusters for people to enjoy. The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. Huge in scale, loveably flawed and full of charm and character, Earthquake is still one of my favourite disaster movies of all time because of how cheesy and offbeat some of the storylines are. With a recent Blu-ray remaster, it has been a joy to rediscover.
The disasters faced
Earthquakes, elevators of doom, improbable father-daughter age gaps, crazed soldier boys, dams that go bust, bridges that collapse and fake blood dirtying up the screen.
Acting as a premonition for Los Angeles, Earthquake kicks off with a light tremor waking up the characters of the film. Soon within 48 hours an Earthquake the size of nine on the Richter scale will flatten the city leaving everyone fighting for survival in the rubble.
Graff and Remy are already on rocky ground. Remy seems desperate and depressed to keep her husband anyway she can and in doing so is busy pushing Graff away into the clutches of Denise. If that means rigging a partner job via her father Royce to keep him busy – so be it. Denise herself is widowed and along with her son Corry, is looking like she’d like to move from friends to lovers. Not that Corey will notice much as he peddles around on his bike.
Speaking of bikes, some of the best 70’s hipster action comes from Miles, Sal and Rosa. Miles and Sal are busy preparing a motorbike stunt that in the real world would probably get them a gig at a funfair. Rosa is enlisted to wear tight t-shirts to pop the name ‘Miles’ across her chest to get the word out. That will leave her prey for Jody – a retail manager come military volunteer to keep the peace when the Earthquake hits.
Bouncing between the two stories is Slade. George Kennedy racking up more disaster movies credits than I’ve had hot dinners works a charm as the policeman that just wants to help… after he’s had a drink first.
As we learn about these characters we see the growing worry of Walter and Stockle as they monitor the Earthquake activity. Of course, the Mayor takes no action and so when the big quake hits everyone is in trouble. With Walter and Stockle stuck in the Earthquake centre, Corry falling off a bridge, Denise playing dodge the falling houses, Rosa in the cinema, Miles and Sal at their stunt track and Slade in the pub – the cast are spread out. That is except for the main bickering duo. Graff and Remy were busy having a good argument outside their office building when the quake hits. The office block survives but Royce and Barbara (his assistant) along with about 70 other work colleagues are all trapped.
As everyone works on getting rescued and storylines and characters start to overlap in their missions to save everyone will see most of the cast descend on a central makeshift hospital unit. It’s here where Dr Vance will be busy seeing to the most wounded as our cast members arrive in various states. The problem? As an aftershock hits it not only traps some of the cast inside and underground, it also finishes off a crumbling dam! As the dams’ endless water supply pours down to the city it is now a race against time to get in, save those alive and trapped and get out. Just who’ll survive all that?!
Why is it worth watching?
Earthquake is so of its time. The is a large cast, most of which do not get the screentime or ending that they deserve and it is ambitiously trying to cram a lot of heart and soul into small spaces. It is also one of the funkiest disaster movies ever made. From the jazzy intro theme to pimping out a sister for a gas tank and Walter Matthau making a cameo only toasting drinks to random names – it has a personality all of its own. You couldn’t get away with some of it now but I think that its part of its charm. It does all these things knowingly with a side-eyed glance – it doesn’t want to be serious all the time. Just wait for Matthau to pop up again later as a drunk clown entertaining survivors as he stacks it into the crowd.
That seriousness is saved for love triangles! Earthquake throws the Graff, Remy and Denise love triangle down some really interesting rabbit holes with some really bold choices at the end. I do wonder what I’d have done in each character’s situation and if I were Graff – I’d have done the opposite! Earthquake doesn’t buck the disaster movie trend showing that nice people can survive but being a bit too nice usually means you are doomed! Speaking of the ending, I really enjoyed that Earthquake didn’t stop at just the big quake and then dealing with the aftermath. It kept the ante running with the dam breaking up. It really gives the movie a tight and focused third act that in some ways is just as bloodthirsty as the main event itself.
Where I am somewhat more critical of the film is in how it deals with its large cast of characters. It doesn’t. Some characters literally disappear after the quake even though they are still alive. Others then just drop off the face of the film later on. It wouldn’t have taken much to add back in a few more scenes to round off some character arcs so we know of their fate. I have heard of many more scenes being filmed or scripted which I’d have imagined would have helped with this.
We also have the extended TV version that adds expands the roles of Rosa and Jody. Jody is such a nutcase, it is a great addition and it was nice to expand on his roommates too, giving them an extra scene. It is a shame that the pawnshop they rob is managed by one of the most stilted actress performances I’ve seen on camera in years. It also adds in a couple flying into the LA airport which is a great set-piece that makes a case for shaky cam.
All in all, the film is well-acted, well shot and has some excellent effects that stand up well today.
Earthquake uses matte paintings to create some really excellent backgrounds. No CGI required when you paint the detail in and then have smoke billow out parts of the paintings and set. It really surprises me how great it looks. The set destruction is well handled and although the miniature models that get trashed haven’t stood the test of time as well, they still look impressive in many shots. The sewer flooding sections still look mad too.
Oh boy, Earthquake goes to town with these characters. Remy takes the biscuit though. She reminds me of how terrible Linda Rogo was in the original book The Poseidon Adventure. Irredeemably awful in nearly every way, Ava Gardner plays her as a car crash. Could you imagine the rows Ava and Charlton Heston could have had? George Kennedy is golden as always in these films and the way how he plays off against Richard Roundtree (Miles) and Gabriel Dell (Sal) made me wish that the sequel rumours were true. Also a shoutout to Monica Lewis (Barbara) who I’ve become a fan of for bringing a big of later aged glamour to disaster movies. As a younger child, I always thought Genevieve Bujold was really exotic but nowadays the pink jacket does less for me although I wish she had been allowed to do more with her arc.
‘Earthquakes bring out the worst in some people’
Three memorable moments
- The quake itself and seeing the woman fall out the staircase straight after
- The failed stunt run for Miles! Apparently, the stunt really did go wrong so they kept it in!
- The dam breaking and some of the wave effects it causes.
The obligatory weird moment
There could be a few options here but one actually became a family saying for me. It is actually from the extended version. Rosa shouts ‘I’m going to change into some fresh duds’ after getting mad at Sal and Miles. She goes home and proceeds to change into the exact same outfit again. Her entire wardrobe is just the same outfit again and again. It really made us laugh and so as kids, my brother, sister and I used to shout ‘I’m going to change into some fresh duds!’ at each other before we went for a wash. We’d then come back in the same clothes.
The drinking game
Sensurround! When Earthquake went into cinemas it came with a gimmick called Sensurround. The idea was that speakers would be placed under seats that would vibrate the bass into the audience itself during the rumbles of the quake. Have a drink every time there is a low pitched rumble to set off your senses! As a side note, the dialogue looping of the film is poor – I wonder if that was why?
I adore Earthquake. It is far from perfect but it mashes up high drama, tension, special effects, carnage, camp drama, afro-tastic kidnapping and so much 70s hippy mania – it is a guilty pleasure. This is one of those films that gets better on each watch. You discover more of its character and charm and fall in love with it even more. Highly recommended.
Rating: 5 / 5 My Personal Favourites
If you liked Earthquake then you may like…
- The Towering Inferno – the other big ensemble disaster movie in 1974
- The Great Los Angeles Earthquake – the huge made for TV production
- The Quake – Norweigan sequel to The Wave is action-packed