Mar 28, 2014

13 Horror Disaster Films

Article By: Ben Raphael Sher

The line between the disaster film and the horror film has always been thin and ambiguous.  When you think about it, isn’t The Towering Inferno really a slasher film, except with fire instead of a knife-wielding maniac?  However, some good, old fashioned, unambiguous horror movies (and the occasional horror-comedy) share a lot of conventions with the disaster movie subgenre, and the combination tends to go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Be sure to look around for the nearest exit as we bring you 13 awesome horror disaster movies.

1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Anybody who has seen The Towering Inferno or Full House knows that San Francisco is not a safe place to live.  If you need more proof, check out this masterful sci-fi/horror epic, in which a group of with it San Francisco intellectuals begin to suspect that all of the people around them are being taken over by pod beings.  The familiar sights of the city take on a quality of dread as all of its residents begin shuffling around with a creepy look of contented monotony, coming to life only to point out a person who’s body needs to be snatched.

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2. Shivers AKA They Came from Within (1975)

In David Cronenberg’s disturbing debut feature, a leech-like parasite gets into a luxurious, high-rise apartment building and begins to inhabit its residents (including Barbara Steele!).  The infected become sex-crazed maniacs, determined to spread their disease through intimate contact with anybody that moves.  Shivers succeeds as both a scary, nasty creature feature and a bizarre, dark satire of the sexual revolution.

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3. Demons 2 (1986)

More apartment building terror (stick to walkups, people!). A girl preparing for a birthday party is possessed by a TV program that chronicles the events of the original Demons. Nasty creatures take over, knocking off the building’s residents en masse, to the tune of the film’s righteous soundtrack. In one scene, a bunch of soon to be victims dance to The Smiths, which seems like a much more appropriate musical choice than the love ballads by Maureen McGovern and Helen Reddy that dominated disaster movies in the 1970s.

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4. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Joe Dante’s delicious, hilarious, anarchic sendup of high-rise disaster films spoofs everything from The Towering Inferno to Poltergeist III.  Billy and Kate (the protagonists of the original film) are now struggling to make it in New York City.  They work in a Trump Towers-esque skyscraper that houses a cable channel, an architecture firm, a food court, a bizarre laboratory run by Christopher Lee, and everything else that you’d ever want to see destroyed.  When little Gizmo makes a surprise re-appearance, this finely tuned capitalist machine gets taken over by Gremlins, who overthrow the system in ways that the Occupy protesters only dreamed about. 

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5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The original Night of the Living Dead could almost be seen as a predecessor to movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, so potent is its scenario: several disparate people trapped in one location must confront a deadly disaster against ever-decreasing odds. In fact, Night’s seminal sequel, Dawn of the Dead resembles an unusually brilliant 1970s disaster movie in many ways.  Needless to say, Night… remains one of the scariest movies of all time.  Is it possible to not feel terror when the protagonists are trapped in the basement while zombies roam around upstairs, and the lights go off? 

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6. The Mist (2007)

Once again, a group of very different people find themselves trapped in a central location, surrounded by life threatening horror.  In this case, the location is a supermarket, and the horror is a mist filled with all sorts of nasty monsters.  As so often happens in these scenarios, the characters’ true natures reveal themselves.  Some become heroes, some become villains, and Marcia Gay Harden remains a lunatic religious fanatic who stirs up all sorts of trouble.  Be warned, this movie is wonderfully, but disturbingly, grim.

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7. Twilight Zone Movie: Horror at 20,000 Feet (1983)

No list of disaster movies is complete without some airplane horror.  John Lithgow plays a neurotic traveler who is convinced that he sees a monster on the airplane wing outside his window.  His terror is mounted by the fact that nobody else on the plane sees the creature, or believes him.   Where is Karen Black when you need her?  Only she truly understands the horrors of the supernatural and air travel.

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8. The Omega Man (1971)

Charlton Heston plays Neville, a doctor who, thanks to an experimental vaccine, survived biological warfare that made him the last man on earth.  His few companions are a tough broad (played by Rosalind Cash), a couple of kids, and a cult of deformed, nocturnal, homicidal maniac zombie types who refer to themselves as “the family.”  They see Neville as a symbol of science, which they blame for their afflictions, and they want him dead. Also, Neville’s only entertainment option is to watch the movie version of Woodstock over and over again. You could do worse. 

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9. Night of the Comet (1984)

A comet wipes out almost the entire human race, leaving only a tiny handful of survivors.  A couple of valley girls try to make the most of the situation by hosting a radio show, going on a shopping spree at an abandoned mall, and hanging out with Hector, who might be the last man on earth.  Fairly quickly, conflicts reveal themselves, including a posse of deformed maniacs, and a team of evil scientists. Night of the Comet is, in a sense, a hilarious spoof of The Omega Man that still manages to be creepy and sort of sad. It exemplifies how filmmakers can handle abrupt tonal shifts beautifully by making sure that the film’s characters and their reactions always ring true.  Its cast, including Catharine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran, and Mary Woronov are killer, and the movie overflows with ‘80s goodness. A must see.

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10. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

28 Days Later qualifies as a great horror disaster flick. However, 28 Weeks Later, with its contained high-rise setting and emphasis on family melodrama, seems even more like a hybrid of the genres.  Also, it’s one of the best horror sequels of the 21st century.  Several months after the events of the first film, the hideous zombie disease seems to be under control, and the people of England are aiming to begin reconstructing their society.  A man and his children live in a “safe zone” apartment building that’s patrolled by the American army guard.  When mom, who was allegedly attacked by a zombie, shows up, looking relatively normal, the family welcomes her with open arms and kisses.  Big mistake!  28 Days Later is intense and, like the best horror-disaster movies, sneaks in some social commentary about American xenophobia after September 11.

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11. Contagion (2011)

Nothing is scarier than germs!  Steven Soderbergh’s all star horror fest is likely responsible for a huge upsurge in sales of hand sanitizer, and hundreds of thousands of obsessive compulsive disorder diagnoses. People start turning into twitching, monstrous, soon to be dead bodies when they come into contact with a super-nasty virus that you get by touching pretty much anything. Can the Center for Disease Control find a vaccine in time?  Who knows how many nightmares Gwyneth Paltrow’s face caused every time the TV commercial for this movie aired.  How could that happen to Gwyneth Paltrow?!? She eats so healthily!

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12. The Blob (1958)

A bloodthirsty, ever-expanding blob from outer space terrorizes a small town, while nice kids Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) try to stop it. Of course, they receive no help from their parents or the local authorities. The Blob might be the most fun movie on this list simply because, in this increasingly scary day and age, its central disaster remains the least likely to actually happen. 

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13. Sole Survivor (1983)

Few movies dare to ask, “What happens after you survive a disaster movie?”  Even Beyond the Poseidon Adventure didn’t actually explain what happened to Pamela Sue Martin, et al., beyond their devastating journey.  It just plopped Sally Field and Telly Savalas in the capsized boat and expected us to care (okay, maybe some of us did). Sole Survivor (also directed by Thom Eberhardt, the visionary behind Night of the Comet) follows a woman who mysteriously survives a deadly plane crash unscathed.  As if her survivor guilt wasn’t bad enough, she finds herself plagued by visions of strange, zombie-like people following her, and hears voices whispering her name.  Could the grim reaper be trying to finish what he started? Sole Survivor bears striking similarities to the Final Destination series, but it’s a lot more melancholy, dreamlike, and Canadian. In other words, it couldn’t get much better.

What disastrous horror films did we miss? (And we're not talking about Plan 9 from Outer Space.) Send your thoughts to our Facebook page or go on Twitter using #Friday13.

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