The disaster film has been around almost as long as the motion picture itself. With a string of box office successes like "The Poseidon Adventure," "The Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake," the 1970s was the peak of popularity for disaster flicks, but they never really go out of fashion. From the Titanic-influenced shipwreck of 1913's silent "Atlantis" to last year's popcorn take on global warming, "The Day After Tomorrow," filmmakers have always looked to catastrophe for audience-grabbing spectacle.
But the hard truth about disaster movies is that usually they are pretty bad. In the rush to create an overwhelming experience of special effects and sensation, the creators of disaster films tend to overlook little things like character development, logical plotting, craftsmanship and originality.
There are exceptions, of course, and for my money there are few disaster films as compelling as "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" (1961). The scenario here is that simultaneous nuclear tests by the U.S. and the Soviet Union have knocked Earth off its axis and the planet is now moving towards the sun, resulting in dangerously escalating temperatures, social chaos, and impending doom.
The premise may not be scientifically sound, but it is played out with utter conviction and seriousness. The hero is a hard-drinking, troubled reporter (Edward Judd) and the film offers a vivid depiction of a working newsroom. Filming in the offices of London's Daily Express, with one of the paper's former editors playing a key role, writer-director Val Guest strived for an authentic portrait of the newsman in crisis.
While special effects are kept to a minimum, Guest and crew do a great job of conveying the dire affects of the intensifying heat on the population and the eventual panic in the streets. Newsreel footage of flooding and other real disasters is blended with the dramatic scenes effectively and, if the romantic subplot seems a bit forced, Judd and the fetching Janet Munro make it work with their strong chemistry and solid acting. Even better is British film and TV veteran Leo McKern (longtime PBS viewers may remember him best from "Rumpole of the Bailey") as Judd's more responsible, but even more cynical colleague.
Watch a piece of high-tech tripe like "Armageddon" and you'll quickly realize the best effects a gazillion dollars can buy still can't compete with real dramatic tension, a resonant theme, and sound, basic storytelling techniques. All are in ample supply in "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," available on an excellent Anchor Bay DVD that restores the color tinting of the film's opening and closing scenes and presents the film in a pristine, widescreen transfer. Guest, nearly 90 when the disc was released in 2001, is articulate and informative in a feature-length audio commentary track conducted with writer and filmmaker Ted Newsom. A photo gallery, theatrical trailer, and TV and radio spots are also included.
Though modestly budgeted even for its day, "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," was an epic production compared to George Romero's "The Crazies" (1973). Because he remains best known for his horror films, this overlooked low-budget feature sometimes gets lumped in with the genre. And there are a lot of surface similarities between "The Crazies" and Romero's legendary debut feature, "Night of the Living Dead." Both follow a group of average citizens trying to survive an onslaught of murderous beings. In the earlier film, it was corpses revived by radiation. In this film, it's a wave of insanity caused by a virus developed for biological warfare that is accidentally released over Evans City, Pennsylvania.
But "Night of the Living Dead" clearly meant to scare, which it did with enormous success. "The Crazies" delivers some shocks, but its main drive is building on its sense of growing panic. Romero achieves this largely through his innovative editing. In an entertaining audio commentary for the film, Romero and filmmaker/video distributor William Lustig talk about how the limited budget and lack of usable footage made the film's frantic cutting necessary. Still, even if done in the service of the film's shortcomings, the editing turns what could have been a shoddy drive-in film into a tense, disorienting thriller.
If you can't forgive a cheaply produced independent feature some failings, "The Crazies" is not for you. The depiction of government and army operations are often less than convincing and there are countless technical flaws for the perfectionist to find. Even Romero's writing flags at times, particularly in romantic dialogue between the leads.
But focusing on its deficiencies is missing the forest for the trees. The film is undeniably effective in creating a claustrophobic, foreboding atmosphere, and Romero's ironic view of society and its institutions (particularly the military) packs a real punch. The performances by the largely unknown cast are, by and large, convincing, with Richard France a particular standout as the chief scientist trying to find an antidote to Codename: Trixie (also used as an alternate title for the movie) amid the chaos surrounding him.
In addition to the commentary track, Blue Underground's DVD of "The Crazies" features a short documentary on cast member Lynne Lowry, who appeared in several cult film favorites. Theatrical trailers, TV spots and a poster and stills gallery round out a quality packaging of this little-seen gem from the fringes of disaster cinema.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund