Los Angeles during the seventies and the rumble underneath the shag pile carpets comes not from the stack heels of commuting Los Angeleans nor from the pills tumbling down the throat of spoiled rich-girl Remy (Ava Gardner) but from an earthquake. Only a minor tremor, this quake isn't quite enough to distract architect Graff (Charlton Heston) from leaving his overdosing wife for his office, where he works for Remy's father, Royce (Lorne Greene). And, of course, into the arms of his mistress, Denise (Geneviève Bujold), who, with an insight typical of the soapish storyline, notices something wrong with Graff...an anger in his lovemaking. Graff grits his teeth and thinks about the disaster that awaits Los Angeles...all those skyscrapers built in an earthquake zone to regulations too weak for when the big one hits.
And hit it does. With cop Lew Slade (George Kennedy) getting drunk in a bar, motorcycle stunt rider Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) putting the finishing touches to his latest jump, grocery clerk/National Guardsman Jody (Marjoe Gortner) bagging food for Rosa (Victoria Principal) and Remy and her father holding out a promotion for Graff, no one is prepared for the huge earthquake that strikes. Least of all the woman who chooses an inopportune moment to admire a sheet of glass and certainly not the Assistant Caretaker who picks a bad time to check on the integrity of the dam's concrete wall and who is next seen riding a wave out of the dam buildings looking much less alive. In all of the city only Comedy Drunk (Walter Matthau) survives unscathed, his grumbling about not getting a drink matching that of the San Andreas fault, rumble for rumble.
Disaster strikes Los Angeles but as Graff and Slade work independently to rally their handfuls of survivors - and Royce finds an innovative use for a chair, a fire hose and pairs of pantyhose - crisis sets in as the city burns. The National Guard are called in to prevent looting but the trigger-happy part-timers cause chaos. What the city needs is a hero or two...and on a city street Slade is about to pull Graff over and commandeer his vehicle. Fate takes a hand...
Scream might well have thought itself very clever by offing Drew Barrymore in its opening minutes - thereby suggesting to its audience that anyone can die at any time - but the seventies disaster movie was busy proving no star was too big for the moment Death comes calling two decades before Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven's slasher. The likes of When Time Ran Out, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno gave top billing to major stars before gleefully sending them Heaven-wards via a macabre alignment of the stars. Gene Hackman's exit from the SS Poseidon is one of the great screen deaths whilst Shelley Winters in the same film proves that a good and kindly nature, a lifesaving medal and great big lungs cannot help one avoid the cold hand and steel scythe of the Grim Reaper. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman may have bickered over billing, the number of lines they were given in the script and who got to wear the fireman's helmet - McQueen, naturally, who won out over Newman's architect - but who can fail to enjoy each and every minute of The Towering Inferno when they stare death in the face and it, like Nietzsche's abyss, stares back.
Earthquake is, thankfully, no different with the tectonic plates underneath Los Angeles brooking no deals with the stars of the film. As the ground shakes - or, rather, in a film inspired by the shakey-cam work of Star Trek, the camera - Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Victoria Principal, Ava Gardner, Geneviève Bujold and Richard Roundtree all look skywards and desperately try to avoid the falling scenery in the hope of staying in the film just one minute longer. Expressions are pained, eyes squint through the dust and shoulders, particularly those of Charlton Heston, bear the burden of knowing lives could have been saved if only he'd been listened to. Unable to hold back the waters of the resevoir as he once did the Red Sea, Moses...Charlton Heston stands up alongside George Kennedy but as the ground keeps rumbling and they squeeze themselves into tighter and tighter spots - literally so in the case of their drilling through the drains for survivors - St Peter ticks time on their lives.
But this is tremendous fun throughout, not only in terms of the story, which is soap-opera simple - Mario Puzo is listed as screenwriter, which suggests that he was wasting his time writing The Godfather when he could have been knocking out scripts for Dallas and Falcon Crest - but also in the thrill of watching Death stalk Los Angeles. Like the enjoyable executions of Final Destination, most of the fun of Earthquake is in seeing how the filmmakers have planned the exits of their stars and of their background actors. The farmer transporting cows on the freeway will have you woah-woah'ing with every scraping of the crash barrier before he and his prize heifers come crashing down. One shouldn't laugh but as the cook in the bar suffers the kind of injuries only previously endured by Wile E. Coyote - the pan of boiling water that finally falls over his face is his coup de grace - you'll be cheering on the earthquake much as one might the Roadrunner. Similarly, Geneviève Bujold's son can't just fall into a storm drain but must be surrounded by sparking mains wires and shall be threatened by an approaching flood of water. But then it really doesn't get much better than the thought of Lorne Greene falling to his death from a skyscraper he designed whilst strapped into an office chair by a pair of pantyhose. I suspect Colonel Tigh's eyes would have rolled skywards at the thought.
There are, of course, notes of seriousness in the film but these are dealt with in the manner of Sue Ellen's alcoholism in Dallas, not by a tide of water - that comes later - but by one of acting that strains the reputation of the profession. Heston is, as you might expect, his heroic best and neither Lorne Greene nor George Kennedy are really that bad either. Ava Gardner, though, tries for sozzled but just looks confused whilst Victoria Principal lets her afro wig and breasts do much of her acting for her. The star of the piece is Marjoe Gortner who plays an uptight grocery store manager - really...Marjoe's arse could turn coal dust into diamond - who becomes an unhinged National Guardsman who uses the earthquake as an excuse to turn his guns on his persecutors and to find a quiet spot with an unwilling Victoria Principal. Despite being a sympathetic character at first, at least in his garish civilian clothing, the sight of Nazi memorabilia, machetes and posters of Charlie Atlas mark Marjoe out as a prime loon and the more friendly he gets with his M-16, the more wide-eyed he gets. His aiming his weapon at Chuck Heston does, however, show him stepping over a line that he ought not to have done.
Aside from all this, director Mark Robson keeps things ticking along nicely without ever proving himself particularly interested in the story. A veteran director - he had worked as editor on The Magnificent Ambersons as well as having directed Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship and Isle of the Dead - Robson does such a decent job on Earthquake that he was called back for 1979's Avalanche Express. As one who'll watch anything so long as it's set on a train or in the snow, Avalanche Express sounds like the greatest film ever. Sadly, like a New World picture, the title was immeasurably more exciting than the actual film but one can't make the same complaint over Earthquake, which really does deliver disaster piled upon disaster. The effects, though clearly of a pre-ILM quality, aren't bad and Robson and Albert Whitlock, his FX supervisor, do well to convincingly destroy much of Los Angeles, making their crumbling city the star of the film. Like all the best disaster movies, not even the city of Los Angeles, the burning star of this film, is safe and if you watched the LA riots and the looting of Frederick's of Hollywood with no small amount of pleasure, you'll find much to enjoy here.
One really ought to watch Earthquake with Sensurround enabled and with several small children - possibly ones captured for the occasion - shaking the back of one's chair through the rumbling of the big quakes. And yet although it was an Oscar-winning effort, the 5.1 remix is better, making much more use of the subwoofer and, unusually for a remix, the rear channels. Turn up your system during the actual earthquake and you can't fail to be impressed by the rumbling from all corners of the room with glass and brickwork shattering from the four corners. For once, a remix that is without complaint.
The picture quality is also very decent and although there's a made-for-television flatness about Earthquake, the DVD presents the film well with plenty of grain, bright colours and even flattering the sometimes obvious effects. The red splash of spilt blood jumps out and the fog and dust in the movie don't appear to present any problems. All round, this is a good effort by Universal.
There are no extras on this DVD.
This is a good time for those who love disaster movies for not only is this version of Earthquake a very decent one - no extras, mind, but otherwise looking very good - but Special Editions of both The Towering Inferno and the utterly wonderful The Poseidon Adventure are being released in the coming weeks. Personally, I'm excited about those forthcoming releases - The Poseidon Adventure in particular - but I'll happily admit to having a great deal of fun with this.
A perfect Sunday afternoon movie and if your kids can cope with Victoria Principal's nipples and a little mild swearing - He: "You bitch!", She: "You bastard!" - entertainment for all the family, giving them a taste of what entertained the masses before Star Wars. Big stars, bigger buildings (or boats) and an illusion of safety shattered as surely as those buildings fell...it's a wonder we ever bothered with Lucas' space opera.