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Earthquake is a 1974 Americanmarker disaster film that achieved huge box-office success, continuing the disaster film genre of the 1970s where recognizable all-star casts attempt to survive life or death situations. The plot concerns the struggle for survival after a catastrophic earthquake destroys most of the city of Los Angeles, Californiamarker.

Directed by Mark Robson and with a screenplay by George Fox and Mario Puzo, the film starred Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Victoria Principal, Monica Lewis and Walter Matthau (credited as "Walter Matuschanskayasky").


In the wake of the tremendous success of the disaster-suspense film Airport (1970), Universal Studios began working with executive producer Jennings Lang to come up with a new idea that would work within the same "disaster-suspense" genre. The genesis of the idea literally "came to them" as a direct result of the San Fernando Earthquakemarker which shook the Los Angelesmarker area during the early morning hours of February 9, 1971. Director Mark Robson and Lang were intrigued by the idea of creating a disaster on film that would not be confined to an airliner, but rather take place over a large area.


Lang scored a major coup when he was able to sign on legendary screenwriter Mario Puzo to pen the first draft during the summer of 1972. Puzo, fresh from the success of his novel and film, The Godfather, delivered the script in August. Much like his Godfather films, the characters and situations in his Earthquake script were intricate, and showed a similar attention to detail. However, Puzo's detailed script necessitated a much larger production budget (as the action and characters were spread over a vast geographical area in the city of Los Angeles), and Universal was faced with either cutting the script down, or increasing the film's projected budget. Puzo's involvement with Earthquake was short-lived, however, as Paramount Pictures was anxious to begin development with the followup to The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II. Since Puzo's services were contractually obligated to the sequel, he felt he would be unable to continue work on two projects of such a large scale, so he opted out of continuing any further work on Earthquake.

The Earthquake script languished at Universal Studios for a short period of time, but was brought back to life by the huge success of the 20th Century Fox hit, The Poseidon Adventure, released in December, 1972. Fueled by the enormous box office receipts of that film, Universal Studios put pre-production on Earthquake back in to high gear, hiring writer George Fox to continue work with Puzo's first draft. Director Mark Robson worked with Fox (who was more of a magazine writer - this was his first screenplay) to narrow the scope of the script down to fit into the budgetary constraints. After 11 drafts, Earthquake went before the cameras in February, 1974.


Budgeted at $7,000,000 USD, Earthquake immediately found itself in a race against the clock with the bigger-budgeted disaster film, The Towering Inferno, which was being financed by two movie studios (20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, a motion picture first) and produced by Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure). While that film featured a larger "all star" cast (in fact, Universal had approached several, including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, to star in Earthquake - but they had already been signed for Inferno), Universal was able to land Charlton Heston in the lead role, along with Ava Gardner (who signed at the proverbial "11th hour" simply because she wanted to spend the summer in Los Angelesmarker), George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold (who agreed to a part in the film to head off an impending lawsuit by Universal over a prior project), Richard Roundtree (riding a wave of success from the Shaft film series), former evangelical Marjoe Gortner, and fresh-faced newcomer Victoria Principal.

Production necessitated the complete destruction of the Universal Studios backlot in order to simulate the catastrophic earthquake of the title (as doing the same on Los Angeles streets would not have been possible). Along with a clever use of miniatures of actual buildings, matte paintings, and full-scale sets, Earthquake combined decades old special effects techniques with those developed especially for the film (including a revolutionary "Shaker Mount" camera system, which mimicked the effects of an earthquake by moving the entire camera body several inches side to side, versus merely shaking the camera lens).

Extensive use of highly trained stunt artists for the most dangerous scenes involving high falls, dodging falling debris, and flood sequences, set a Hollywoodmarker record for the most stunt artists involved in any film production up until that time: 141. Major stunt sequences in the film required careful choreography between the stunt artists and behind the scenes stunt technicians who were responsible for triggering full scale effects, such as falling debris. Timing was critical, since some rigged effects involved dropping six ton chunks of reinforced concrete in order to flatten cars, with stunt performers only a few feet away. In other scenarios, some stunt artists were required to fall sixty feet onto large air bags - for which they were paid the sum of $500.00.


Universal Studios and Jennings Lang wanted Earthquake to be an "Event Film" - something that would draw audiences in to the theatre multiple times. After several ideas were tossed about (which included bouncing styrofoam faux "debris" over audience members' heads), Universal's sound department came up with a process called "Sensurround" - a series of large speakers and a 1,500 watt amplifier, that would pump in sub-audible "infra bass" sound waves at 120 decibels (equivalent to a jet airplane at takeoff), giving the viewer the sensation of an earthquake. The process was tested in several theatres around the United States prior to the film's release, yielding various results. A famous example is Grauman's Chinese Theatermarker in Hollywood, Californiamarker, where the "Sensurround" cracked the plaster in the ceiling. Ironically, the same theatre premiered Earthquake three months later – with a newly-installed net over the audience to catch any falling debris – to tremendous success.

The "Sensurround" process proved to be a large audience draw, but not without generating a fair share of controversy. There were documented cases of nosebleeds generated by the sound waves. When the film premiered in Chicago, Illinoismarker, the head of the building and safety department demanded the system be turned down, as he was afraid it would cause structural damage. In Billings, Montanamarker, a knick-knack shop next door to a theatre using the system lost part of its inventory when items from several shelves were thrown to the floor when the system was cued during the quake scenes. Perhaps the most amazing Sensurround incident occurred when a patron's ribs were cracked by the intense output of the system.

Sensurround was used again for the films Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1979).

The 2006 Universal Home Video DVD release features the original "Sensurround" 3.1 audio track, duplicating the original theatrical "Sensurround" track, which generated low frequency, high-power sound waves which "shook" the theatre. In addition, the film's original soundtrack was remixed in Surround Sound 5.1 (a different arrangement than "Sensurround)."


After October test screenings in various theatres throughout the United States, Universal opted to cut 30 minutes from the film at the last minute (notably from the pre-quake sequences), at the cost of some of the dramatic flow (including a sub-plot involving an abortion). Released in the United States on November 15, 1974, Earthquake would become the fourth-highest grossing film of the year; its competition, The Towering Inferno, was the highest.

The Disaster film trend had reached its zenith in 1974 with the combined releases of Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and Airport 1975 (the first Airport sequel). The films enjoyed staggering success, with The Towering Inferno earning $55 million in rentals, Earthquake $36 million and Airport 1975 $25 million. By 1976, the Disaster film cycle had also left its mark on the list of all-time box office champions, with The Towering Inferno ranked 8th, Airport 14th, The Poseidon Adventure 16th and Earthquake 20th. Such success spawned a flood of similar films throughout the decade.

Earthquake would eventually gross nearly $80,000,000 USD ($350,000,000 USD, adjusted for inflation in 2009 dollars).


Earthquake was a huge success, but Rotten Tomatoes reported a 27% "Rotten" with a average of 4.4 out 10.


Earthquake was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction (Alexander Golitzen, E. Preston Ames, Frank R. McKelvy) and Best Sound. It won for Best Sound (Ronald Pierce, Melvin M. Metcalfe Sr.) and a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects (Frank Brendel, Glen Robinson, Albert Whitlock). The film was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards including Best Motion Picture - Drama and Best Original Score (John Williams). Williams' music for Earthquake was the second of his trio of scores for large-scale Disaster films, having previously scored The Poseidon Adventure and following with The Towering Inferno (briefly earning him the nickname "King of the Disaster Scores"). Williams scored both The Towering Inferno and Earthquake in the summer of 1974, both scores showing similarities to one another (notably Earthquake's theme and The Towering Inferno's love theme sharing the same eight-note melody)

Television premiere

For the film's October, 1976 television premiere on NBC, additional footage was added to expand the running time of the film so it could be shown over two nights. The "sensurround" audio was simulcast on FM stereo in the Los Angeles market. This allowed the home viewer to experience the same effect as in the theater. Contrary to popular belief, this "television version" made no use of material originally left out of the theatrical release (save one brief scene featuring Victoria Principal and Reb Brown), but rather new footage was shot some two years after the original, using some of the stars from the theatrical version. New scenes included a young married couple (Debralee Scott and Sam Chew) on an airliner attempting to land at Los Angeles International Airportmarker during the earthquake.

Proposed sequel

A script for a sequel, Earthquake II, was written in 1975 and was to feature the characters played by George Kennedy, Victoria Principal, Richard Roundtree and Gabriel Dell. The script never reached the production stage. The story details the characters, now refugees from the Los Angelesmarker quake of the original film, adjusting to life in San Franciscomarker. Another catastrophic earthquake and tsunami eventually strikes the Bay Areamarker. Production was cancelled in late 1977 as the popularity of disaster films was starting to wane.

Theme park attractions

Earthquake inspired the attraction Earthquake: The Big One at Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood. The original attraction in Florida began by having guests enter an exhibit room in San Francisco themed to earthquakes where a guide briefly introduced and discussed the film. They then selected five volunteers from the audience, which they explained would participate in an interactive portion of the pre-show.

Guests then entered a screening room, where they watched a brief film that depicted a massive earthquake that destroys Los Angeles. Following the earthquake sequence, actor Charlton Heston appeared and explained how the previous earthquake sequence of the film was created through the use of miniatures. The movie screen then raised to reveal a portion of the destroyed model that was used during the filming of the previous earthquake sequence. Guests were then ushered into a soundstage where the volunteers who were selected from the audience earlier helped recreate various scenes from the Earthquake film.

Following this sequence, guests then entered a "Golden Gate Transit" subway station in Oaklandmarker where they boarded an open-air subway train that closely resembled the trains used on the Bay Area Rapid Transit in and around the San Franciscomarker bay area. After boarding, the train departed the station and took them beneath the bay to the Embarcadero Stationmarker in San Francisco. Once stopped in the station, a violent earthquake would take place, destroying the entire station and climaxed in a massive flash flood. Once the earthquake sequence was complete, the subway train would return to the Oakland Stationmarker where guests would disembark the train and exit the attraction.

In the fall of 2002, the pre-show was changed to a more generic "magic of making movies" theme, with slight modifications which included mentioning special effects used in other films besides Earthquake. The pre-show sequences were eventually dropped from the attraction in September 2007, with the various pre-show theaters being used as a queue line for the ride portion of the attraction.

The attraction officially closed on November 5, 2007 and reopened several months later as "Disaster!: A Major Motion Picture Ride...Starring You!." The current attraction has a similar three part pre-show as the ‘’Earthquake’’ attraction and still utilizes volunteers from the audience. The ride portion of the attraction also remains mostly unchanged, although television monitors were added to the subway train cars to help tie it into the rest of the show.

The Universal Studios Hollywoodmarker Studio Tour also contains an Earthquake sequence, which replaced The Tower of London Set in 1986, and features the tour tram entering a San Franciscomarker subway station and experiencing a massive earthquake.

Stock footage

Many scenes from the movie, especially those featuring the destruction of Los Angeles, have appeared in other productions, often those of Universal Studios itself. Some examples include:
  • Quantum Leap: Sam Beckett leaped in as one of the stuntmen on the fictional disaster film "Disco Inferno." In the episode, "Sam" is the man hanging from a piece of debris whom Sam Royce (Lorne Greene's character) attempts to save, but loses his grip and falls.
  • Galactica 1980: In the episode "Galactica Discovers Earth", in a "computer simulation" of a devastating Cylon attack on Los Angeles.
  • Scarface: Tony Montana conducts a botched drug transaction with the Colombian drug dealer Hector, while "Earthquake" is seen playing on a television in the background.
  • V: The Final Battle: Footage from the sequence featuring the collapse of the Hollywood dam was reused during the destruction of the Visitors water pumping station.
  • Barenaked Ladies: Parts of the movie, namely portions of the film when the big earthquake struck, were used in the music video for the song "Another Postcard."
  • Tom Petty music video for the song "You Got Lucky" shows part of the episode "Galactica Discovers Earth", with the "computer simulation" of a devastating Cylon attack on Los Angelesmarker. This is shown briefly on a television Tom Petty turns on.
  • The Incredible Hulk : In the first season episode "Earthquakes Happen," several building collapse scenes, the collapsing freeway overpass scene, the collapsing Spanish bells, the sliding and falling stilt houses, and the collapsing high tension wires and parts of the wooden foot bridge scenes were reused in this episode with slightly zoomed or slightly reoriented focus to keep any association of the original film from being seen. In the Hulk story, the city of St. Thomas is hit by an earthquake. David Banner is posing as a scientist who is visiting a nuclear facility that has had some serious design problems and maintenance issues.

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