There's very little that Hollywood likes more than to take a cast of expensive actors, place them in a lavishly-produced set, and then blow everything up. The resulting mix of all-star casting and spectacular destruction is what makes a disaster film, and disaster films don't come any bigger than "The Towering Inferno." Released 40 years ago this month (on December 14, 1974), the film was so big that it was based on two novels by different authors, was the first movie that required the backing of two studios to make it (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. were the collaborators), and featured two stars so huge (Steve McQueen and Paul Newman) that no one could agree on which of them should be billed first. (The solution: McQueen's name appeared in the poster and on the screen in the lower left, while Newman's was placed in the upper right, so that both names appeared to be first, a stagger-step solution that has been used many times since in similar situations.)

"Towering Inferno" was not only the top-grossing movie of 1974 and a Best Picture Oscar nominee, but it also marked the crest of the first great wave of disaster movies, a tsunami of all-star destruction orgies mostly produced by one man: Irwin Allen. (He had a decade-long run, from "The Poseidon Adventure" to the aptly titled "When Time Ran Out..."). The genre lay dormant for a while, but it was revived in the late 1990s by both millennial dread (over Biblical prophecy, the Y2K bug, and other potential real-world catastrophes) and by director Roland Emmerich, whose Irwin Allen-like body of work includes "Independence Day," "Godzilla" (1998), "The Day After Tomorrow," and "2012."

Today, the disaster film persists, perhaps because the world seems ever more dangerous, and perhaps because of our schadenfreude over watching pampered actors flee for their lives in terror. (Admit it: watching one of these movies, you have the cathartic feeling of "There but for the grace of God go I.") Here, then, are 33 unforgettable disaster movies to revisit as we light a candle (while keeping a fire extinguisher close at hand) to "The Towering Inferno."

disaster movies