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Sam Sheridan Gives Survival Tips for Characters in Disaster Movies

How do you prepare for the end of the world? In his terrific new book The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse, Sam Sheridan seeks to answer that question by acquiring survival skills from experts all over the world, from Olympic weight lifters to car thieves.

Today, Sheridan looks at several famous scenes from disaster films and tells us what the characters could have done to up their chances of survival in the face of catastrophe.

War of the Worlds

In Zombieland, the protagonist talks about “cardio” being a rule, but he’s not really talking about a long slow jog, he’s talking about sprinting. War of the Worlds has a great example of the need to be in shape to sprint. Here, Tom Cruise is sprinting for his life. So definitely, you need to be in shape to run sprints.

As the tripod rises up, the crowd is “milling,” standing around watching. Amanda Ripley writes wonderfully about this phenomenon in her book The Unthinkable. Who you “mill” with can have a huge effect on your survival.

As the tripod appears, it’s a good time to start thinking about cover. You could watch the tripod rise up from the corner of a building. Take a look around, and think If this goes bad, where do I go? Where am I sprinting to? But hey, I get it, you’re shocked. It’s an alien, this is a shocking event. I learned to do this when I was a firefighter working around helicopters. Helicopters are very dangerous and things can go wrong, so you would always want a plan—if the wind pushes the chopper this way, I’m diving behind those boulders.

Now the tripod starts shooting: OKAY time to go! Instead of just running straight down the street, Tom Cruise should definitely be looking to get off, get to the side, use cover. Cover doesn’t have to mean that it can block the lasers—it can just block the ability of the thing to see you. Eventually, Tom Cruise does just that. He finds cover, darting through a store. He hides behind a building and watches the tripod stroll past.

Haeundae (Tidal Wave)

The hero and heroine are in about the worst place they can be for a tsunami. This would be a really hard call, but they ARE on a pier with motorboats tied beneath them. They might want to get in a boat and head straight out to sea, right at the wave.

Here’s the thing—a tsunami is a massive amount of energy, a pulse wave moving through the medium of water—but out in the deep ocean, it’s not dangerous. It’s just another wave. You could be in the middle of the Pacific and a tsunami could pass under your boat and you wouldn’t even notice.

When the wave starts to approach shore, when it comes into shallow water, the shallow bottom forces the wave up, into the tsunami tidal wave.

Even where they are, if they can get to the wave before it starts to curl and break, they could get over it. But it’s a tough call: can they get a boat started, and get to the wave before it’s breaking?


In this sequence you can really see the value of being able to hit “skid turns.” With a skid turn, you can maintain a lot of speed and still make sharp turns. You can get around obstacles and still stay on the road, and keep ahead of the tornado.

When I trained with stunt men, I learned how they disable the emergency break catch. Pumping the E brake will lock the rear wheels and “break them free” in order to make skid turns and 180’s or 360’s.

If I knew I was heading into a hairy driving situation, I would set up the E brake so that it could be pumped like a regular brake, and definitely practice my skid turns.

And then at the end, when they drive through the house: if it won’t help to slow down, if you can’t slow down… speed up!

The Road

If you know the road is dangerous, why would you sleep on it? Obviously any people you come across are going to be dangerous, because Viggo grabs his kid and bolts right away. So why are they sleeping on the road? Sure they’re tired, sure they’re cold and need shelter. But this, in survival lingo, is “E and E” (escape and evade) and that takes precedence over comfort.

Okay, so you bolt, and you get cover and see that these are some scary dangerous folks. Why stay? Get moving and stay moving. Distance is your friend here. When I talk to professional Law Enforcement trackers, the only thing a fugitive can do that works is add distance. That’s the key element to surviving this situation. Right as you scamper into the woods, don’t wait around to watch, get your ass in gear. You see the scary truck slow down, hear its engine die? Get moving. Nothing you left behind in that van is worth dying for. Make them chase you all day long.

And then, during the stand-off with the bad guy, Viggo does the late cock of the hammer on the gun. Sure, it’s dramatic, and I get it as filmmaking, but if I had that revolver and I was truly terrified I would have it cocked to start with. There’s nothing worse than when the hero holds a bad guy at gunpoint with a shotgun, asks a question, and THEN racks the pump for emphasis. Basically, he was holding him up with a non-functioning weapon until he racked it. This isn’t that bad on the survival scale; but still, if you know you have to make the shot with the revolver, and it could be at any moment, cock the hammer.

Luckily, at the end, Viggo has enough strength to lift his fairly heavy child onto his shoulders and run without too many problems. He’s been working out.

And Lo and Behold, as soon as Viggo starts adding distance—they get away! Should have done that from the drop.

The Grey

Liam Neeson says, “we need a fire so we don’t die, it’s ten below and dropping.”

Anyone who has tried to keep warm in those kinds of conditions knows that a fire is not really gonna do it. Your fuel demands are sky-high, and the heating ability of a bonfire is very inefficient. What you need, more than anything, is shelter and food. If you can maintain a micro-climate with shelter and clothing, and then heat your body chemically, through the chemical reactions inside (food and water) you’ll do much better than fixating on a fire. If you make a good shelter, THEN maybe you can worry about heating it with a fire, but be aware of carbon dioxide poisoning. Proper ventilation is essential. An open fire at night, in those conditions, where it might hit 20 or 40 below zero, most of the heat will go straight up into the night sky. You’d have to almost be sleeping inside the fire for warmth. Plus you’d have to be up and down all night feeding the fire, and it would take a pretty substantial amount of fuel to throw off enough heat to make a difference. Not to throw numbers around, but you’d be burning trees of ‘seasoned’ (cut and dried for at least two years) wood a night. (I don’t know, maybe a quarter of a cord?)

With that many people, a good shelter is very effective, as they will heat it with their body heat. You need to get out of the wind (convective heat loss) and pack tightly together, insulated from the metal or snow of the ground (conductive heat loss). Snuggle to survive, under blankets, jackets, piles of leaves, whatever (reduces radiation heat loss).

-- Sam Sheridan


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Love this. Very well written.

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