In an important Swiss health and medicine complex, a man is being stretchered into reception by two orderlies, and they follow the appropriate signs along to their destination - that destination being a top secret laboratory which they gain access to by gunning down the security guard there. But he's just injured, and as they pass him to go to the heart of the lab, he shoots one of the men dead. The other two, however, get away and set up a bomb to destroy the premises, and almost succeed, only foiled when the guard manages to sound the alarm. More guards rush in, toting machine guns, and shoot one of the terrorists, also smashing a container of a deadly plague virus that showers the men, one of whom escapes through a window. The remaining terrorist is whisked away to quarantine, while the other heads for the station - all ready to inadvertently infect the unwary passengers...
Difficult to believe, but by 1976 the disaster movie cycle of the seventies was already beginning to wear thin, with a well established formula of assembling famous faces in an environment of claustrophobic danger and killing some of them off growing more laughable than exciting. The Cassandra Crossing seems to be oblivious to any unintentional humour, indeed any sign that this genre may be running out of steam, and opts to pump up the grimmer elements, racing towards a climax that callously destroys the lives of, in the main, a bunch of extras who we haven't got to know very well. Scripted by director George Pan Cosmatos with Robert Katz and Tom Mankiewicz, it, like most of its kind, offers trashy thrills garnished with stars who needed the money and/or exposure.
Some people aren't good at being ill, you know the sort, coughing and sneezing everywhere without covering their mouths, not washing their hands regularly, and generally helping their virus along. Unfortunately, that's exactly the kind of person the infected terrorist is, as he blunders through the train he boarded, spluttering, pawing at passengers including children and a baby, retching into food in the kitchen, and even infecting a pet dog when he drinks from its bowl. Luckily, the authorities have pinpointed his location, and the American Colonel (Burt Lancaster) in charge of the operation - it's a U.S. developed strain of pneumonic plague, after all - wastes no time in quarantining the carriages. A doctor at the institute (Ingrid Thulin) is present as the film's conscience who realises that he might not have the passengers' best interests at heart.
Meanwhile, on the train we get to know our victims, who include top billed, feuding, twice divorced couple Richard Harris, a pioneering doctor, and Sophia Loren, a wealthy novelist whose last book's plot bore close resemblance to her previous marriages. Also aboard are Ava Gardner and her toyboy Martin Sheen, man of the cloth O.J Simpson who may not be as wholesome as he first appears, concentration camp survivor and loveable conman Lee Strasberg, and ticket inspector Lionel Stander (called Max here - were the writers of Hart to Hart watching?). This lot are understandably peeved when not only do they start dropping from the disease, but are bullied around by gasmask wearing soldiers as well. Yes, it's that seventies mistrust of authority and fear of terrorism again, how very unlike today, and it all ends with a battle to stop the train before it hits the Cassandra Crossing - basically an unsafe bridge. What really distinguishes this one from its peers is its eagerness to kill people off, all sacrificed for the sake of spectacle and leaving an uneasy feeling by the close. At least in The Poseidon Adventure there's a sense of achievement as after all, the best disaster movies are about saving lives. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.