One of my favorite sub-genres of movies are the post apocalypse films. This extremely specialized part of the dystopian science fiction genre, and often crossing over into horror, has its own unique feel that attracts a strong cult following. There are many really bad post apocalypse B-movies, but there are also some great gems out there. Some are popular because they are really underrated movies that show a post-apocalyptic world in detail, and others are popular because of their “campy” feel.
So the rules for what is and is not a post apocalyptic movie. In general: if the apocalypse is taking place during most of the movie (Dawn of the Dead, Day After Tomorrow, The Stand) then it’s disqualified because that is an apocalypse movie, not post apocalypse, and there is a difference! The main event should already have passed, and the setting should be a major consideration in the movie. That said, let’s sift through the countless crap B movies and see some real great post apocalypse action!
#10 “Escape from New York” (1981). Manhattan is now the largest prison in the world, and Air Force One crashes into it. Snake Plisskin, played by Kurt Russell, is an ex-war hero who hates the govt. So they implant bombs in his body, set to a timer, and send him in. If Snake can find and rescue the President, he goes free. If he can’t find and rescue the President in time, he’ll blow up. Totalitarian police in the future don’t mess around.
This movie is dated, as the special effects will seem campy by today’s standard, but that’s part of the fun of the film, and it’s not nearly as bad as the cgi in the sequel “Escape from LA.” Kurt Russell makes this film. His big, larger than life persona as a tough guy is what carries the films. Similar to some early Clint Eastwood characters in that regard, the movie revolves around his character and it is this aspect that keeps it finding fans in the future. A great introduction to post apocalyptic films, going more with the fun over the dark, and making the “world after” setting a major character.
#9 “The Quiet Earth” (1985). A man, Zac Hobson, wakes up to find that he may be the last person left in the world. He is involved in a government experiment that involves taking power from the planet’s surface through various new technologies and turning it towards a military purpose. This is a classic example of a science fiction themed warning of science used for the wrong purposes leading to man’s destruction. Zac, convinced he is part of a great wrong, commits suicide.
Problem is, he wakes up alone. As in he might be the last person on Earth. He eventually finds two others, and all of them find they were in the process of dying when the accident occurred. The plot continues to unfold, ending with some stunning graphics and an ending that many science fiction enthusiasts believe is one of the best of any movie ever. This is a great movie about a post apocalyptic world, and will leave even hard core fans of the genre in contemplation.
#8 “Akira” (1988). This is a much different movie than the others in the top ten. For one thing, it’s an anime film. This movie was far ahead of its time, and many new generation fans of anime can trace back their influence to this film. Akira is the name of a secret government project. This is based on an over 2,000 page anime comics, so the adaptation is hard for the true blue fan, but it is a movie that stands alone. The story takes place in a new city rebuilt over the remains of Tokyo, and involves “psionic” powers-individuals whose minds evolve them beyond normal humans.
Dragged into the middle of a war between the government and the resistance, a youthful gang finds out one of their teenage friends is far more than he appears. This film is intense, and tackles such a large scale of graphics and action sequences that it comes across as more than a movie, but an interactive experience. Fans of the comic are split, some love it, some hate it, but as far as a post apocalyptic movie, the anime format allows for an intense setting and an excellent, if complex, story.
#7 “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” (1985). Two men enter, one man leaves. This catch phrase may very well be one of the most recognized movie quotes of all time. Beyond Thunderdome is the third movie in the Mad Max trilogy, but this trilogy is nice in that each movie can stand completely on its own. This movie is thoroughly entertaining, as often for its campy 1980s feel as for anything else. Mel Gibson plays Mad Max, an ex-cop who has survived well in the post apocalyptic world, though can’t seem to keep out of trouble. He runs into Bartertown, a city in the desert passing for a semblance of civilization. There is a power struggle between Master Blaster and Aunt Entity (Tina Turner).
Max agrees to help her in return for his stolen goods back, but then finds himself directly in conflict with Aunt Entity. Some critics feel the first half of this movie is excellent, but the second half shifts gears too far for them, while others disagree and feel this is the finest movie in the series. As far as drawing out a post apocalyptic world, few movies match the setting of this one. The rest is just plain fun.
#6 “Day of the Dead” (1985). Why can “Day of the Dead” make the list when “Dawn of the Dead” is disqualified? Because in “Dawn of the Dead” there are people still dying, and the zombie infestation is taking place. By “Day of the Dead,” the dead rule the Earth with only small pockets of human survivors left. Because of this, most of the movie isn’t even about the zombies, but about the tension and conflict between three small groups of people locked in a military base to protect themselves from a zombie infested world. The tension comes from the military men versus the scientists, and from the continuing unhinging of more than one character towards insanity. Out of the Dead series, this is Romero’s favorite of the movies, and has one of the most impressive and jolting opening scenes of any film. A great allegory for how humanity’s enemy is really humanity.
#5 “12 Monkeys” (1995). This film is an amazingly complex film about a post apocalyptic world where most of the survivors are underground, in a tyrannical police state after a super virus has wiped out most of the world’s population. Bruce Willis is a prisoner who “volunteers” for special missions that involve time travel in a desperate, but futile, attempt to stop the unleashing of a virus that will destroy most of humanity.
This is a complex film that jumps from the “present” of the dystopian and depressing future to the “past,” which is the world around the current year. Brad Pitt plays a radical animal activist whom they thin may be responsible, but turns out is not. The time traveler ends up having to fight his own mind, between dreams, time travel, and premonitions, he isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t anymore. This is a deeply threaded film that demands your full attention, but is well worth it.
#4 “The Postman” (1997). A lot of people are going to disagree with this one, but this was a movie that really received a bad wrap, and as far as a post apocalyptic film, there is an interesting world drawn out in detail after an unspecified war laid civilization to waste. There is no standing government, a roaming militia turned army led by General Bethlehem invoking special rules terrorizes survivors, while the hero is a drifter who can quote and perform Shakespeare.
He stumbles into a mail truck, claims to be from the restored United States, and what begins as a con in order to get some food and shelter spawns into a grass roots attempt to reestablish something important, starting with communication.
This leads to a final confrontation between Bethlehem, and the drifter who often just goes by the name Shakespeare. This was a movie that was trashed by film critics, yet found a large following from positive word of mouth that led to large video sales. While this is not a movie for everyone, it invokes a strong post apocalyptic world, a good set of action sequences, and a humorous cameo by Tom Petty as mayor of one of the surviving settlements. This is a movie that had a bad rap, but is a solid post apocalyptic movie. Now “Waterworld” . . . that was a stinker.
#3 “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1982). “The Road Warrior” is a fantastic movie, second and probably the best, out of the Mad Max series which introduced the world to an actor named Mel Gibson. The original Mad Max movie takes place in Australia during a time when things are beginning to really fall apart, but aren’t completely unraveled yet. “The Road Warrior” begins with Mad Max and his souped up car and faithful, well trained dog. A nuclear war has decimated the world, and now he travels through a devastated Australia looking for fuel to keep wandering.
Max stumbles into a situation where a small band of good, but tough, people are defending a small settlement built around an oil refinery. Fuel is more valuable than gold, and the settlement is under siege by a biker gang that is terrorizing them, killing any men they get a hold of, and raping the women before killing them, as well. Max is forced into confrontation against his will and ends up fighting the biker gang while leading a group of fighters as a distraction while the rest escape.
This movie won a wide range of awards, and introduced the world to a tough anti-hero. In this desert world filled with anarchy, Max is a strong character who is not unlikable, and this movie is packed full of action, an incredibly weird villain, and great moving fight scenes. This is one of the best post apocalyptic movies ever made, and provides a lot of the self-parody humor that appears in “Thunderdome.” This movie found critical acclaim, and despite a low budget it won several awards and a long time following.
#2 “The Omega Man” (1971). “The Omega Man” is a remake of a 1964 movie entitled “The Last Man on Earth.” Omega is the last latter of the Greek alphabet, so it is a fancy way of saying “the last man.” Charlton Heston plays the part of Robert Neville, who appears to be the only uninfected survivor of a plague that has wiped out the world population. Neville is the last human on the face of the earth, since all other survivors have changed into a race of vampire like mutants who can only emerge from hiding during the night. The reason Neville is the only survivor is that a group of scientists each tested a serum, and Neville was the lucky one whose serum worked.
Now every day Neville drives through the empty streets of Los Angeles scavenging for food, fuel, and other needs, while at night he returns to a highly fortified house where he must nightly fend off the mutants, who taunt him and desire to one day kill him.
This constant existence is in one of the starkest, and most dark, post apocalyptic movies out there. The opening is one of the most memorable of any movies, as is the ending. This movie is not only unnerving and chilling, and very dark, but it brings up the questions of what “survival” is. Humanity would survive-but as mutants, while what we understand as humanity might have to die first.
The metaphors can be a little heavy handed, especially in leading up to the final scene, but still maintain a degree of strength despite that. Even when some other humans appear, they look different, and confess that once they reach a certain age they turn into the same vampiric mutants at the others-so even temporary hope is dashed again. While costumes and special effects may be a little dated, the movie remains powerful and a great show.
#1 “Planet of the Apes” (1973). And Charlton Heston movies take the gold and silver. The original “Planet of the Apes,” not that monstrosity of a remake, is the single finest post apocalypse movie ever made, and amazingly is still an interesting, fun, and powerful movie even thirty-five years later.
“Planet of the Apes” is about three astronauts who crash land on an unknown planet in the year AD 3978. The planet looks bleak early on, but the land goes from semi-desert and undrinkable water to a large oasis that turns into solid land. They follow mute, seemingly primitive people, and end up pursued and hunted down by a pack of armed gorillas. He comes to discover that apes are the dominant species and can talk. They have a civilization that isn’t necessarily advanced, but it is certainly the dominant one on the planet.
The movie moves strongly and though Neville manages, with the help of some sympathetic chimpanzees, to escape, he is led to an ending that turns every assumption made about the world upside down, in a Twilight Zone type twist. This is perhaps the most famous ending of any movie in history, and even many people who have never watched the movie are familiar with the ending, involving a destroyed statue of liberty. He comes to realize that he is not on another planet, but on Earth itself.
This is an excellent film that should be viewed by any science fiction buff, and paints an incredible world that stands on its own, and becomes stunningly intriguing in light of the great revelation at the end, and ending that made movie history.
List of Sources:
I have watched all these movies personally, all specific information (years of release, etc) is from:
The Internet Movie Data Base, http://www.imdb.com