Good Post Apocalyptic movies are rare. Every dime store wannabe Roger Corman (including Roger Corman) makes a post-apocalyptic movie because it’s cheap. All you need is a handful of actors and a desolate shooting location and, voila, it’s the end of the world as we know it (and I’m not feeling so good).
I didn’t count the Terminator movies since they actually take place, for the most part, in the pre-apocalypso. I also don’t count Planet of the Apes, since for all intents and purposes it takes place on a different planet. The same goes for Time Machine. In other words, if it’s so far post-apocalyptic that there’s nothing left of the original civilization, it doesn’t really count.
You won’t find that first serious post-nuke movie, On The Beach, on this list, because two hours of “Waltzing Matilda” makes waterboarding seem humane by comparison. And it’s really “mid-apocalyptic” like The Day After. And, for the record, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach defines “inane”.
So, the basic rule is there has to be a complete breakdown of existing society, but enough time for some new form of rudimentary society has to have risen that recalls and clings to the old but is fragile and primitive. Scope is usually large and time is usually from ten to a hundred years or so, but that’s not necessary (see the list).
Anyone remember Ark II? It was largely forgettable SatAM moralizing about the environment but I never did actually forget it, because the Ark itself was parked in a lot visible from the 101 as you head downtown. Also, they had a jet pack.
Top 10 Post Apocalyptic Movies & TV Shows (With The Caveat That I Haven’t Seen More Than A Few Minutes Of “Jericho”)
1. Road Warrior: Mad Max 2
Can there be any doubt? The ‘80s were the glory days of action, and this movie spawned a horde of imitators. Italian teens in grungy armor running through warehouses and crap like that. But it’s a solid story, with action that really holds up.
The first Mad Max was so-so–make sure you don’t watch the version where Mel Gibson and the other Aussie-accented ones are dubbed–and the third one (Beyond Thunderdome) was pretty good, and arguably should be included on the list.
You know, you don’t get a lot of family-oriented “post apocalyptic” movies. “I know! Let’s make a movie for the kids about how the world has come to an end!” This is a unique accomplishment discussed twice on this blog already.
3. A Boy and his Dog
This is probably the only movie based on a Harlan Ellison work that actually captures the guy’s cynical, misanthropic, but highly amusing attitude. A young Don Johnson cavorts around the wasteland with his telepathically linked dog, until he’s given a chance to rejoin society, a weird midwestern small town ca. 1935 that happens to be underground. Jason Robards co-stars. The end features the worst pun in movie history.
You can watch this or download it free online here.
4. The Matrix
Over-rated and seriously tarnished by the two sequels, which played like movies done by people who had read and believed all the great things other people were saying about them. Nonetheless, a watershed action film that holds up well over time.
This is a somewhat dubious entry as post-apocalyptic because there is obviously a new order; it’s more “alien invasion” in a lot of ways. But the underground life of the surviving humans is very typical of post-apoco movies, and the Matrix itself assures that the previous civilization is never forgotten.
5. 28 Days Later
Return of the Living Dead did it first, but director Danny Boyle made fast-moving zombies fashionable. Bonus points for animal rights terrorists causing the end of civilization. Actually, probably the only film on the list that’s got a plausible post-apocalpytic story, made possible I think because it’s only a month after the end of the world.
Yes, I know, it’s only the British Isles that end but, while global apocalypses are the norm, any isolated area where civilization’s ability to intervene is highly limited can also work. (See #9 below.) You could argue, for example, that Lord of the Flies is post-apocalyptic, in a way.
6. Dawn of the Dead
Speaking of zombies, Romero’s second zombie film is still pretty funny and fast-paced, despite the heavy-handed social commentary that’s as dated as a tie-dyed shirt.
Night of the Living Dead–probably the grandfather of modern horror–is mid-apocalypse (and they don’t even know it). Day of the Dead and later movies get increasingly heavy-handed, resulting in things like the ludicrous Land of the Dead: A good movie with a ridiculous premise that we should learn to co-exist with zombies.
Nonetheless, Romero makes a good movie every now and again, mostly about zombies. (Knightriders is a solid picture, often overlooked.) And Dawn of the Dead is easily one of his best.
7. The Last Man On Earth
Vincent Price in the original rendition of Richard Matheson’s tale, later to be remade with Charlton Heston as Omega Man, and again with Will Smith under its actual title, I Am Legend.
Omega is way too hippie, though. It has become camp over time. I Am Legend is a typically facile modern remake done up big budget with lots of CGI and not a lot of heart, riding on Smith’s charisma. And I’m sure I’ll feel that way even after I see it.
Yes, the Price version is very low budget, stagey and a little slow. I still prefer it. Make your own damn list if you don’t like it.
8. “Day of the Triffids” (1981 BBC TV mini-series)
Low budget, shot on video, but remarkably effective telling of John Wyndham’s story of alien plants run amok. Previously made in America with Janette Scott in a not very good movie, immortalized by the theme from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
9. “Twilight Zone” (various episodes)
TZ rocked so hard that they could have the pre-apocalypse, apocalypse and post-apocalypse in one episode. You know what I’m talking about: Burgess Meredith and his famous glasses. But there were other good pre-, post- and mid-apocalyptic shows. Arguably, the very first episode is post-apocalyptic. Then there’s “Two” with, I think, Elizabeth Montgomery. Etc.
The famous Billy Mumy episode, “It’s a Good Life”, where little Billy wishes people into the cornfield, actually fits pretty well into the post-apoco category. The town is completely isolated and the order is sort of a mockery of what it was.
Wildly uneven, hippy-tastic, cheaply made and crude, Wizards is still one of my favorite films. In a post-apocalyptic world, the forces of good, represented by a magic wizard, hot faerie chicks and asian looking warriors, do battle against the forces of evil, represented by mutants and technology and lots of Nazi stuff.
Ham-handed? Sure. But it’s also ridiculously accurate about the desire of some for a world where magic makes technology unnecessary.
Besides which, it’s fast, funny, and–where it’s not terribly hard to look at because it’s so cheap–very fun to look at.
10. Death Race 2000
Sharing 10th place with Wizards is the campy ’70s flick Death Race 2000 with David (heh, put “Bill” there originally) Carradine and Sylvester Stallone as racers in a future where glory comes from a cross-country road race, where points are assigned by the number and kind of pedestrians you hit.
Paul Bartel’s film is not aging all that well, again having that sort of ham-handed hippy-esque anti-America feel, but maybe, for what it is–a $300K film with a relatively interesting premise made in the high ’70s–it’s aging pretty well after all.
Paul W.S. Anderson (whose Resident Evil series didn’t make the top 10) is remaking this movie as Death Race with Jason Statham and Joan Allen. ISYN.
Honorable Mention: Korgoth of Barbaria
There’s only been one episode of this funny, funny show, but it’s well worth watching if you can find it, and lack any sort of good taste. It’s basically a high fantasy setting, but it’s post-apocalyptic (ike Wizards, which it rather resembles) and has plenty of modern references for humor and plot reasons.
This brain child of Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Clone Wars) and Aaron Springer (Spongbob Squarepants) features over-the-top violence, dumb jokes and plain ol’ slapstick. Somehow, it all works.