Almost every site on the web conflates apocalyptic with post-apocalyptic films. I’m setting the record straight.
By post-apocalyptic, I mean a film set after the end of civilization or its dramatic upheaval due to catastrophe. The catastrophe could be anything, and represented on this list are nuclear warfare (The Divide, A Boy and His Dog, The Book of Eli), pandemic (Stake Land), technological takeover (The Matrix), dysgenics (Children of Men), resource depletion (The Road Warrior), the breakdown of law and order (Escape from New York), environmental (Snowpiercer), and unknown (The Road).
1. The Divide, Xavier Gens. 2012. Critical approval: 25%. Ignore the critics, this film is fantastic if you have the right expectations. It’s a nasty horror show set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment, where nine strangers gather to survive a nuclear holocaust. Despite uneasiness and distrust, they try working together at first, and do pretty well until cabin fever, radiation sickness, and their own base humanity take over. There’s torture, rape, sex slavery, and full-blown lunacy on display, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel — which in this case happens to be, literally, a tunnel of shit. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy and is the best Lord of the Flies-themed film I’ve seen. The performances are brilliant; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.
2. The Road Warrior, George Miller. 1981. Critical approval: 98%. A #1 favorite on many post-apocalyptic lists, and the best movie sequel in any genre. Along with Conan the Barbarian, it was among the first R-rated films I saw as a young teen, and it left a serious impression. The ’80s were a horrible decade for film, but a few gems like this from ’80-’82 felt like layovers from the ’70s. Like Conan (and Snake Plissken, see #7 below), Mad Max is an amoral anti-hero straight out of pulp escapism, something Edgar Rice Burroughs could have created, and his solitary wanderings across a wasteland remain an incredibly inspiring archetype. There’s so much about this film impossible to forget: the feral kid with the boomerang who narrates the story as an adult, the amazing road stunts for pre-CGI days, and the idea of gasoline being the most precious commodity — which resonates rather loudly in the 21st century. The Road Warrior has a high rewatch value, and I’ve seen it well over a dozen times by now.
3. Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho. 2014. Critical approval: 94% The U.S. release coincided with that of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and I saw them back to back as a weirdly surreal double-feature. Noah is of course apocalyptic, telling the biblical story of the flood: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust, and are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out; Noah goes homicidal on the Ark and barely stops himself from butchering his newborn granddaughters. Snowpiercer is post-apocalyptic, set in 2031, long after a sudden ice age froze the planet. The only survivors boarded a train called (yes) the Rattling Ark, which after 17 years is still keeping people alive in a perverse state of affairs. As in Noah, the lead protagonist fights urges to kill babies, and the cause of righteousness is under a question mark. The film is many things: a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious.
4. Stake Land, Jim Mickle. 2010. Critical approval: 75%. Not only is this a great post-apocalyptic drama, it’s one of the best vampire films ever made, giving the middle finger to both the aristocratic version (Dracula) and juvenile pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight). These are vamps as they should be, mindless savages who go for the jugular without fanfare. The story centers around a young man whose family is slaughtered; he’s taken under the wing of a hunter who now slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a Road-like odyssey to find a mythical refuge up in Canada, and run afoul a nasty religious cult along the way. This is the proper way to do an undead pandemic, and blows away the overrated 28 Days Later (which isn’t even the undead film it pretends, since the “zombies” aren’t reanimated from death, just living people infected by mindless rage).
5. The Road, John Hillcoat. 2009. Critical approval: 75%. Dispiriting in the way only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are, and the only entry on this list where the cause of humanity’s devastation isn’t explained. In a dead wasteland of marauding cannibals I would probably do as the lead character’s wife and just kill myself. Nothing promises to get better, and it’s impossible to survive in any way that makes life meaningful. Even the goodness inside the best of people isn’t always so resilient: the father played by Viggo Mortenson sinks to some ugly depths to protect his son. Precisely because of this, The Road is so uplifting, especially when the two lone protagonists reach their destination at the eastern sea, and the father dies. There are even eschatological overtones, as the boy could be an implied messianic figure who, unlike his father, is able to “carry the fire” of goodness to the end. I watched this film a second time after the death of my own father in 2010, and it was helpful in the grieving process. It’s a powerful and noble work.
6. The Matrix, Andy & Lana Wachowski. 1999. Critical approval: 87%. What hasn’t been said about The Matrix? I will say this: it got me hooked on going to the theater to see movies instead of relying almost exclusively on the VCR. (Chucking the VCR and embracing DVDs would soon follow.) The Wachowski brothers managed to work in everything just for me: martial arts (I’m embarrassed to say I loved those god-awful ’80s ninja films), realities inside the mind (Doctor Who’s Deadly Assassin from the ’70s was actually the first to use the matrix), with as much philosophy as action, even neo-gnosticism, and all in the context of a horrifying future where machines rule and people are nothing more than chemical batteries. And never mind that Keanu Reeves can’t act to save himself. Here he doesn’t need to. But skip the lousy sequels.
7. Escape from New York, John Carpenter. 1981. Critical approval: 83%. Some deny this qualifies as post-apocalyptic, since it’s just New York City turned into a prison. But as this reviewer points out, the background in the untruncated script involves global chemical warfare, and gas released on a massive scale causing people to go crazy and criminal everywhere. I’m amazed how well it holds up, and what the production team accomplished on such a low budget. The criminal world of Manhattan is compelling, and the terrorist plane crash near the World Trade Center is downright chilling to watch after 9/11, not to mention Snake Plissken’s risky landing on top of WTC itself. It’s no accident this film debuted months after The Road Warrior; Plissken is a lot like Mad Max, a perfect amoral anti-hero.
8. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón. 2006. Critical approval: 93%. This is an adaptation of the P.D. James’ novel, except that women are infertile instead of the men. It’s a future where people can’t reproduce, immigration is criminal, terrorism runs rampant, religious nut-cases flagellate themselves, and law officials treat people like beasts. A pregnant woman suddenly offers hope for humanity, but it’s not terribly clear why, anymore than how women lost their fertility to begin with. Cuaron’s dislike for back-story and clear exposition seems to have led him to use the concept of infertility as a vague metaphor for the fading of human hope; yet the film ends on a note that plays into one’s predispositions, so that optimists will sense at least some hope for humanity, others not so much. Whether this means Children of Men is unsure of its vision or profoundly polysemous, I’m not sure, but there’s no denying its mythic power.
9. The Book of Eli, Albert & Allen Hughes. 2010. Critical approval: 48%. Yes, there’s a lot about Eli that panders to the lowest common idiot, but it’s atmospheric as hell, and I love the idea of a last surviving copy of the bible which people are willing to kill for. Gary Oldman’s villain wants it for all the bad reasons, to sway and control the masses, while Denzel Washington’s hero just wants to deliver it into scholarly hands out on the west coast. And while Denzel, true to form, pretty much plays Denzel, Eli’s spiritual guardianship and preservationist sensibilities make him appealing beyond a martial arts superman. Ultimately, this is what spaghetti-western action looks like in a post-apocalyptic setting, and if there are glaring logistical problems (why has it taken Eli thirty years to wander across America to reach the west coast? how did he become such an over-the-top karate killing machine like The Matrix’s Neo? he’s blind, is he?), it’s at least unpredictable and well crafted.
10. A Boy and His Dog, L.Q. Jones. 1975. Critical approval: 77%. I adore this cult classic, not least for its outrageous political incorrectness. And who better to play such an ignorant misogynist than Don Johnson? In an age after nuclear holocaust, women have become a rare commodity, but Vic has a telepathic dog (Blood) who can hunt and sniff them out for him to rape. The rewatch value comes in the relentless bickering sessions between him and Blood, which are strangely reminiscent of those between Tom Baker and his robotic dog K9 from Doctor Who. Both dogs are smug know-it-alls who treat their masters with borderline contempt, the huge difference of course being that while the Doctor and K9 are pretty much evenly matched in intelligence and wit, Vic is a truly ignorant piece of trailer trash. Blood gets in a lot of nice shots, one of my favorites being, “The next time you play with yourself, I hope you go blind.” The twist ending is real shocker, where Vic kills the girl he just rescued, and cooks her to feed Blood, who remarks on the closing credits, “Well, I’d certainly say she had marvelous judgment, if not particularly good taste.”
Dishonorable mentions. I don’t care for the following, but they make enough pick lists on the web to warrant comment: Planet of the Apes (1968) was always too cheesy (even by ’60s standards) for me to take seriously, Logan’s Run (1976) too flawed in premise, and The Quiet Earth (1985) too stale and hopelessly ’80s in style. Dawn of the Dead (1978) almost made my cut, but lumbering zombies are hopelessly cliche and frankly not scary. Then there are the sci-fic crowd pleasers Terminator and 12 Monkeys, which I don’t think really count as post-apocalyptic because they don’t feel like it; their dramas involve time travel and are grounded in the pre-apocalyptic “present”.
See also my Top 10 Apocalyptic Films.