I will try to keep current this list of films I currently consider to be the best in this particular sub-genre. I have gone for broad coverage in terms of thematics here and have therefore left off quite a few films I still consider to be top-notch or simply worth seeing. For example: you’ll see one zombie film on the list, but there are others that might be worth your time (if this list interests you). Please note that in order for a film to be considered for this list, I have three main determining criteria:
1. Part (or most) of the story must take place in a post-apocalyptic setting (Cloud Atlas would qualify…but doesn’t make the list).
2. The social order has to have broken down or drastically changed from today’s standard (Doomsday would qualify but doesn’t make the list).
3. It must be a full length feature and not a television series or short film (The Walking Dead does not qualify, even though it would make my list).
I have ranked the films in ascending order, based simply on my overall evaluation of them as affective, socially important and entertaining. All film poster images link to IMDB for your convenience. Do you agree with my choices? Sound off in the comments!
Electric Media Diaries Top Ten Post-Apocalyptic Films:
Though this film didn’t receive as much acclaim as McCarthy’s 2006 novel (on which it was based), and their respective positions on my list of post-apocalyptic books and films are exactly inverted, I must add it to the list. The Road is the most realistic and perhaps most frightening of any film on my top ten list. Bleak in the extreme, the film extrapolates based on what we already know about mankind—that we are destructive, violent and selfish—to present a vision of the kind of future those attributes will likely lead to. My uncle and I once had an argument about precisely what kind of apocalyptic events lead to such a washed out and horrifying future…he thought that super-vulcanism was the cause (that’s not like having an obsession with Star Trek, by the way), and I still maintain that McCarthy has some fairly obvious leads in the novel to imply that nuclear warfare is the cause of the end of civilization as we know it. The point however, doesn’t seem to be so much how we cause our own destruction, but what we do afterwards. I think there is a certain degree of hope in this tale, though many readers/viewers will have to negotiate through starvation, loneliness, desperation, cannibalism and even nihilism to find it. The Road is a must read and see.
I am making a slight exception to my own rules in including this film. Though The Day After was made for television, it is equivalent in length to other feature films and was eventually released on DVD (2004). The film is also not primarily post-apocalyptic, though there is a distinct segment of the film that is. Though certain things about this film quickly became dated, such as the special effects, political climate and hairstyles, this is a must see. The film shocked American audiences upon its release due to the graphic and perceived sensational depiction of nuclear war and its aftermath—the subconscious fears of the generations that had grown up through the cold war certainly played into this, If any film deserves a really good Criterion Collection treatment, it is this one; the story behind the making of the film is fascinating, as well as the public, political and psychological responses it triggered. I think that of all the films on this list you have not seen, this is the first I would recommend you watch first. Watch for John Lithgow (Dexter, 3rd Rock From The Sun) in the role of Huxley (a very solid performance). Overall, the acting is high quality and the heart of the film is as dire a warning for mankind as provided by The Road.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
When Nuclear Apocalypse meets Technological Singularity, apparently you get naked Arnold Schwarzenegger. Twice. Though I greatly admire the simplicity of the first film as a sci-fi/horror action masterpiece, this movie imagines the apocalyptic moment and the post-apocalyptic future (however briefly) with a style that wasn’t matched until the release of The Matrix (1999). Pre-I’m the king of the world, this and the SF sequel Aliens (1986) are James Cameron’s best work, IMHO. There is much to admire about this film beyond its ground breaking special effects, many of which still hold up to scrutiny and are indeed, more impressive somehow that many of the all-digital SF efforts of the last 10 years. One thing that I admire about the film is its attempts to grapple with machine-based morality and also with the devastating consequences that can come from human ingenuity, despite all our “best intentions”. The subplot in the film involving Miles Dyson’s recognition of his role in bringing about the apocalyptic future, is a thoughtful aside and even welcome break from the film’s practically non-stop action set-pieces. I do however view his role in a completely new light after reading Martin Kevorkian’s book Color Monitors: The Black Face ofTechnology in America (2006), in which he outlines a thoroughly convincing argument that the typecasting of African-American actors in roles that situate them as technological experts is a subtle new form of American minstrelsy, and worthy of some critical thought. You can find that book here, I highly recommend it.
I have great respect for the filmmaking of Terry Gilliam and also for the original arthouse film that inspired Gilliam to make 12 Monkeys, the 1962 film La Jetée by Chris Marker (a must see). A good portion of this film is set in the present day, and time travel becomes the plot contrivance (or Novum) by which we access a post-apocalyptic future where human beings are living under ground under a strange semblance of government whose closest analogue is likely Nazi Germany. Bruce Willis delivers a great performance as James Cole, the convict from the future tasked to return to the past and discover the cause of the apocalyptic virus that wiped out the larger proportion of humanity. In a strange early premonition (or reversal) of Haley Joel Osment’s famous line from the film The Sixth Sense, in response to questioning, Willis’s character Cole says “all I see are dead people”.
This film is a perfect storm of action jouissance and post-apocalyptic understatement. Better than both the first and third films—something that seems to happen rarely in film trilogies—The Road Warrior ranks high up on this list because it extrapolates logically from the world’s current socio-political climate to present what I think is actually a very realistic vision of what a post-oil, post-WW3 environment might look like. The film is often mentioned as an homage to the work of Kurosawa or Sergio Leone and I definitely see both influences here, though think that director George Miller is far more loyal to the technique of Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s careful attention to the timing of his cuts and his focus on fluid and more omniscient camera movement are distinct influences that are perceptible in The Road Warrior. Miller seems to adopt Kurosawa’s practice of using editing as a primary technique for the conveyance of tone, pace and emotion, while still managing to let his own style shine through. I think that this is a must see for fans of the P-A genre, but also for anyone interested in dark fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, steampunk and many other genres and sub-genres that were inspired by and continue to be informed by this unique film. It will be very interesting to see where George Miller takes the series with the fourth instalment Fury Road, due in theatres in less than 1 month (at the time of this writing). If I do add a page of P-A film reviews/analyses to this blog, I will try to make it one of my first, so check back.
I should lay my cards on the table in terms of my personal bias towards zombie films within the P-A genre. Some of my academic writing investigates the cultural significance of zombies: you can access some of that work here; and if you haven’t read my online zombie novel in progress, check it out here: The Wyrmwōd Protocol. As a teenager disgruntled with global capitalist hegemony I was attracted to the films of George Romero and others who visually depicted its demise (nothing seems able to unseat my number one selection on this list as a result). I eliminated as options a good deal of zombie films, or films much like them, from a preliminary pool of 75 movies. This list could have easily been a top ten zombie films list, and I will certainly add one to this site in the near future, but I promised myself that I would aim for diversity within the genre and that only one zombie film should be included. But I have to bend my own rules for Danny Boyle’s brilliant dystopian vision 28 Days Later, which I should add, is often at the centre of really nerdy online genre debates, in which I admit to participating (under various aliases). Boyle’s film introduced in popular form two major variations to the pop culture zombie mythology dominated by Romero (known by many Zom-Geeks as the Romeroverse). The first was to have his “infected” move quickly rather than slowly, which fit very well with his proto-punk filmic style. The second decision involved making the zombies, well, not really zombies—at least not technically. Boyle’s infected are much like Romero’s The Crazies (1973), in a film that was remade in 2010 under the same name, I think very much motivated by the success of 28 Days Later (as you can see, these films themselves are share a sort of cannibalistic relationship).
But I digress…28 Days Later is a brilliant film and a very careful and considered attempt to extrapolate current social conditions past the apocalyptic event horizon. If you want to be scared out of your mind for just under two hours while simultaneously experiencing masterful editing and atmosphere alongside understated an study in character, this is the one for you. I should also add that this film features in my opinion one of the most incredible feats of film production in the past twenty years, that being creating a deserted apocalyptic landscape in the midst of one of the busiest cities in the world without relying heavily on digital tools. You can read more about that if you are interested here, and here. But far better to experience it in full—watch the film.
Peter Jackson isn’t the only New Zealander to make weird films (Dead Alive anyone?), but I have to put this one on the list. Though some find the plot device of “the last person on earth” to be rather ridiculous, you have to admit that in the day and age of the Large Hadron Collider, Dark Matter and Rogue Wormholes, we can’t ever discount the possibility that our own essential misunderstandings of physics and chemical science could lead to the end. This is a very decent remake of The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959), which I also recommend. But cinematically, The Quiet Earth is far more pleasing. Being the third wheel is never going to be fun for anyone…but imagine if at the end of the world you found yourself in that position. For a more involved commentary on the apocalyptic problem of racism, you should probably watch the 1959 version. But The Quiet Earth will stick with you for a long time after viewing.
An incredible film that exceeds all expectations and outshines the 1956 original, and, I suspect, will still out-perform any future reboot (which I predict within 5 years). Some might argue for this film even appearing on a P-A films list, as it clearly follows a storyline set within the bounds of our contemporary global social order. And yet, spoiler alert, the film’s frightening trajectory and eventual shocking ending seem to me to resonate very closely with the Greek root meaning of the term Apocalypse (lit. an unveiling). The idea that the end of the world could reveal itself only after it is too late for us to prevent is something that I think is indeed possible if not likely. Research is revealing all the time after all, that preliminary conservative predictions about the gravity of the climate crisis are continually being overturned. I think that this film works best as an analogy for the dangers of human ineptitude and the presumption of our existential assurance and superiority as dominant species. This is science fiction at its best, and for those still grieving the loss of science fiction icon and all-around amazing human being Leonard Nimoy, you can enjoy him in his role as Dr. Kibner opposite Donald Sutherland’s Matthew in this film.
Yes, there is a post-apocalyptic film for children. WALL-E is a brilliant and biting critique of the folly of unchecked human consumerism and capitalism. We follow the titular, self-aware robot as he seeks companionship and a connection to nature on a planet ruined by greed. When WALL-E does encounter mankind, the depiction of our near-future selves might make you you feel an uncomfortable sense that if we do create AI, they certainly seem far likelier candidates to steward the earth into the next millennium. I think that this is a wonderful film and don’t think you or your children will be disappointed by its ultimately hopeful message. I highly recommend it for children 4 and up. After all, it is never too early to learn about the precarious balance between globalization and sustainability.
George R. Romero may have taken the horror world by storm with Night of The Living Dead (1968), but his follow-up film of ten years later, set in the same post-apocalyptic immediacy of a sudden zombie apocalypse, still reigns supreme as the most thoughtful, well balanced zombie film. Gory in the extreme (depending on which version you obtain), the film is nevertheless careful in its attention to exploring the more frightening and unpredictable human factor in chaotic scenarios. Set in an abandoned mall where the rag-tag collection of survivors seek to remake society in miniature, the film is still incredibly engrossing and thought provoking despite somehow coming across as more dated than 1968’s Night of The Living Dead. The film also immortalizes itself to me through Ken Foree’s knee-slappingly hilarious delivery of the line: “You never point a gun at anyone, mister.” The film received a very decent remake treatment by Zach Snyder in 2004, in which the primary difference is that the zombies all seem to somehow be off-season olympic runners.