As far as post-apocalyptic scenarios go, Z for Zachariah’s environment doesn’t look half bad. Relative comfort, seemingly enough food, and Margot Robbie as your cabin-mate. Compared to most end-of-the-world imaginings, Z’s sounds pretty good. It’s definitely better odds than facing SkyNet in all its human-stomping glory. Or Zombies, for that matter. Or cannibals. Or cannibal zombies!
But is any one post-apocalyptic nightmare scarier than another? Or are they all similarly terrifying? Well, we didn’t go so far as to try and definitively answer that question. But we did pick ten of the scariest movies in the popular genre. All these films will leave a mark on your psyche in their own devastating way. But one thing they all have in common is that, at root, these are survival tales. In all these films, the protagonists are living off scraps of the world they used to know. And most are left wondering if survival is actually a good thing in such a world.
Here is Screen Rant’s list of 10 Scariest Post-Apocalyptic Scenarios!
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The first impression of this franchise’s well-developed post-apocalyptic environment is enough to merit listing. If a man as gloriously enabled as Charlton Heston can be enslaved by damn dirty apes, then where would that leave the rest of us? Slavery, regardless of the taskmaster, is a lousy proposition. But being enslaved by something you used to watch at the zoo is not only lousy, it’s also ironic. A future that’s so painfully ironic has to be tough.
And it doesn’t get much better in Matt Reeves’s reboot (let’s just act like Tim Burton never touched this franchise), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. On the off-hand that you do survive the man-eating Simian-flu that’s been wiping out most everyone you’ve ever known, you then get to deal with marauding apes with machine guns. On horseback. Worse, they are more numerous, more organized, more intelligent and maybe even more civilized than you. Oh, and most of them want you locked up, if not dead. Just another day in the post-apocalyptic zoo that earth has become.
28 Days Later (2002)
This world – so viscerally created by writer Alex Gardner and director Danny Boyle – is in dire straits because of humankind itself. Which we get. In most of these post-apocalyptic scenarios, it’s usually humankind’s fault in some way, shape, or nuclear form. But the Rage Virus was created by man for the greater good: in order to wipe out conflict. And then it nearly wiped out man. Usually when man destroys humanity, it’s a mere inevitability, the result of failing to see his own sloppy writing on the wall: the environment finally gives out, or the bombs finally start falling. But in 28 Days Later, the virus was created to end conflict. And the people who unleashed it were trying to save the world, not destroy it. That’s twisted.
But beyond that, the terror really starts to take hold when Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital bed, only to discover he’s all alone. Really, scarily alone. And when he does find others, he quickly learns to miss being alone. As with many other post-apocalyptic scenarios, the terror of the world drives survivors to do sick things in the name of survival. It makes the world all the more terrifying, to think about the utter lack of humanity one must display in order to remain a part of humanity.
The Road (2009)
Of all the post-apocalyptic scenarios in film, The Road is probably the most realistic, especially if we are dealing with a doomsday scenario. Fortunately, we don’t know that for sure, but Cormac McCarthy, whose book the film is based on, does his research. So if you’re the kind of person who is more scared of reality than fiction, than this is easily the most terrifying tale of the bunch. Like no other film, The Road will make you appreciate the simple things in life, namely food and sunshine.
That the film isn’t even half as chilling as McCarthy’s novel, or half as illuminating, is a testament to one of the world’s greatest living writers. The film takes you there. And scares you good, so it deserves to be on this list. But the book keeps you there. Makes you stare within. Changes the way you look at your kin. For his post-apocalyptic nightmare, McCarthy stripped his prose bare, leaving only the most necessary of words in a kind of archaic faux-biblical style, which inevitably leads your mind to stray, to wonder what you would do to protect your loved ones from being part of the slaughter, picked away by the hunger of deranged cannibals.
The Walking Dead (2010 – )
Whatever happened to Rick (Andrew Lincoln) between getting shot and waking up in an abandoned, zombie-infested hospital, it changed the world. And Rick woke up too late to stop it. We should get a much better idea of what went wrong when Fear the Walking Dead premieres. But for this list, we’re more concerned with surviving in a wasted world then about how the world got so wasted. And in sheriff deputy Rick Grime’s post-apocalyptic world, it’s survival at all costs. With six seasons to do so, survival is more terrifyingly explored, and fully realized, than perhaps any post-apocalyptic world.
In that time, we’ve seen enough of the “walkers” to know we don’t want to be their next meal; getting eaten alive by a former human does seem like a gory affair. And we’re quite certain we wouldn’t want to become one of the inhuman eaters. But in The Walking Dead, it’s not just the walkers, it’s everyone. Again, the world is such that survivors have just as much to fear from each other as they do from the infected. Again, we see the might makes right theme at play. Fortunately for the rest of the survivors, Grimes is not only mighty, he’s righteous as well.
I Am Legend (2007)
In cult favorite The Omega Man – an earlier film based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend – Charlton Heston wields a whole lot of guns that he uses to kill off technology-hating mutant cult members. And I Am Legend is scarier than that. Mostly because the 2007 film just isn’t as, well, ‘70s. Still, both films are haunting affairs that speak to the desperate loneliness of being the last man on earth, and knowing that you are not alone.
In both films, the infected, those lucky souls who are immune from the population-devastating disease, are transformed by it, mutated. Where once they were human, they have become something else. In I Am Legend, they’re called the Darkseekers, and they are far scarier than the nearly comical cult members of The Omega Man‘s The Family. In I Am Legend, the dogs are infected too. Of all the terrible things people are driven to do in these films, Will Smith’s dog day is by far the worst.
(Still, if we’re being honest here, Smith’s second post-apocalyptic go, After Earth, is technically a more frightening environment than most on this list – the earth has literally evolved to kill mankind. But come on, you guys would have skewered us for including that on this list.)
What if we actually created such a problem with global warming that our only solution accidentally created another ice age? That’s the question asked in Snowpiercer, which imagines the Earth as ball of frozen matter, too cold to support life
This is the issue for the last few survivors on earth, who are all relegated to the Snowpiercer train, which must remain in constant motion around the earth or else risk freezing. Whether you’re on the front of the train – where the bourgeoisie live in comfort and luxury – or the back – with the cold, overworked, underfed underclass – with leaders as twisted as Ed Harris’s Wilford and Tilda Swinton’s Mason, you’ll never feel all that warm and fuzzy. Still, you’d rather be at the front of the train, because poverty, despair, and claustrophobia is no way to live. Even if it does seem like a better alternative than the great frozen outdoors.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Perhaps it’s more weird than anything, but that’s why this apocalyptic scenario is more frightening than most. In a world where weird rules, sanity loses. Of course it’s Monty Python vet Terry Gilliam dialing up the crazy in this one, and if you’ve seen Brazil and The Fisher King, you know he can get pretty weird. But 12 Monkeys seems even darker than those, perhaps because of the alarming scenario he envisions will be our future doom.
Because of a devastating disease released by a terrorist, whose goal is to push the reset button on civilization, all the survivors are relegated to life underground. Not just life, but weird life, where you’re forced to put up with poking, prodding, and crazy-eyed Brad-Pitt-ing. The dental work alone is enough to terrify you. It’s a future where the powers that be really enjoy messing with people’s heads. You have to eat spiders. And people can’t get their darn years straight. Scary stuff.
Mad Max (1978)
Speaking of crazy, things don’t get much more restless than they do in this Australian wasteland, regardless of which George Miller story you’re watching. Whether it’s the original trilogy or the instant classic Mad Max: Fury Road, the terrifying factor is similar, even if it’s more vibrant, well-paced and has the craziest of crazies in the latest installment. This opening line from Road Warrior pretty much sums it up: “Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive.” Law and order takes a back seat to the rule of terror, which is perpetuated by the maniacal, the unhinged, and the weirdly dressed.
There’s also the sheer dearth of material goods that’s worrisome. The utter lack of gas, resources, and food. But even with a scarcity of juice, the roads still seem to be filled with whack jobs with dangerously twisted senses of humor and strange taste in vehicles and fashion.
The Terminator (1984)
Remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger was really freaking scary? Probably not, but in 1984, the future Governator was a walking muscle machine, and a self-aware one, bent on killing humans – programmed and created to do so, sent back in time to do so. And though we don’t see much of the post-apocalyptic environment in the first Terminator, it’s Schwarzenegger that made that future so terrifying in the rest of the films, including the latest, Terminator: Genisys.
The future’s least scary Terminator is the T-800, which is terrifying in and of itself. And that slow-walking, cold-blooded seed is planted in the very beginning of the franchise. We carry that fear with us throughout all the films, where we actually spend lots of time in a very chilling future, where there is a network of computers trying to eliminate humanity. And those computers have created machines far worse than the T-800 to help facilitate the matter.
The Matrix (1999)
Many future stories involve fascist, authoritarian Big Brothers who run the world, but the fascists in The Matrix aren’t even human. They’re computer programs granted unlimited power within the real-life simulator that is The Matrix. Though they technically are the law, these Agents aren’t exactly serving and protecting the people. Although most people are too busy providing energy for the machines in the “real world” to really notice.
Beyond dystopic, The Matrix has the added scare of being post-apocalyptic, though most people aren’t even aware that life is completely different, and that they are now a battery. The idea of being born to power a cog in the machine is awful. When the machine is actually sentient, that’s even more alarming. Yet, it seems better than the truth: a world where the sky is scorched, you lose all your fancy clothes, and you realize there are giant mechanical protozoa trying to destroy humanity. And then you have to accept that Keanu Reeves is your one true hope.
Regardless of what causes it, the end of the world continues to fascinate. Be it a nuclear holocaust or a zombie takeover, it matters not. Just the end of life as we know it gives us all we need to chew on. Makes us question our own humanity, and hopefully appreciate it. Because of this fascination, Hollywood continues to revisit such fertile ground – well, nuclear winter doesn’t exactly make the crops grow, but you get it. As such, there’s plenty of post-apocalyptic movies to choose from. And they’re all pretty much scary, at least on a philosophical level. So if you feel like we’ve missed a few, please chime in with your own nominations down in the comments!