While dystopian movies deal with a society gone wrong, post-apocalyptic movies take place in a world where society has ended. In one way, the concept is actually quite optimistic, as it presumes that no matter how the world ends, someone will survive to keep mankind going.
In recent years, zombies have been particularly popular instigators of the apocalypse, which already earned them an entire Screen Rant list. But there’s plenty of other scary, satirical, sad or silly depictions of our world after the end.
So grab your Geiger counters and sawed-off shotguns and get ready to explore our list of 14 Best Post-Apocalyptic Movies.
14. The Omega Man (1971)
The Omega Man offers the unique spectacle of Charlton Heston fighting vampire hippies. Heston plays Robert Neville, a US Army doctor who discovered a cure for the terrifying global plague far too late to save anyone but himself. Five years later, Neville is the only human being in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean he’s alone. Each night, he is besieged by fanatical Jonathan Matthias (Anthony Zerbe) and his Family – a cult of nocturnal albinos mutated by the plague.
It could be claimed that the whole concept of zombie apocalypse originated with Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, even if his monsters were far more similar to vampires. There are at least two other adaptations of Matheson’s novel – Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and I Am Legend starring Will Smith – but it’s The Omega Man that is the most entertaining one, with its square-jawed hero battling villains embodying the worst fears about the 1960s counter-culture.
13. Zardoz (1974)
The Gun is good! The Penis is evil! The Penis shoots Seeds! So proclaims the giant levitating stone head at the beginning of Zardoz – one of the craziest sci-fi movies ever. Set in a post-apocalyptic world of 2293, Zardoz follows a barbarian named Zed, played by Sean Connery dressed in latex underwear and a braided ponytail. Zed discovers a hidden society of immortal humans hiding from the remains of mankind. While immortal Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) urges Zed’s destruction, others want to examine this virile savage. This will prove to be their undoing.
Made in 1974 as an Irish-American co-production, Zardoz was a passion project of the acclaimed filmmaker John Boorman, known for such movies as Point Blank (1967), Deliverance (1972) and Excalibur (1981). Zardoz is one of those rare movies that can be easily watched both as a cult sci-fi film and so-bad-it’s-good entertainment.
12. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
A provocative, off-beat dark comedy, A Boy and His Dog follows an amoral sex-crazed teenager named Vic (Don Johnson – before his Miami Vice fame) and his grouchy telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire). Together they avoid marauders, crazed robots and glowing radioactive mutants. While scavenging their way across whatever remained of the southwestern United States, this duo meets Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) who leads them to a hidden community re-creating a mockery of pre-war USA in a giant underground biosphere.
Based on a novella by the acclaimed writer Harlan Ellison, A Boy and His Dog was directed by the veteran Hollywood actor L. Q. Jones. The movie was a commercial failure but, over time, became something of a cult classic. According to Jesse Heinig, a designer who worked on the 1997 game Fallout, A Boy and His Dog was one of the inspirations behind this classic computer RPG.
11. On the Beach (1959)
Based on the 1957 post-apocalyptic novel written by Nevil Shute, 1959 movie On the Beach offers a dour look into a worst fear of the Cold War era: a global thermonuclear war. Its story takes place in Australia, the only remaining country after World War III devastates the entire Northern Hemisphere. As radiation clouds slowly but surely spread across the planet, US Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) leaves his girlfriend Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) to sail back to USA, looking for possible survivors.
On the Beach was directed by the American filmmaker Stanley Kramer (High Noon, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg). Somewhat didactic, his film offers a chilling glimpse into lives of people who know that our entire species will soon die out. As radiation spreads south and the society of Australia begins to unravel, the government starts offering free euthanasia to all citizens who want to avoid slow and painful death from radiation poisoning. On the Beach is far from an entertaining watch, but then again, nobody said that the apocalypse would be fun.
10. Time of the Wolf (2003)
Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke doesn’t pull punches in his movies, as anyone who watched his Funny Games can attest. While most of the titles on this list are escapist fantasies, Time of the Wolf offers an unflinching look at the cruel human drama in a rapidly-collapsing society.
The film follows Georges (Daniel Duval) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) Laurent and their children as they flee the city from an unspecified disaster. But countryside proves equally dangerous, with villagers looking only for themselves and robbers taking all of Laurents’ possessions. The exact nature of the apocalypse is left deliberately vague: the viewer knows only that most of the water and food is toxic. Survivors start gathering at the old train station, hoping for some sort of rescue. Instead, as time goes on, they slowly descend to their most basic, savage selves.
9. Doomsday (2008)
In the near future, entire Scotland got walled off into a giant quarantine zone after a deadly plague ravaged its population. Thirty years later, there’s a new outbreak of the pandemic in England. The only hope for a cure may lie with the survivors inside the quarantine. Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is sent there to find Dr. Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell) who worked on a vaccine for this deadly disease. However, the ruins of Scotland are populated by the cannibalistic marauders led by Sol (Craig Conway).
If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Neil Marshal’s Doomsday is a fun mix of action and horror, but isn’t nearly as good as the classics that so obviously inspired it: most of all George Miller’s Mad Max and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Released in 2008, Doomsday received mixed reviews and was a commercial failure.
8. Turbo Kid (2015)
Turbo Kid fells like a feverish fantasy of a 10-year-old who spent way too much time watching Mad Max and BMX Bandits. The hero of this post-apocalyptic adventure is The Kid (Munro Chambers), a teenager struggling to survive in the ruins of the alternate 1997. The perpetually-dry Wasteland is ruled over by the sadistic overlord Zeus (Michael Ironside) who liquidates – Literally! – his enemies. With a help of the mysterious girl named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf ), The Kid will face Zeus and his BMX-riding henchmen led by fearsome Skeletron (Edwin Wright).
Turbo Kid is a nostalgic, albeit surprisingly gory, spoof of the weird and wonderful detritus of the 1980s pop culture: from bad synth-pop music to Michael Ironside and BMX bikes. Written and directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, Turbo Kid was filmed as a Canadian-New Zealand co-production. It premiered on 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was released in August of the same year.
7. The Book of Eli (2010)
Set some thirty years after a global thermonuclear war, The Book of Eli follows its titular character (Denzel Washington) as he travels across the remains of USA, carrying with him a rare and valuable book. Eli arrives in a small desert town ruled over by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a wannabe dictator who takes a great interest in this newcomer. But Eli won’t be taken prisoner and begins a battle with Carnegie and his goons, even as he befriends the local girl Solara (Mila Kunis).
Book of Eli was directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, who previously worked on films such as Dead Presidents (1995) and From Hell (2001). It is inspired not only by other post-apocalyptic movies but also with classic Westerns and Japanese movies about Zatoichi the swordsman. And if the final twist of the film is somewhat obvious, Book of Eli more than compensates for this with a great sense of style and fine performances from its actors.
6. WAll-E (2008)
WALL-E proves that Pixar can turn even a post-apocalyptic story into a charming family adventure. After decades of unbridled consumerism encouraged by the mega-corporation Buy’n’Large, humans have left the planet on the starship Axiom. The only denizen on this poisoned planet is WALL-E (voiced by Ben Burtt), a tiny robot dutifully collecting mountains of garbage. His daily routine changes after the arrival of EVE (voiced by Elissa Knight), a robot probe sent to check if the Earth can become habitable for humans again.
Before he wrote and directed WALL-E, Andrew Stanton worked on several Pixar animated films, including A Bug’s Life (1998), Finding Nemo (2003) and all three Toy Story films. Released in 2008, WALL-E is a critically acclaimed film that earned more than $500 million at the global box office. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
5. The Road (2009)
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy, The Road is a post-apocalyptic drama directed by John Hillcoat. The film follows unnamed man (played by Viggo Mortensen) as he struggles to survive and protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) after the unknown disaster destroyed the world. In a wasteland where animals are gone and all plant life is dying, roving gangs of marauders have turned to the most obvious source of food – other survivors.
The Road offers a dark and melancholy vision of people struggling to preserve at least some shred of their humanity by helping their loved ones even as they all slowly succumb to a global catastrophe. With its bleak and harrowing story, The Road was far from a box office success, but it was precisely this courage to tackle on such difficult themes that brought it mostly positive reviews.
4. Stalker (1979)
Russian sci-fi art film Stalker has a dubious honor of being the only title on this list that, in a way, actually came true. Its story takes place in a devastated industrial landscape known simply as the Zone. An expert guide called Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) leads the melancholic Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and a Professor (Nikolai Grinko) through the dangers of the seemingly sentient Zone to a hidden room that fulfills people’s deepest wishes.
Stalker was directed by the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris). Its screenplay was written by sci-fi writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, based on their novel Roadside Picnic. Widely considered a cinematic classic, Stalker came to terrifying life after the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Soviet authorities evacuated entire population from the so-called “Zone of Alienation,” leaving behind landscape not unlike the one in the movie. In 2007, Ukranian game developers created popular open world first person shooter S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, drawing inspiration from Stalker, Roadside Picnic and the Chernobyl disaster.
3. Escape From New York (1981)
In a not-too-distant future of 1997, USA has become a police state. The ruins of New York have been turned into a giant prison isolated from the mainland with mine fields and a huge wall. But after the President (Donald Pleasance) crash lands on Manhattan, he’s taken hostage by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) who wants the government to release all the inmates. It’s up to Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), himself a convicted criminal, to save President’s life… or die trying.
Although Escape From New York is set in a dystopian fascist regime, you could never tell from the look of it. With its desolate streets and derelict buildings populated by lunatics and street gangs, Escape From New York feels like an urban version of Mad Max. John Carpenter filmed this sci-fi film for mere $6 million, but the movie proved a commercial success and inspired a host of other creators, from cyberpunk writer William Gibson to English filmmaker Neil Marshall.
2. Planet of the Apes (1968)
“Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” Even if he had accomplished nothing else in his long and successful film career, this line by Charlton Heston would grant him cinematic immortality. In Planet of the Apes, Heston plays George Taylor, an American astronaut stranded on a world where apes developed a primitive civilization while the barbaric human beings live like animals. With a screenplay co-written by the Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, you just know there’s a twist coming. The final reveal in Planet of the Apes turns it from a political satire into a post-apocalyptic film, firmly cementing its status as one of the classic sci-fi movies.
Planet of the Apes was based on a satirical sci-fi novel La Planète des Singes by the French writer Pierre Boulle. When the novel was published in 1963, no one could have imagined that it would become a basis for a media franchise that – to this date – includes seven movies, two TV shows and a series of comic books.
1. Mad Max (1979) and its sequels
The alpha and omega of post-apocalyptic genre, George Miller’s 1979 film Mad Max takes place in Australian outback sometime in the near future. As the society around them crumbles into dust, the only defence of common people against the terror of biker gangs is Main Force Patrol. One of the best officers in this underpaid and understaffed highway patrol is Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). Max only wants to retire, but vows revenge after a gang led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) kills his family.
Once again, we have a title on this list that might easily be considered a dystopian film. But Miller’s story of crazed bikers and car-fetishists plaguing the ravaged desert landscape became a hugely influential vision of post-apocalypse. Miller developed his world further in sequels The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and the last year’s amazing Mad Max Fury Road. Each of these films could’ve been easily placed at the top of this list.
See them. See them all.
Can you think of any other post-apocalyptic movies that deserve a place on this list? Let us know in the comments!