On Wikipedia the apocalypse is defined thusly: “An apocalypse [...] is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception, i.e. the veil to be lifted.” By this definition a post-apocalyptic world is the one after the veil has been lifted.

But to most the apocalypse simply means the end of the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean the earth exploding or anything like that, just the end of the world as we know it. An apocalypse can come in many forms: Nuclear holocaust, plagues, too much pollution, scientific experiments gone wrong. Post-apocalyptic movies depict worlds in which men have to start over, they have to rethink their way of life. What comes first to mind is simply the act of surviving, just like for cave men. There’s no more internet or 3D IMAX theatres, just finding ways of lasting out the day. Finding food and shelter and other people. The post-apocalyptic world is a ugly place, sometimes lonely and usually very dangerous. The veil has been lifted to reveal the true ugliness of the world.

Post-apocalyptic movies often depicts the fears of their time very well. In the cold war era they were metaphors for Communist invasions and nuclear holocausts but more recently they’re metaphors for disease outbreaks or natural disasters, not to mention famine and genocide. Our worst fears come alive in these films. Oh, and the apocalypse often involves some sort of shopping spree. At least in the movies.

A painting-like picture from Quiet Earth, with a planet and rings on the horizon

In the year of 2012, and in a Filmophilia sci-fi month, it’s fitting to celebrate the best films that depict post-apocalyptic worlds in one way or another.

10 – 28 Days Later

This is the movie that introuduced the world to rage zombies. At first it’s an “alone in the universe” movie that then turns into a on-the-run-from-rage-zombies movie, with a brief “shopping spree” interlude (echoes of Dawn of the Dead, anyone?). But then the army gets involved and things get even weirder. But one of the soldiers sums things up pretty well: “It’s just people killing other people” as it has always been. The film is full of clever little bits like having our heroes living off soft drinks and candy in the beginning. It’s really quite a moralistic zombie film but it also offers hope. The DV photography is often ugly but there’s kind of a point to it as it echoes the ugly world the film’s set in.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eunaclr-WgU]

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9 – Dawn of the Dead(2004)

This remake of the Romero classic is almost as good the original and, in fact, better in some ways (certainly better acted). But it’s also slicker, broader and dumber and thus not as powerful. But it’s undeniably very entertaining and clever and the opening scene packs a punch. Also the first post-28 Days Later movie to have rage zombies. It’s a pity Zach Snyder hasn’t lived up to this debut of his (Watchmencoasted on the quality of the source material and sorry folks, but 300ain’t all that). I guess it’s largely James Gunn’s script to thank this film works so well.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LUzJAsa-gg]

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8 – The Time Machine(1960)

Not exactly the first movie you’d think of when you think “post-apocalyptic” but he does travel to a future which is the result of a nuclear holocaust, a future in which humanity starts again but has turned into brainless slaves who don’t even read books! (They have books, but they fall apart when you touch them). This film was made at the start of the cold war and the fear of the apocalypse shines through. The Morlocks can be seen as a metaphor for a communist regime, a world where everyone is a slave and no one can read! Word of advise: Beware the awful remake, even though it stars Guy Pearce.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9miqKm0aB0]

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7 – The Quiet Earth

In this chilling New Zealand-made film a man wakes up to find himself alone in the universe, the apocalypse this time caused by a scientific experiment gone awry. But is he really alone? The film does many terrific things with the premise, like allowing its hero to do really weird stuff like put on a dress and calling himself the president of the world. He later stumbles onto another survivor, a woman, who describes the scientific experiment as an “All male club playing God with the universe.” One of the characters asks the question of the survivors maybe just being dead, maybe they’re just ghosts. Is living in a postapocalyptic world a metaphor for being dead, for being a ghost and/or living in limbo?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdHoYtBzdX0]

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6 – Dawn of the Dead(1978)

The zombies have taken over the world! But who is the real zombie? In a world full of zombies a group of people hide themselves in an abandoned shopping mall. But eventually they turn into zombified consumers in a memorable scene in which they try on all the products of the mall, clothing and otherwise. This movie is not so much about the fight for survival, or even how we’ve all turned into zombified consumers, as much as it is about what it is that makes us human. It’s also just creepy as hell and fucking bleak.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpuNE1cX03c]

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5 – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

This can be described as Dirty Harry in a post apocalyptic world. Mad Max has lost everything but he still fights the good fight, it’s all he can do in this rotten world. This film features car chases that are still among the most intense ever put on film. It also depicts one of the bleaker futures ever put on film, a barren wasteland where no one is safe and the bad guys wear S&M suits.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBrAh3OyYnI]

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4 – Delicatessen

This movie is set in an post-apocalyptic world we don’t really see much of. But we don’t need to it as it’s all there in the apartment building the main characters inhabit. This is a world so grim people are forced to cannibalism and living underground. But it’s also funny as hell, in a very black and bleak manner. This film introduced the world to the genius of Jeunet & Caro (Though Caro later bowed out of their filmmaking union).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wkjouoGPkc]

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3 – Planet of the Apes (1968)

Sure, the film’s a bit dated and cheesy at times on the surface, but its power still remains as this is one of the most chilling tales of our times. An aura of doom and gloom permeates throughout the film and the ending sticks with you long after. I guess we all know the ending by now but it’s effect still holds today, 40 years later. In the beginning Heston ponders,“does man still make war” in the future. In this future man certainly has made war and all but eliminated himself, with everything going backwards! The movie can be seen as commentary on racism, an especially timely and sensitive subject back in ’68 but still relevant today.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pB74Wxp8BWw]

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2 – Wall-E

Pixar’s masterpiece is a cautionary tale about treating the environment without being preachy that’s also a beautiful, and near-silent, robotic love story. It’s visually sumptuous with the background often looking like incredibly real without ever reaching the uncanny valley. It’s a tale of warning for all of us but it also shows that even when everything has gone to shit there’s always hope, and love.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alIq_wG9FNk]

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1 – 12 Monkeys

Even though most of this movie is set in an pre-apocalypse period, the framing device is a time after the apocalypse. Fewer films have managed to evoke an atmosphere of doom without showing very much of it like this one. Twelve Monkeys is a film that works on multiple levels. It’s a tale of doom, it’s a allegory about the nature of reality (What is real? Etc.), it’s a thriller and it’s love story. It’s superbly directed, brilliantly designed and magnificently acted. It’s exciting, mysterious, beautiful and even funny. It’s a movie that holds up on multiple viewings as each viewing reveals a new facet. Is all of it happening in Cole’s head? Does it matter? We don’t need to see much of the apocalypse as we feel it throughout. The real apocalypse might be in our heads.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15s4Y9ffW_o]

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Special Mention: A Boy & His Dog

This one may not be quite as great as the ten above but it’s truly a unique and wonderfully weird film and thus deserves to be mentioned here. In this film a young Don Johnson wanders around a desolate wasteland, accompanied by a talking dog named Blood! It’s a decidedly un-PC film set in a world where our hero has no serious qualms about raping a woman, very much a dog-eat-dog kind of world. The tone is immediately set in the beginning with an opening crawl that says “World War IV lasted five days. Politicians had finally solved the problem of urban blight.” The films tagline, “rather kinky tale of survival”, also says a lot. This film has aged considerably better than many 70s sci-fi films as there are hardly any pastel colors or hippie hairdos, it certainly feels more timeless than something like Logan’s Run.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkJV19sxKgc]

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Other noteworthy post-apocalyptic films: Children of Men, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, Le Dernier Combat, I Am Legend, Mad Max, Zombieland, Land of the Dead, Stalker, Death Race 2000

What films would you put on this list? Share it with us in the comments!

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  • http://jammymonkey.wordpress.com jammymonkey

    Good list, thanks for putting it together! Given how much I love post-apocalyptic fiction, it is crazy that I haven’t seen Mad Max 2 or Dawn of the Dead. I will try to watch both soon. And thanks for bringing Quiet Earth to my attention – hadn’t heard of that one,.

    Oh, and you should totally have included The Road, certainly the purest post-apocalyptic story put on film.

  • Sverrir

    Fantastic list, Delicatessen is such an amazingly absurd film, love it to pieces. 12 Monkeys, of course, is also brilliant.

  • http://prawnandquartered.wordpress.com Howlin’ Mad Heather

    12 Monkeys kicks ass! Great choice! I’d also add an honorable mention to the miniseries of Stephen King’s ‘The Stand.’ Despite its flaws it’s very enjoyable.

    • http://jammymonkey.wordpress.com jammymonkey

      Good call on The Stand! I have fond memories of that mini-series and am looking forward to the Ben Afleck-directed movie that will be coming out next year sometime.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/hoskuldurk Höskuldur Ketilsson

    Cool list, although i actually think The Quiet Earth is a metaphor for a boring movie…I would put Postman or Waterworld instead :)

  • Benson

    Where is I Am Legend?

    • atlisig

      It’s on the honourable mention list. I thought it was good but not quite great.

  • http://jenniferkizzy@aol.com jennifer

    this is awesome i saw melancholia and boy it scared the crap out of me not afraid of it but whoa make’s you think in a good way bye

  • Phil M.

    Wall-E is a cutesie cartoon and 28 days later was about an apocalypse in the UK only. Does nobody like the Road? Better than Wall-E.

    • Sverrir Sigfusson

      I liked The Road, a lot. But I also really liked the other two.

  • http://twitter.com/davoz28 davoz28 (@davoz28)

    If Zombieland is an honorable mention then the Resident Evil Series has to be before it lol. Also, The Blob (1958).

    • Sverrir Sigfusson

      Zombieland is so wildly superior to the Resident Evil series it practically gives me a nose bleed.

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