The 15 Best Post-Apocalyptic Movies of All Time
Global pandemics seem to have a habit of making people think the worst about our future, and while things look to be getting better across the globe, most of our favorite stories don’t have quite as happy an ending…
Post-Apocalyptic movies have become a staple of our modern age. We love them and can’t get enough of that apocalyptic goodness. So, given the state of our world, we put together a list of the 15 best post-apocalyptic movies of all time.
1. Escape From New York (1981)
John Carpenter does it again! Escape From New York features a post-apocalyptic world in which the island of Manhattan has been converted into a maximum-security prison for all of the country’s criminals. Kurt Russell (the world’s greatest actor) stars as ex-soldier Snake Plissken, who, after Air Force One crashes onto the island, is given 24 hours to rescue the president from certain death or risk no pardon for his crimes.
This is one of those high-octane action movies that any self-respecting 80s action fan has no right not to have seen. Russell’s Snake is the obvious highlight of the film as he does what every great action hero does best, he kicks ass with little trouble. They even made a sequel set in Los Angeles called (you guessed it) Escape From L.A. in case you need a little more Plissken action.
2. The Road (2009)
We briefly mentioned this one on our 10 best movies based on books list, but The Road is one of the best post-apocalyptic movies out there. An intense father-son drama based on the book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy (which is excellent by the way), the flick stars Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Alpha) as characters known only as man and boy. We follow them as they travel to the coast hoping to find warmth there, all while avoiding gangs and cannibals.
The post-apocalyptic landscape of an extinct America is chilling, combined with the already intense survival story mixed with a heavy flashback (featuring Charlize Theron as the woman) to the beginnings of the apocalypse, The Road is an honest look at how the fight to survive might look in our modern world. If you’re looking for a romanticized view of the apocalypse, this isn’t it.
3. Mad Max Film Series (1979-2015)
After a nearly 30 year hiatus, Mad Max returned to the spotlight in 2015 with the post-apocalyptic masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, which not only wowed audiences and critics alike with its intense, high-octane road sequences (praised for using practical effects) but also the performances from its incredible cast, including Tom Hardy (Venom) as Max and Charlize Theron (Monster) as breakout character Furiosa. Fury Road is a true delight.
The Mad Max series began with the original film in 1979, back when Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon) played ex-cop Max Rockatansky. The indie film did so well that two sequels were made, The Road Warrior (also known as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior) in 1981, considered to be one of the greatest post-apocalyptic road movies ever made, and a third film, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. The Road Warrior is often cited as the inspiration for video games like Borderlands and RAGE.
4. The Book of Eli (2010)
One of the most powerful films of Denzel Washington’s career, The Book of Eli sees Washington (Fences) as the silent loner Eli as he wanders across a scorched America, facing cannibals, gangs, and everything in between. Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) plays the manipulative and on-edge Carnegie, the leader of a small town who desperately wants Eli’s sacred book so that he might have the power to control the masses.
The film is a stunning commentary on the power of faith and religion among desperate people, and the backdrop of a nuclear war seems to only enlighten the message. Atticus Ross’ aetherial score works wonders to compliment the film’s setting and themes, blending the eerie world with a more hopeful finish. Washington’s performance is powerful, and his mentorship with the young Solara (That 70s Show’s Mila Kunis) is a highlight of the film, making one wonder what happens next.
5. Snowpiercer (2014)
Before winning his Oscar for the comedy-thriller Parasite last year, Bong Joon-ho was most well known for his adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, entitled Snowpiercer. Set in an icy world where humanity failed to stop global warming via climate engineering, humanity’s last survivors live aboard a high-speed locomotive that travels across the globe.
Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame) plays Curtis Everett, the leader of the rebellion of the lower-class tail-section passengers. Everett and his group work to rebel against the elites who “live large” at the head of the train, fighting their way to the front. The unique premise of this film is what makes it worth the watch, and it’s basically the only post-apocalyptic film that specifically relates to climate change. It’s even been adapted recently to television (on TNT), with the third season set to premiere next year.
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6. I Am Legend (2007)
Probably one of Will Smith’s most iconic films, I Am Legend is based on the Richard Matheson novel of the same name. In it, Smith (Bad Boys, Independence Day) plays Dr. Robert Nevill, a former U.S. Army virologist who lost his family in a helicopter crash just after Manhattan was quarantined. Since then, he has spent all his time alone (well, except his dog), working on his own blood to find a cure for a disease he is immune to. Those who didn’t die have turned into vampiric, albino, cannibalistic mutants known as Darkseekers. These creatures are incredibly vulnerable to sunlight, making it the perfect time for Neville to roam free.
I Am Legend is an amazing movie. Its post-apocalyptic world, including the Darkseekers, feels full regardless of it being literally empty. Smith’s performance as Neville is one for the books and is both honest and exciting. Not to mention, the Darkseekers are a really interesting mix of zombies and vampires that will have you intrigued all the way through. Oh, and there’s also an alternate ending to the film that better matches the novel, and does tease a possible sequel.
7. 12 Monkeys (1995)
It’s 2035, and a lethal virus has wiped out over 5 million people on Earth (seems like a common theme, doesn’t it?), forcing the last remaining members of humanity to hide underground. Sounds like just about every other post-apocalyptic film on this list doesn’t it? Well, wait, because in this one Bruce Willis (Die Hard), aka James Cole, is sent back in time (to the 90s) to help scientists find a cure before the outbreak occurs.
Not only is this a post-apocalyptic film, but it’s a time travel one also. Madeleine Stowe (The General’s Daughter) and Brad Pitt (Se7en) also star, because of course Brad Pitt’s in this, it was the 90s. 12 Monkeys is a weird, yet interesting take on the apocalypse that is often overlooked, yet loved enough for SyFy to adapt the film as a four season series. If you like the film, go check that out next!
8. Planet of the Apes film series (1968-2017)
Now, to be clear, we’re specifically talking about the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and the two most recent reboots; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). The original classic (loosely based on the French novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle) features Charleton Heston (The Ten Commandments) as US astronaut George Taylor as he finds his way to a mysterious planet ruled by apes. In the spirit of not spoiling anything, we won’t say anymore, other than that it’s still a classic for a reason.
Dawn and War, which both take place in our world in the wake of a virus that makes apes sentient and slowly dulls humans to submission, are headlined by Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) who plays Caesar, the leader of the apes, in a stellar performance that rivals his portrayal of Gollum. These additions modernize the Apes concept and add a sympathetic element to the apes that had been missing in the original, not to mention still including enough human interaction that we’re left wondering how we might respond to an ape-ruled world.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Originally developed as a standalone film, 10 Cloverfield Lane ended up becoming a spiritual successor to the 2008 found-footage film Cloverfield, set during an attack on New York by some sort of “large-scale aggressor.” This film features Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) as Michelle, a young woman taken to a mysterious bunker to escape some sort of attack on the surface.
The film plays more like a psychological thriller than your traditional post-apocalyptic narrative, showing the slow mental breakdown of Howard Stambler, played masterfully by John Goodman (Monsters, Inc.). With every new twist and turn, there’s constantly a reason to be on edge. It’s a terrifying look at what it’s like to fall in with the wrong people during the worst of times.
10. The Omega Man (1971)
The second adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (but long before the Will Smith feature), The Omega Man (often stylized as The Ωmega Man) is a very different adaptation than Smith’s version. Another post-apocalyptic film starring Planet of the Apes’ Charleton Heston, this film trades the viral outbreak for biological warfare and the Darkseekers for “the Family,” a cult of albino mutants.
A vastly different take on the source material than I Am Legend, The Omega Man’s overall message keeps much closer with the spirit of the book, while also adapting to the times (the biological warfare being the result of the then-urgent Sino-Soviet border conflict). What I Am Legend has in being flashy and action-packed, The Omega Man more than makes up for in theme and substance.
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11. 28 Days Later (2002)
When some genetic experiments go wrong, a deadly virus (known as “Rage”) is released out into the world. After a month, Jim (Peaky Blinders’ Cillian Murphy) wakes up from his coma to find all of London seemingly deserted (you know, like in all zombie movies)… Or is it? Like most zombie media, a small group of survivors does their best to make it to a fabled “safe zone.”
28 Days Later is a low-budget yet incredibly well-produced, bloody, and violent take on the zombie apocalypse that will leave you scared (like World War Z, but more up-close and personal). The film’s take on zombies is some of the scariest out there and its sequel 28 Weeks Later does just as good of a job creating a horrifying world in which “Rage” rules supreme (the escape scene alone brings real shivers to your spine).
12. Stalker (1979)
The only Soviet science-fiction art drama on this list, Andrei Tarkovski (more well-known for his films Mirror and Solaris) directed this gem loosely based on the book Roadside Picnic by screenwriters Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The film is led by Alexander Kaidanovsky (The Bodyguard) known only as the “Stalker,” as he leads a depressed writer and a hungry professor into the irradiated “Zone” (and no, it’s not The Twilight Zone).
The interesting thing about Stalker is its unique take on this semi-Chernobyl-inspired post-apocalyptic world. Fear of alien life, and the inclusion of these “stalking” scavengers, bring a real-worldness to this Soviet tale, while also doubling as a parable; a warning about the dangers of selfishness and greed.
13. Delicatessen (1991)
Another French tale, Delicatessen is a black comedy with a post-apocalyptic backdrop that’s a really weird take. In a world where food is scarce, an out-of-work circus clown named Louison, played by Outlander’s Dominique Pinon, finds work at a butcher’s shop, only to learn why the position was vacant in the first place.
Delicatessen is an odd one, but certainly earns its place on this list. Between Louison’s boyish charm, the mystery behind the meat (which you’ve probably guessed by now), or the oddly humorous consequences that follow, the film is certainly a hidden gem among most post-apocalyptic tales.
14. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Another black comedy film, and the “original” American post-apocalyptic tale (based on a novella by Psycho scribe Harlan Ellison), the film follows a teenage boy named Vic, played by Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, and his telepathic dog, Blood, voiced by Tim McIntire (American Hot Wax). The two wander through the wasteland that is the American southwest, doing all they can to survive.
It’s a classic tale of wasteland survival but earns its rightful place on this list due to the odd plotline in which Vic is lead to an underground community where they, get this, want to use him as a sex slave to impregnate at least 35 different women before being sent to “the farm,” where most are never heard from again. A Boy and His Dog is one of the more interesting takes on the genre and is one you won’t easily forget.
15. Terminator Salvation (2009)
While not the best film in the Terminator saga (that belongs to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, so go watch that first!), Terminator Salvation is the only film in the series to exclusively take place post-Judgement Day, and it’s actually not as bad as some people might think. In a world where Skynet, an artificial intelligence activated by the U.S. government, decided that the best way to protect humanity was to eradicate it, Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) stars as the prophesied leader of the human Resistance: John Connor.
This action-packed film (also starring Avatar’s Sam Worthington) features a ton of man-on-machine action, a spicy love story (especially if you watch the Director’s Cut), and plenty of Terminator action that will get you ready to throw your smartphone out the window before it tries to take your head off. If you’re a Terminator fan, or at the very least a fan of many of the post-apocalyptic tales above, Terminator Salvation is a fine addition to this list.
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