BMD Picks: Our Favorite Post Apocalyptic Motion Pictures

It's the end of the world as the BMD gang knows it (and we feel fine).

There's a distinction to be made here while the R.E.M. dies down in the background - dystopian movies deal with a society gone mad (or wrong), while post-apocalyptic movies take place in a world where society has ended (usually due to a catastrophic event) and is sometimes rebuilding itself in primitive forms. From a "glass half-full" perspective, there's some optimism contained inside the otherwise bleak narrative concept: these tales presume that no matter how the world ends (fire, rain, pestilence), someone will survive to keep mankind going.

With Trump threatening nuclear annihilation on Twitter and fake missile scares going off in Hawaii, we here at BMD have been thinking about the end of the world a bunch lately, and decided to put together a list of our favorite post-apocalyptic motion pictures. There was one rule, though: no zombies (at least in the Romero sense). We wanted to bring you a walking dead-free guide to how we keep going after the bombs have dropped and the food ran out...

Dredd [2012] (d. Pete Travis, w. Alex Garland) 

When it comes to post-apocalyptic films, Dredd is really small potatoes compared to big dogs like Mad Max or Planet of the Apes. It’s a small film, one that trades most of its world-building efforts for a no-frills story in a contained apartment building, trusting that its opening scenes convey its Mega-City One points well enough that it can get right to the business of being a great action film.

It might not have worked without Karl Urban, who manages to communicate everything we need to know about Judge Dredd using only the bottom half of his face (you have to love the film’s refusal to show us Dredd without his mask). Perfectly in concert with the movie as a whole, Urban’s Dredd is simple and effective and gets the job done. Most films at this level lack the spectacle such a story needs or overcompensates with cheap effects. Dredd knows exactly what it is and perfectly modulates its story to fit those ambitions in a way most films aren’t allowed to, and I adore it more each time I see it. - Evan Saathoff

Contagion [2011] (d. Steven Soderbergh, w. Scott Z. Burns) 

I think about the end of the world a lot, and lately my apocalyptic daydreams have been more frequent than ever. Call me paranoid if you must, but it honestly feels like we're closer to an honest-to-god apocalypse than ever before. In terms of the method of our destruction, "Nuclear Exchange" feels like the most likely outcome (especially with our Toddler-In-Chief manning the controls), but I would also submit to you that "Previously Undiscovered (And Wildly Fatal) Superdisease" has to be running a close second. 

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion explores such a scenario in exhaustive detail. The film uses the same hyperlinked structure Soderbergh employed in Traffic, introducing us to a sprawling cast of characters before showing us how each of them play a role in bringing the world to its knees (and/or getting it back on track). Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns put an incredible amount of effort into researching the mechanics of a real-life global pandemic, and that research comes through loud and clear in his methodical, terrifying screenplay. Images of widespread death and destruction are alarming in their own ways, but Contagion's overwhelming plausibility has to be its most unnerving feature. 

Contagion scared the shit out of me when it arrived back in 2011. I wonder if it'd feel even scarier now. - Scott Wampler 

The Last Man On Earth [1964] (d. Ubaldo B. Ragona & Sidney Salkow, w. Richard Matheson, Ubaldo Ragona, William F. Leicester, Furio M. Monetti, Robert Fuest & Robert Blees)

When I was very young - maybe four or five years old - I was laid up on my grandma’s couch with a fever. It was one of those “in-and-out of consciousness” type fevers, and in my hazy state, I half-absorbed 1964’s The Last Man On Earth, the very first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. It was, perhaps, the perfect state in which to ingest the cheapie Italian co-production. Largely dubbed, bereft of any sort of Hollywood sheen (or even any Roger Corman-esque sheen - the film was almost verité in its stark, no-frills black & white presentation), the story of the last human survivor of a plague that’s turned the entire world into vampires was an absolute nightmare generator.

The film’s slim budget brushed it up against outsider art like Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead (Romero cited the film as an influence), and combined with my hallucinatory state the aesthetics nudged the whole affair into this sort of unsafe space. And that gave it a lasting effect: for months and years afterward, I had dreams about Morgan’s dying daughter, all quiet and blind under a mosquito net, her creepy ADR’d voice begging for help. I had nightmares about being the last person on the planet, and I can remember dreams in which I vividly felt the terrifying silence of the world ending all around me. Just saying, this did not happen with The Omega Man.

Is the movie any good? Admittedly, the power cited above might not be intact today, and I suspect much of the film’s contemporary watchability stems from its strange place in horror history - it’s an outlier for Vincent Price, who seldom got to play the protagonist in a horror story - and a setup that allows that charismatic star long scenes with no one to play against but himself. Nevertheless, the apocalyptic imagery of a silent city littered with cars and corpses informed much of the doomsday-adjacent films that followed it, as well as my aforementioned nightmares.

The Last Man On Earth was nearly impossible to find on tape and disc for many years - a home-recorded Night Flight airing was my go-to copy for over a decade - but somehow that added to its allure. There was no special edition to demystify it, no cleaned-up transfer to lay bare just how shoddy the production probably was. That battered VHS showed the film as I (half) remembered it, and I returned to it sparingly. It was as if someone had taped my fevered memory of the movie, and every time I put that VHS on, it took me right back to that death trip on my grandma’s couch. Today the MGM-released DVD sits on my shelf, unopened. - Phil Nobile, Jr.  

Deluge [1933] (d. Felix E. Feist, w. John F. Goodrich & Warren Duff) 

Deluge doesn’t fuck around when it comes to destroying the world. Unlike most doomsday films, it leaps straight into the carnage, its first act entirely devoted to wrecking an immaculate, large-scale model of New York City via tsunamis and earthquakes. It’s a genuinely impressive sequence, and the filmmakers clearly knew it, as they include what surely amounts to every frame they shot of the miniature’s destruction.

The crazy survivor story that follows plays out much as its pre-Code origins would suggest. Based loosely around a family split up by the apocalypse, it's got all the hallmarks of more recent post-apocalyptic films - ad hoc survivor colonies, last-couple-on-earth romance, gangs of raiders - but with the really nasty stuff left implied rather than shown. It all builds - or rather, collapses - into an ending of tiny scale and bleak mood. Let's just say love doesn't get any easier in the wake of disaster.

Very much a product of its time, Deluge is filled with weird and problematic takes on human behaviour - some made all the stranger thanks to the film's B-movie budget being spent almost entirely in the opening act. But it's a fascinating antecedent of the Mad Maxes of this world - a tale of global destruction, and the more intimate destruction that comes after. - Andrew Todd

Threads [1984] (d. Mick Jackson, w. Barry Hines) 

Life in the early 1980s came with the assumption that it was a matter not of if, but when, nuclear Armageddon would be unleashed. Between the Soviets invading Afghanistan and Reagan rattling orbital laser-sabres amid tit-for-tat Olympic boycotts, being blasted to a cinder on a whim of ideology seemed as inevitable as it was abstract while I was growing up not 50 miles from Sheffield, the city whose residents experience the reality in Threads. It’s the kind of one-off the BBC used to do so well, a drama-documentary of limited scope but enormous import, authentic diegetic radio and TV broadcasts painting the background story while narration and on-screen captions drily reel off the facts about the build-up, actuality and aftermath of a nuclear strike.

And it’s an absolute horror show. Clips of the legendarily disturbing Protect And Survive public information films are just a teaser before the mushroom cloud puts their stern entreaties to the grisly test, and the film doesn’t stint on the charred bodies and radiation burns even before it gets to the tear-gassing and summary executions as society breaks down, the captions counting up the megatons and megadeaths charting humanity’s precipitous decline. It’s beautifully observed and performed but relentlessly bleak, a Christ-in-the-manger metaphor resolving into a slap in the face, its final image an affirmation that all your duck’n’cover preparedness is nothing more than a bullshit sop to the fallacy that a nuclear war can be survived, let alone won. Sickeningly relevant in a time when petulant children goad one another with their nuclear arsenals, Threads is a salutary depiction of a post-apocalyptic world that not only shows how it came to be, but how few steps it is away. - Jof Gurd

12 Monkeys [1995] (d. Terry Gilliam, w. David Webb Peoples & Janet Peoples) 

At the age of fifteen, I didn't know much about Terry Gilliam, and I believe the only post-apocalyptic worlds I had seen were in the Terminator films and Waterworld (don't judge me for seeing it before Road Warrior), so my primary interest in 12 Monkeys was Bruce "John McClane" Willis, and assumed from the R-rating and what little I knew about the plot that he'd be shooting lots of guys to save the world via time travel. What I got instead was an appreciation for him as an actor who was capable of so much more than gunfights and one-liners (rewatching it now it's almost alien to see him giving a real performance, as I'm so accustomed to his standard sleep-acting), and a new director to look into at a time when I was starting to learn what a director actually did. 

But most importantly, it offered an unusual version of a time travel scenario, where someone is sent back in time to find a cure for the disease to bring back to their own time, as opposed to preventing it from happening in the first place. We don't get to spend too much time in the decimated future world overrun by animals (we are told that the virus that wiped out over 5 billion people only affected humans), but those tantalizing glimpses are legendary. A bear startling Bruce in downtown Philadelphia, the underground bunkers decked out with what I now recognize as "Gilliam-esque" set design, and creepy-ass scientists who are ambiguous with their plans (and pretty terrible at programming their time travel machines).

It's the rare post-apocalyptic movie that rewards multiple viewings, and twenty plus years later I still don't know whose side I'm on - the "villains" kind of make a good case for why we should let the animals take over, and it's telling that the ambiguous ending doesn't exactly spell out whether or not the virus is prevented or even if a cure is found. Long story short, 12 Monkeys gave me more to think about than Waterworld. - Brian Collins

Cure Charisma Pulse Bright Future [1997/1999/2001/2002] (d. & w. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) 

For my money, between 1997 and 2002, Kiyoshi Kurosawa was one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. He turned the J-Horror genre on its head with his deliberately paced, dark, existential musings about Japanese society. Kurosawa had four films released in five years that used the apocalypse in their narrative, either directly or ending the film as if it was a prologue to the end of times. All four films are terrific and worth seeking out:

Cure (1997) – Kurosawa’s serial killer thriller about a drifter with amnesia deals with the social contract and how we interact with each other and keep our primal urges and desires at bay for the larger community.  But if society is a disease, then can these desires be the cure?

Charisma (1999) – Kiyoshi’s nature mystery again is an allegory about individual needs vs the needs of the larger society. The final shot here shows Japan in flames, reinforcing the notion that the director couldn’t resolve this conflict, and Armageddon is unavoidable.

Pulse (2001) – Probably his most well-known film to an English-speaking audience, Pulse begins and ends with a society in ruins, destroyed by a finite afterlife where spirits are pushed back into the land of the living because there’s simply no room for them in the great beyond. But their presence among the living is deadly.

Bright Future (2002) – One of the main characters here desires to condition a pet poisonous jellyfish from salt water to fresh water, another way for Kurosawa to play with the desire for change in Japanese society. But his pessimism wins out again as the film ends with a memorable tracking shot of an army of jellyfish moving towards a destructive and deadly future for mankind. - James Shapiro 

Night Of the Comet [1984] (d. & w. Thom Eberhardt) 

Night of the Comet wouldn’t feel out of place on a double bill with Night of the Creeps or Radioactive Dreams, as it shares the same New Wave energy while keeping its cinematic tongue firmly in cheek. Writer/director Thom Eberhardt isn’t hitting the parody button as hard as Fred Dekker or showing his overt George Miller/Raymond Chandler/Sue Saad love like Albert Pyun, but instead updates such ’50s schlock sci-fi classics as It Came From Outer Space with a heavy dose of ’80s neon. So while Night of the Comet is certainly a time capsule for the decade in which it was made, there’s certainly much more to mine from the film’s brisk ninety-five minute runtime than a simple nostalgia trip.

Where Romero used the apocalypse to smuggle in subversive themes about race, class and consumerism, Eberhardt uses it as a backdrop for Hughesian teen angst. The world watches the skies from various parties, waiting for the titular astral event to occur while, in a rundown Valley theater, Regina (the absolutely adorable Catherine Mary Stewart) protects her video game high score while “working” as an usher. She makes it with Larry (Michael Bowen of Kill Bill and Breaking Bad fame), the cute, muscular hog-riding projectionist renting classic prints on the side while her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney, playing the ultimate 80s Valley Girl right down to the cheerleader outfit) wrangles with her probably philandering stepmother (Sharon Farrell, sporting a wicked right) at home. Before the comet even hits, there’s enough opportunity for suburban malaise to fill a Sweet Valley High novel.

After the comet passes, reducing all those who were anticipating its arrival to red dust (to match the now blood orange sky), Regina and Samantha’s biggest battle isn’t over how to survive in the wasteland. It’s over who gets to be with Hector (Robert Beltran of Star Trek: Voyager), the hunky guy they meet at the radio station. For a film where zombies (who can talk, shoot, dress themselves and drive cars) are immediately made out to be the biggest threat to either of our heroines’ safety, the multi-functional flesh eaters are forgotten rather quickly. And that’s the best thing about Night of the Comet. The girls and their interpersonal and internal drama are the focus instead of standard undead antics. Regina reveals to Hector how hard life has been after their dad went into the military, leaving she and Samantha with their stepmom. Meanwhile Samantha falls into a pit of loneliness, dreaming about zombies tearing her apart and sulking whenever she witnesses her sister’s blossoming relationship. It’s standard fodder for a Francine Pascal book, not The Stand. - Jacob Knight