There’s something strangely alluring to so many people about watching the best post-apocalyptic movies, much in the same way that there’s such an appeal to checking out abandoned places. Whether it’s the disquiet or desolation, there’s something inherently interesting about watching the expanses of nothingness and the scattered people within them.
I’m one such person, someone who will choose to watch the aftermath of the end more than almost any other genre of movie. Post-apocalyptic movies hit a note with me that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it all stretches back to my love of zombie movies. As worrying as it is to type this out now, I often daydream about how civilisation would look once it crumbles and how humanity would react.
I’m also keenly aware that, no matter how much training movies have given me, I would not survive long in the post-apocalypse. That might have something to do with why I enjoy watching others toil and struggle, then. I’m lucky that these movies are still in vogue, but I also have gaming fare like The Last of Us and Fallout to fall back on. It’s never been a better time to be a cinematic prepper.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to reel off some of the best post-apocalyptic movies you should watch. As a rule, only one post-apocalyptic movie from a single franchise can be included. We’re also going for movies that strictly take place after the end of the world and not during, hence why Day of the Dead gets the nod over Dawn of the Dead.
More polarising than the North Pole using inverted controls while being inside a magnet, Bird Box is a Netflix exclusive that’s been the center of plenty discussion since it hit the streaming service, as well as more than a handful of memes. No two people seem to be able to agree on this one, and while it does have its flaws, it certainly has something to offer.
When a mysterious “creature” makes people want to kill themselves with a simple glimpse, what’s left of humanity must do all they can to survive — and not look.
Sandra Bullock leads a strong cast that includes John Malkovich at his dastardly best. There are some seriously unforgettable setpieces (the burning car, anyone?), but try not to let the hype for this one give you unrealistic expectations.
It’s a great but not revolutionary thriller that might have you covering your eyes.
24. The Day (2011)
Director: Doug Aarniokoski
The Day deserves to be talked about not as the best post-apocalyptic movie ever made, or even one of the better ones on this list. No, The Day deserves recognition for being a part of an elite club of movies from WWE Studios that don’t totally suck.
While it does often smack of being a low-budget affair, The Day has a gritty and grimy hue to it that feels quintessentially “all hope is lost”. There aren’t any zombies in this one, just a bunch of morally questionable people doing morally questionable things. It also has quite a gripping villain, even if he does come from the Far Cry school of bad dudes.
23. The Book of Eli (2010)
Director(s): Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Taking a leaf out of the Mad Max book on the post-apocalypse, The Book of Eli offers a world where there is very little good left. If people aren’t killing each other, they’re eating each other — and sometimes even both.
Thirty years after a nuclear bomb decimates the planet, Eli, played wonderfully by Denzel Washington, takes it upon himself to travel across a ruined America to deliver a book. While it’s rather heavy-handed with the religious references, The Book of Eli offers enough surprising turns and unique ideas to make it one of the most underrated movies of the 2010s.
22. Carriers (2009)
Director(s): Àlex Pastor, David Pastor
Carriers shows pre-fame Chris Pine at his most disturbing as he bands together with fellow survivors to venture across barren America. A highly contagious virus has wiped everyone out, which leads to plenty of suspicion amongst Pine’s group that grows and grows until it’s almost unbearable to watch.
Carriers is the perfect zombie movie without any zombies, which may explain why so many were so underwhelmed by it. It’s seriously flawed and sometimes paced like it forgets people are supposed to enjoy it, but Carriers is still worth a watch, if only to see just how quickly friendships can deteriorate when every breath could prove fatal.
21. The Divide (2011)
Director(s): Xavier Gens
I don’t think director Xavier Gens has a lot of faith in humanity. In his The Divide, an unlikely group of nuclear survivors take shelter in the underground of an apartment complex and it isn’t long before they ruin what little’s left of each other’s lives.
As the radiation sets in, the group splits into factions of differing mental states and attitudes — you won’t even recognise some of the characters by the time the credits roll. The Divide is an utterly horrific and affecting movie, so maybe bring a bucket with you before you watch it.
Maybe some citalopram, too — it’s seriously depressing.
20. Cargo (2017)
Director(s): Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling
Martin Freeman walks away from Fargo for Cargo: an interesting zombie movie that swaps gore and spectacle for a beautifully human story. Coming across like a blend between Maggie and The Dead, Cargo sees Freeman’s character trying to find shelter for his infant daughter in an infected-plagued Australian outback.
As well as having a gorgeous palate to let misery loose in, Cargo features fantastic performances from its cast, but especially the infant daughter, who is beyond adorable. The end of Cargo is foreshadowed from the off, but it’s unlikely that you won’t be devastated by it all the same.
Cargo is a slow-burn post-apocalyptic movie that’s one of the best Netflix Originals you will come across.
“A simple but effective story about fatherhood and sacrifice, Cargo is a zombie movie that you shouldn’t overlook on Netflix.”
19. Escape from L.A. (1996)
Director: John Carpenter
A box office bomb that proved that sometimes people just don’t know a good thing when they see one, John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. may not be as good as its predecessor, New York, but it’s definitely braver and more bombastic.
Kurt Russell returns as Snake Plissken (the character who later go on to inspire Metal Gear Solid’s Solid Snake) as he finds himself at odds with a totalitarian US President following natural disasters in Los Angeles.
It’s definitely an “out there” experience and one worth revisiting, especially as it’s turned out to be somewhat prescient.
18. Night of the Comet (1984)
Director: Thom Eberhardt
There are plenty of cult picks on this list, but Night of the Comet might be the very definition of a cult hit — I don’t think it would be right if you watched it on anything other than a VHS tape. The spirit of the eighties runs through its DNA, neon and all.
It’s not a cinematic masterpiece by any means, but Night of the Comet makes the most of its post-apocalyptic setting to be a whole lot of fun if nothing else. When a comet wipes out most of humanity and turns the unlucky few into zombies, a small group of survivors band together to survive and, erm, try on different outfits.
Inarguably inspired by Mad Max, Turbo Kid is a more whimsical look at the post-apocalypse, though that isn’t to mean it holds any punches with the gore. Set in an alternate 1997, Turbo Kid follows its titular character as he scavenges wastelands for comic books and stuff he needs to survive.
There’s a heartwarming romance and naivety at the core of Turbo Kid, like its director was hoping for a modern counterpart to films like Stand By Me but turned up to 11. There’s certainly a whimsical feel to this post-apocalypse.
It’s visually arresting as well, which is made even more impressive by it being made on a dime — most studios pour millions upon millions into making a movie look, and even feel, as good as this.
16. Stake Land (2010)
Director: Jim Mickle
If nothing else, the uncompromising Stake Land proved to people that vampires are much more effective when they don’t sparkle. Similarly to 30 Days of Night many years earlier, Stake Land showed just how unnerving a more visceral depiction of vampires can be.
After the death of his parents, a young boy pairs up with a vampire hunter to find a better life in New Eden and discover how to live life again along the way.
It has some moments of sincerity, but Stake Land takes you on a bleak and grim journey that’s beautifully shot despite the ugliness at its heart. It has a sequel, but this is the one you should be watching.
15. I Am Legend (2007)
Director: Francis Lawrence
You can say what you like about I Am Legend (and most people have a strong opinion about it), but there’s no denying how visually impressive its first two thirds are. It’s, to boil it down to very simple terms, the American version of 28 Days Later.
Even if his performance has become meme fodder over the years, Will Smith’s portrayal of a terribly lonely survivor is a career highlight of his. With only his loyal dog for company, he must eke out a semblance of normal life while trying to find a vaccine for the botched cancer cure that killed most of the world and turned the rest into violent, bald lunatics.
Some may prefer The Omega Man, but for sheer spectacle and that darling dog, I Am Legend gets the nod here.
14. The Battery (2012)
Director: Jeremy Gardner
One of the most unique zombie movies of the last decade, The Battery is an ultra-low budget post-apocalyptic slow burn about two men who have nothing but each other — and they don’t even like each other that much.
More of a dual character study than an out and out horror, The Battery explores the sensation of loneliness even when you have someone close to you, as well as the day-to-day life of living after the end of the world.
It’s not always pretty, but The Battery is often a cynically funny time featuring two very strong leads with a killer soundtrack to boot.
13. Zombieland (2009)
Director: Ruben Fleischer
From one kind of zombie movie to something altogether more upbeat, Zombieland is how you depict the post-apocalypse with a smile. It’s infectiously dumb and packed with more graphics than an All-Time Low music video, but that doesn’t stop it from being any less entertaining.
Set in an undead-plagued America, Zombieland follows an unlikely band of survivors with the end goal to survive and make quips every other minute.
It’s the perfect pick for someone who doesn’t even like the undead, bookended perfectly by one of the most unforgettable cameos in movie history. Zombieland 2 doesn’t have quite the same magic, but it’s still a fantastically fun watch.
12. Snowpiercer (2013)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
An interesting take on the post-apocalypse, Snowpiercer tackles societal and class issues on a speeding train filled with the last remnants of humanity. If that isn’t enough to get you interested, how about Chris Evans being the exact opposite of Captain America?
Gritty, gruesome, and just a little bit silly, Snowpiercer is an often overlooked gem that should be watched by anyone who appreciates tight action and suspense. It’s directed by the almost always excellent Bong Joon-ho, who also helmed The Host: another underloved cult classic.
Oh, and he also won an Oscar for that little movie called Parasite. Snowpiercer has been turned into a show, but it’s just quite the same.
11. A Quiet Place (2018)
Director: John Krasinski
The most recent entry on this list, A Quiet Place follows a family trying to lead a conventional life in an unconventional world where every sound could spell death. It’s just as tense as it sounds, made even more so by some of the best audio design in any movie – let alone horror – in years.
It’s a sparse and deliberately paced film that is as much about the family at its center as it is the jump scares. A Quiet Place could prove to do for horror movies in 2018 what Get Out did in 2017; it’s that good.
“A Quiet Place stands as a testament to what is possible with a camera and a microphone. Every detail and technical flash is meticulous in its construction, not a single flicker of light or loud crash is wasted. If John Krasinski continues down this path, we may have a modern horror great on our hands. If he doesn’t, his future contributions to the art will still leave us satisfied.”
10. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Director(s): Terry Gilliam
One of the more “offbeat” entries on this list, Twelve Monkeys has earned its status as a cult classic by being one of the last movies Bruce Willis cared about being in. Featuring a star-making turn from Brad Pitt and some of Terry Gilliam’s most unique visuals (which is really saying a lot), Twelve Monkeys was so good that they decided to turn it into a show for no reason.
When a virus sends the last vestiges of humanity underground, the only option left is to send Cole (Willis) back in time to stop it from ever being created with a cure. Imagine Terminator 2, but far weirder in the best way.
While its effects may look somewhat basic now, Twelve Monkeys still oozes cool.
9. Dawn Of The Planet of the Apes (2014)
Yep, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets the nod over any of the original movies because, well, they don’t hold up that great. Where the Charlton Heston classic might now lean on the cheesier side of things, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes spins a gripping yarn that’s about apes as much as its humans.
After the simian virus wipes out humanity and also makes apes smarter, the two “factions” repeatedly butt heads despite the apes just wanting to be left well alone. As well as being a big-budget blockbuster, Dawn teaches some important lessons and left many viewers looking internally after the credits rolled.
Do we really deserve to rule the world?
8. Day of the Dead (1985)
Director: George A. Romero
Day of the Dead is one of the late, great Romero’s most underappreciated works that simply might have just released at the wrong time. When Day of the Dead dropped in 1985, everyone and their parents had just about enough of zombies. It’s not perfect — the pacing is a little off — but it’s one of the best examples of just how murky the aftermath of an apocalypse can be.
The grainy, low-colour cinematography and the isolation of an underground bunker are just about as post-apocalyptic as it gets. By taking some of the attention away from hordes of zombies, Day of the Dead delivers a sombre but needed look at how quickly humans turn on each other, and one that’s overlooked. Plus, Bub is the greatest.
Following the end of the world, survivors hole up in an apartment complex where a manic landlord rules the roost. He’s also a butcher, and you can already tell where this one’s going — it is post-apocalyptic, after all.
What makes this French production such a charming is its irreverent sincerity, how playful it is with could have been very heavy material. Featuring renegade vegetarians and its fair share of of slapstick fun, this cult favourite is worth seeking out.
6. The Matrix (1999)
Director: The Wachowskis
Yep, The Matrix is really a post-apocalyptic movie. As filled in by The Animatrix, humanity was wiped out in a one-sided war with machines with the remaining people being used as Energizer batteries.
Not sure how The Wachowskis managed to get the movie past the pitch stage, but I’m sure glad they did.
Despite releasing right at the end of it, The Matrix was one of the most inspirational movies of the nineties, its influence bleeding into action movies pretty liberally for the next decade. They will never be able to make something as weird, wild, and successful as The Matrix ever again, even if they do think they can try again with another sequel.
5. Wall-E (2008)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Considering how oppressively depressing most of the entries for our best post-apocalyptic movies have been, why don’t we finish things off with one of the most uplifting? WALL-E, from the childlike minds at Pixar, is about as far from the murder and zombies you will find above.
When humanity basically collapses in on itself, a mega-corporation leaves behind automated robots to do clean the mess up as the remnants of humanity engorge themselves in space. We are quickly introduced to the titular WALL-E as he goes about his business before one day finding a sign of life on a ruined Earth.
WALL-E is arguably at its best when it’s at its quietest, though you couldn’t ask for a better and more heartwarming antithesis to your typical post-apocalyptic movie.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
While there’s no denying that the original Mad Max movies effectively inspired decades of post-apocalyptic movies and even games, its most recent installment is one that you can just sit down and watch over and over until you memorise Max’s six lines. It’s just that damn watchable — I might go watch it right now, actually.
The gateway movie to the post-apocalypse, Fury Road is a breakneck chase across desolate plains backed by some rather unconventional cinematography — it’s like the anti-blockbuster blockbuster.
It’s hard to describe just how wild a ride Fury Road is unless you sit down and watch it yourself, so paint yourself in chrome and strap in for a lovely day.
3. The Road (2009)
Director: John Hillcoat
If you had to pick one word to describe The Road, it would be “bleak”. There isn’t a moment of joy to be had in this faithful Cormac McCarthy adaptation, so it’s probably not the best choice if you’re feeling a little blue. Watch it in the right mood, however, and it may just be the most perfect post-apocalyptic movie there is.
A father and son walk (more so crawl) across a devastated America in the hopes of finding something, anything to keep them going. The commitment from both actors is outstanding, but it’s Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal as the patriarch which was too quickly glossed over by awards panels.
If you want to see the least glamorous vision of the post-apocalypse possible, this it it.
2. 28 Days Later (2002)
Director: Danny Boyle
Admittedly, this post-apocalypse only takes place in Britain as opposed to the entire world, but it does a fine job of showing the aftermath of the end of the days nonetheless. Who could forget the iconic image of Cillian Murphy confusedly traipsing over Westminster Bridge? The mere fact that the producers managed to close London down for a short time makes 28 Days Later worth a watch on its own.
28 Days Later is a landmark movie for many different reasons. As well as being the first mainstream film to be shot entirely digitally, it was also partially responsible for the “new wave” of running zombies in movies, even if The Infected aren’t technically members of the undead army.
As a bonus, it’s also just straight-up an incredible film and its sequel has the distinct honour of being a horror sequel that doesn’t suck.
1. Stalker (1979)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Is Tarkovsky’s Stalker the most influential movie on this list? It’s probable, though you could also say that no other movie would dare to try something to Stalker, the closest being Alex Garland’s Annihilation. It’s an experience you just have to live inside and allow it to consume you, one patient shot at a time.
To boil it down to its basics, Stalker follows three men as they journey to a mysterious place called “The Zone”, where it’s rumoured your wildest dreams will come true. Stalker isn’t a high-action affair, not does it feature zombies or any staple ghouls. Instead, it’s a contemplative, often challenging time that will likely stick with you for years.
Stalker captures the post-apocalypse in a muted, effortlessly cool (and mind-melding) way, and while it may not be for everyone, you will struggle to crawl out of The Zone once it has you.
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