Wastelands of the Post-Apocalypse

A genre very dear to my cineast heart is post-apocalyptic cinema. Among dystopic art in general, this genre lives off its lawlessness, the stylistic palette, and the cinematic potential of the settings it offers. Much like the western, post-apocalyptic cinema is a genre that has its own laws, its own heroes, its own stories and legends, and its own mythical universe. You could say that the two are intrinsically similar.

Where do I draw the line? I think most zombie movies don’t really qualify as post-apocalyptic. The world doesn’t end if you have a zombie epidemic. People are just infected. It could be cured, nothing explodes, you can run from it. Same with Alien invasions. Unless combined with other shit that happens, earth is basically untouched. Post-apocalyptic cinema certainly has stylistic elements that go beyond nuclear or other holocaust, but in my book, there needs to have been a real apocalypse. A threshold, no-way-back, moment in the history of the earth, something that questions all and everything, and whoever survived has to start almost from scratch. This reduces the genre to post-nuclear, post-natural catastrophe or post disaster movies, but that may well be. At least this list tries to be consistent in that respect.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, or a list of my favorites per se, but a glimpse into the genre where I point out why I think these are worth watching. Some of them you will not like, I promise.

The Road
The Road
(2009 / Dir: John Hillcoat / Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron) imdb

I was terribly surprised by this one. I knew about the trailer and that it was a sinister book it was adapted from, but what hit me, knocked me out. The Road is a depressing, sinister, dark and brutal survival film set in a post-apocalyptic world. The characters are a father and a son, trying to stay alive amid the cold, the cannibals, the thieves and the scarce nutrition. It is stylistically amazing and despite its sinister nature, there is a beacon of light that follows throughout the movie, that keeps it going. It is a fantastic acting job and a terrifying world that is conveyed here. A candy treat for fans of post-apocalyptic dystopia.

(1995 / Dir: Kevin Reynolds, Kevin Costner / Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeane Trippelhorn) imdb

Some months ago I wrote a piece about Kevin Costner, in which I already pointed out how I think a few slips don’t make a bad filmmaker (click here to open that article in a new window to read later). In fact I think Costner is a terrific filmmaker. With Waterworld, a lot of things came together that hurt the movie. One is budget, this movie was so expensive, in the end they took it away from Kevin Reynolds and Costner finished it. The other is post-production, there exists an extended cut, which is closest to Reynolds’ vision, and according to reviews is a much better movie. The problem is: It was prepared for television, so it is free of f-words and other “indecencies” (screw the FCC), so we are stuck with a family friendly theatrical version and a family friendly extended tv version and we will never see the full potential of this movie. But hello! What an original movie this was. A world covered in water, mutation, pirates, artificial atolls. I love it when filmmakers create a convincing world and they certainly did that here. Yes the movie has some severe flaws, but oh boy what a post-apocalyptic vision.

(2009 / Dir: Damon O’Steen / Gary Weeks) imdb

What if you made a post-apocalyptic movie with some really interesting ideas, convincing character actors and the potential to create your own story ecosystem? Deadland is that movie… (continue reading, this is an older blog entry on Furious Cinema)

Mad Max

Mad Max trilogy (1979 / 1981 / 1985 / Dir: Miller / Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, …) imdb / imdb / imdb

It is almost unfair to include them here. They are such pivotal post-apocalyptic classics, that have been unmatched, and created their own universe, that most other films look pale in comparison. Yet no list would be complete without Mad Max Rockatansky. The atmosphere and world so subtly laid out in the first one, which redefined and influenced the genre forever and introduced the world to a young talent that is Mel Gibson; the epic action of the sequel, which more than the first installment has shaped our expectations about post-apocalyptic cinema and style; and the slightly botched third one, which led the franchise to some ridicule but spun the myth forward and made the Mad Max world accessible to younger audiences of the 80s. A trilogy as furious as possible, and the fourth installment, Fury Road, delayed by the Iraq war and other incidents, is on track for production starting 2012.

The Postman

The Postman (1997 / Dir: Kevin Costner / Kevin Costner, Larenz Tate ) imdb

This is a tough one. I love the idea of how what might pull the nation back together after the ultimate catastrophe is the pony express, in a way there are certain similarities with The Book of Eli (below), but The Postman just fails to grab you. The world is a bit unconvincing, the production value is meagre and the writing is lackluster. I mean to include it here because it compliments the post-apocalyptic contribution of Kevin Costner and illustrates the array of movies in terms of quality, but I am certainly not a big fan.

Book of Eli

The Book of Eli (2010 / Dir: Albert and Allen Hughes / Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits) imdb

The Hughes Brothers have made some interesting movies during their career, Dead Presidents being a particular favorite of mine. My expectations for this one were super low, especially after reading how religious it is. I was all the more surprised then, when I watched it, as I was blown away by the style, attention to detail (whistling of the theme from Once Upon a Time in America), post-apocalyptic atmosphere and epic subtext. The religious motif and conclusion may be forgiven, at least it fits the movie well. Quite a kick ass movie.

I will be back in 2012 with a few more, including The Ultimate Warrior, Tank Girl and a few others. If you know of any really cool ones, please comment below and I will check them out.



Founder of FuriousCinema.com, also started Tarantino.info, Spaghetti-western.net, Nischenkino.de and a few others. I love furious movies!

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12 Responses

  1. Peter Roberts says:

    Awesome list! one of my favorites on the site so far, and I def want to see the second part!

  2. yerpalhal says:

    a boy and his dog is a gem and a personal favorite

  3. kylounette says:

    Please don’t forget Children Of Men.
    Great acting, terrific story and, to say the least, awesome filming.

  4. Peter Roberts says:

    damnation alley

  5. Clint says:

    Six String Samurai,
    Low budget but charming.

  6. Kevin says:

    So I guess your qualifiers rule out some pa gems like Stake Land and Carriers but still, I highly recommend them.  A few cool (mostly recent) flicks that should be on this list are:

    Hell (a little German film from Roland Emmerich) where the sun “has turned the entire world into baked and barren wasteland.”  Great stuff here.  

    The Divide – a group tries to survive a post-nuclear blast.

    The Day 

    And I don’t know if Pandorum would qualify here because it’s not your usual pa take…

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