Post-Apocalyptic media is all the rage. What with constant talks of global warming, the always rising tensions in Iraq, our post-9/11 Hurricane Katrina society are more obsessed with death and the end of the world now than they have been since the Cold War. Books, and even Television shows have confronted and marketed on the apocalypse in a trend that has garnered a hefty fan base. From series like “Jericho,” to novels like “World War Z,” the end of the world is ripe for the picking from many creative voices, and the rage continues on in film, where directors left and right have presented their own vision of the Armageddon. We all know the Earth isn’t infinite, and the recent disasters have created a sense of awareness on that fact that has garnered some brilliant pictures of the apocalypse.
August saw the release of “Right at your Door,” the independent production featuring a dirty bomb that spreads a radioactive cloud along Los Angeles, and Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” about the dying sun and man’s struggle to keep it ignited, while the upcoming “I Am Legend” hopes to take the holiday box office by storm as another adaptation of the novel “I Am Legend” and semi-remake of “The Omega Man” with Will Smith as the last man on Earth struggling to survive amidst isolation and a threat waiting in the darkness. There is also “1-18-08/Cloverfield,” which will bring its own vision as New York City watches a monstrous threat from the sea wreak havoc on us, and Neil Marshall’s highly anticipated “Doomsday,” focusing on another plague called “The Reaper” that begins wreaking havoc on mankind, and well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
A big fan of the sub-genre, even engaging in some post-apocalyptic fiction myself, I decided to bring you a list of ten of my favorite films of all time celebrating an undeniably fascinating sub-genre; I excluded many favorites of my repertoire, but in the end, these prevailed as the best.
“On the Beach” (1959)
One of the most interesting facets of the sub-genre is that inevitability of death, the aspect that irreversible death and pain are at your doorstep and there’s nothing you can do about it. “On the Beach” is not so much about the end of the world, as it is about a large group of people who have to come to terms with the fact that they will die very soon. As most of the world has been destroyed by nuclear radiation, survivors have huddled in a small town in Australia far away from the fallout. But they soon learn it’s headed their way thanks to wind currents, and there’s no stopping it. We then view the requiem of mankind, as government officials continue to struggle to find a way to solve the problem, and then face that there’s simply no solution. Thus, we follow a small group and their last days of sealing old scars, confronting old conflicts, and saying goodbye to the ones they love dear. Most tragic of the dilemmas involves Peter Holmes who has a beautiful newborn daughter, and knows that she won’t be able to see it through a year.
He and his wife Mary are constantly embroiled in the lingering reminder of apparent death, while Mary is in pure denial and is certain all is not lost, especially when a crew journeys into the city in a submarine to answer the Morse code SOS from an apparent survivor. “On the Beach” is one of the few thrillers that never attempts to sugar coat what is inescapable, and Stanley Kramer further induces that theme as he features desolate cityscapes of the highly radiated San Diego void of any human life or corpses, as well as droves of people lining up at hospitals to receive their cyanide pills. Even moments of happiness like fishing and romance are blanketed with sheer dread. “On the Beach” is another product of our fear of nuclear war and the decimation of humanity, as it’s merciless in its wrenching sadness and grim finale where the nuclear fallout emerges prepared to do away with the rest of human civilization.
“Right at Your Door” (2006)
Many times a smaller scale can mean bigger things, and when you can properly explore human relationships, a low budget simply means nothing. “Right at your Door” confronts two people faced with truly difficult choices, confined to their house while the world around them crumbles to pieces. All the while, you’re left with a vast sense of self-reflection and the question: If you were forced to choose between leaving your loved one to die and survive, or be with them and die together, what would you choose? Gorak sets his sights down on Los Angeles which becomes the target for a dirty bomb that’s set loose a cloud of radioactive ash all over the city. Brad hears every news and radio report about this attack, and learns that anyone and everyone within the explosion radius have now become carriers of the poison and could be dangerous to others. Brad now faces many dilemmas. He has to face that his wife Lexi is dead, he has to tell her relatives that she never came home, he has to care for a desperate neighbor who appears at his door to hide with him, and he has to face that he is stuck in his house in for a very long time, as hospitals and police are stretched thin.
Sealed tightly in his home, he has to suffer through restlessness, grief, cabin fever, starvation, and heat exhaustion. When Lexi comes home begging to be let in, Brad now has the dilemma before him and once again Gorak continues the conflict: Is Brad a coward for keeping his wife locked out, or was he wise for listening to the warnings from the government? Should he have stayed in his bubble, or go out to face the grim reality of the world? And if they survive, how different would their relationship be? Assuredly though, “Right at your Door” is a rather horrifying glimpse at the destruction and carnage a dirty bomb could inflict on a major city and how rapidly the walls fall down. “Right at Your Door” isn’t completely set down on one setting, as Gorak explores the explosion, the aftermath, HazMat teams roaming around collecting and herding the sick, and the inevitable admittance that there isn’t an end to this crises. There simply aren’t any happy endings or lights at the end of the tunnel, but the exploration of the gradual end of a strong relationship is perfectly paralleled against the end of a major city, as our own neighbors and loved ones become the aliens and threats carrying the long lasting effects of the dirty bomb.
“The Last Man on Earth” (1964)
It’s been debated by many that perhaps “The Last Man on Earth,” an adaptation of Matheson’s “I Am Legend” may very well have provided influence for “Night of the Living Dead.” At times the similarities of the creatures here to the inevitable monsters in Romero’s film are stunning; even though it’s established they are vampires, they shamble around and appear from the dark with glazed expressions strongly resembling zombies, and Price’s film also predates “Night” by four years. Currently on the public domain hit list, “The Last Man on Earth” is one of the first adaptations of “I Am Legend” that was later basically remade as “The Omega Man.” While the 1971 version has its strengths, Ubaldo Ragona’s has Vincent Price. Set in 1968, Robert Morgan is a doctor who finds society at the mercy of a mysterious plague. Everyone in the world is gradually dying out from this disease, and he soon discovers that those who die inevitably return from the dead. Unless burned, the bodies will re-animate and look for the closest blood source, cue Ragona’s awfully gruesome imagery of a humongous pit of fire where bodies of the recently deceased have been dumped to burn. Morgan of course is a man who has gone mad, thanks to witnessing his daughter’s death and soon his wife, and survives beyond everyone else.
He can’t comprehend his inexplicable immunity, nor can he shoulder the burden of being the last man on Earth. During the day, he hunts down the civilization of the undead who hide in the darkness, but when the sun falls, he races back home to avoid the onslaught of the dead who call out his name and stand outside his house taunting him. As we learn they don’t so much crave his blood and flesh, as they’re more intent on destroying the last of the human race. Ragona depicts so much disturbing scenes including his daughter at her death bed, Morgan’s wife returning from the dead, and Morgan’s near fatal mistake of falling asleep outside to discover night has fallen. In one of the most frightening sequences, he races home to seek safety as the dead emerge from all corners anxious to kill him. His surprising discovery of a woman named Ruth leads to even more obstacles in the doctor’s survival as he slowly learns of her vampirism that she thinks can be cured. While I love “The Omega Man,” Ragona’s film has much more of a sense of urgency, and in spite of its decade, isn’t as dated. In spite of bad dubbing, Ragona’s end of the world tale is grim and stark, with bold shades of black that create a sheer sense of hopelessness especially since the last man alive has no one to turn to.
“The Stand” (1994)
Captain Tripps is a term that’s instantly become synonymous with the epic film “The Stand,” the story of the end of the world by a mysterious super flu that then transforms into a battle between good and evil. Sure, in the end it’s a preachy religious message, but that hardly ever undermines the strength of the story, and it’s still a truly fantastic piece of filmmaking. Influencing “The Walking Dead” as well in many ways, “The Stand” (once set to be directed by George Romero) is the story of a plague that’s accidentally set loose from a government facility and begins to rapidly destroy civilization. Spreading from the countryside and leaving a wake of bodies in its path, “The Stand” seemingly follows random survivors as they live through the carnage that the plague inevitably inflicts. Families’ fall, cities crumble, the government seizes control and enforces deadly discipline all the while our survivors drift into opposite directions of this apocalypse and find that this accident and the disease it carries isn’t random after all. “The Stand” begins as a basic end of the world tale with strangers finding each other in the rubble and pairing to make sense of the situation all the while journeying to a mysterious farmhouse run by an elderly woman named mother Abigail.
Folks like Stu Redman, Frannie Goldsmith, and the mentally disabled Tom Cullen all inevitably find each other and travel to Mother Abigail’s farm in hopes that she can provide answers as she often appears in their dreams promising sanctuary. Director Garris provides some truly shocking imagery that keeps “The Stand” a stern and uneasy horror thriller. Cars litter the depths of abandoned tunnels with the bloated corpses of the dead strewn about, and there is also Stu’s escape from a government hospital witnessing the effects of “Captain Tripps” to the fullest extent. Soon, Garris transforms the survival tale into a genesis where the denizens of the new world find they’re players in the battle of good and evil, being guided by Abigail, but also haunted and antagonized by the unstoppable force of Randall Flagg, a charming but deadly presence that threatens the outcome of the war by manipulation, seduction, and promise of power. The progression of the story promises a rather enormous outcome all brought on by the power of their faith and Abigail’s hold over her followers, as sides are chosen, friends fall, and lives are lost.
“Dawn of the Dead” (1978)
While many prefer “Night of the Living Dead,” for me that was only just the tip of the iceberg for the zombie apocalypse that was ensuing first around the region, then around the state, and then around the world. You were able to gain a sense of what was ensuing in the surrounding area from the graveyards to the fields, and that the group of people stuck in the farm house basically symbolized what many others were experiencing that night, but “Dawn of the Dead” is really the absolute epitome of the onslaught of the walking dead and Romero’s mythos. We’re able to gain insight in the effect of this outbreak on the media, the effect of the outbreak on our sanity, on society, on the class system, on our approach to the apocalypse, and our eventual retreat into consumerism. Once again, as “Night,” we were able to gain a sense of what was ensuing around the world by these four survivors who are only together out of desperation and likely would have never met in the past.
A pregnant woman with no weapons training, an average pilot, and two trained officers completely out of their element suddenly have to adapt to one another and the walking dead, all of whom get a sense of the actual disease when they begin losing their own. The mall, almost always filmed in an eerie blue tint, is their world now as they survive and live among ads and products, and everything else outside of it is pretty much a wasteland with no hope of ever stepping back to rebuild itself. All the while, they must clear numerous zombies from the mall with a group of three, as the zombies not only hunt them for food, but also fight them for control of the mall. Romero subjects us to some gruesome visions of the aftermath as SWAT teams are overrun by the dead in low class tenements, survivors murder one another for supplies all the while the criminals inherit the Earth. During the scattered opening, the media struggles to decide what this epidemic is, how it started, and how it can be stopped, and even though they argue on for hours, they all seem to agree, it’s the dawn of a new day, the end of mankind, and there’s only one way to adapt.
Side note: For excellent yet unofficial expansions of this universe, I highly suggest reading Max Brooks’ “World War Z” a sociological glimpse at a zombie apocalypse, and “The Walking Dead” by Robert Kirkman which is right up any Romero fan’s alley.
Check out the rest of the list in Part Two of Film Threat’s Ten Signs of Cinematic Apocalypse>>>