14 Post-Apocalyptic Movies for an Excellent End-of-the-World Watch

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Photo Source: “A Quiet Place” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

It’s the end of the world as we know it—and you feel great. Whether you’re here because you just got cast in a post-apocalyptic project or because you want to brush up on your cinema history, it’s time to do your doomsday homework. Read on as we revisit some staples of this genre, and try to decipher just what it is we find so enticing about the end of the world.

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What is a post-apocalyptic film?

On the most basic level, a post-apocalyptic story is set after the collapse of human civilization. The downfall can be due to just about anything, from climate change to meteors to rampant viruses to political uprising. The structures that hold society together have collapsed, and something else has emerged in its place. 

What that “something else” is can vary from one film to another. In some stories, technology takes center stage, and in others, humanity reverts significantly to a prior stage of development. Some post-apocalyptic movies take place many years after a civilization-destroying event, while others are set immediately in the disaster’s aftermath.

Post-apocalyptic stories can also fit into almost any other genre, from rom-coms to horror and just about everything in between. That said, this type of film will almost always grapple with similar themes centering around survival, humanity, and what elements make life truly worth living.

The origin of post-apocalyptic films

“The End of the World” (1916)

Largely credited with being the first of its kind, “The End of the World” is a Danish drama directed by August Blom and written by Otto Rung. The film invokes the public panic stirred in 1910 by a close call with Halley’s Comet, coupled with the ongoing unrest from World War I. The story focuses on a pair of sisters in a small town as a space rock ricochets past Earth.

Although it deals much more with an imminent disaster than its aftermath, “The End of the World” is worth mentioning in a post-apocalyptic context because it showed that audiences were interested in movies that wrestle with the end of life as we know it. The movie also deals with themes that are still relevant today, including classism, misinformation, and religious zealotry. If you can get your hands on a copy, it will set the foundation for the genre in your mind.

“Planet of the Apes” (1968)

Planet of the ApesCourtesy 20th Century Fox 

In 1968, director Franklin J. Schaffner solidified the genre as a major Hollywood mainstay with “Planet of the Apes”—a box office hit influential for John Chambers’ groundbreaking prosthetics and a plot twist that’s still being (ahem) aped to this day. With a screenplay adapted from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel by Michael Wilson and “The Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling, the film presented a distant future so foreign that audiences assumed it was an alien planet. If you’ve managed to avoid spoilers in the decades that have followed, we won’t ruin that streak—but it’s fair to say, everything is not what it seems. 

Starring Charlton Heston, “Planet of the Apes” follows a team of astronauts who accidentally jump forward in time to the year 3978. They find themselves in a world where sentient apes are the dominant species. Humans exist to serve as beasts of burden or subjects of experimentation. Besides its iconic ending, the film is a vital watch due to its examination of how we engage with the “other,” as well as what our legacy on this planet might be many years into the future. 

“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

A seminal year for the post-apocalyptic genre, 1968 also delivered George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” a zombie apocalypse film before anyone knew what a zombie apocalypse was. The movie follows seven people trapped in a farmhouse as corpses—with a taste for flesh—rise from the ground. (Their taste for brains, specifically, would come later with 1985’s “Return of the Living Dead.”) 

“Night of the Living Dead” set the template that would be followed across countless projects like AMC’s hit series “The Walking Dead,” Ruben Fleischer’s comedy “Zombieland,” and HBO’s video game adaptation “The Last of Us.” It all started with this movie: strangers coming together in a tentative alliance, rules on how to kill a “ghoul,” and the idea that the only thing more threatening than the dead is the desperate living. The film also broke ground thanks to its casting of Duane Jones as the heroic Ben, making him the first Black actor to lead a horror feature.

The evolution of post-apocalyptic films

“Soylent Green” (1973)

Charlton Heston in Soylent GreenCourtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Once audiences had acclimated to the idea of the end of the world, it was only a matter of time before they considered what life would look like for the survivors. (Of course, everyone assumes they’d be among this group.) Enter director Richard Fleischer’s “Soylent Green,” which—brace yourselves—is set in the year 2022. In the film, humans have destroyed the environment to the point where the majority of the population lives in abysmal conditions. People subside only on wafers provided by the Soylent Corporation, whose newest product is the scrumptious, titular Soylent Green. 

Semi-spoiler: Soylent Green is…not as appetizing as advertised. 

Unlike some of its predecessors, “Soylent Green” focuses less on the reasons behind civilization’s demise and more on how humanity might get along in the aftermath. Both entertaining and upsetting, “Soylent Green” is among the first to present the post-apocalyptic genre’s most haunting question: Would you rather perish at the end of the world or survive, knowing the cost? 

“Mad Max” (1979)

By the end of the 1970s, post-apocalyptic cinema had become more varied and unhinged, illustrated delightfully by George Miller’s action staple “Mad Max.” Starring Mel Gibson, the film is set in a near-future Australia, where a spunky police officer heads out on a seemingly endless highway in pursuit of a murderous motorbike gang, only to lose everything he cares about. 

“Mad Max” revolves around some deeply depressing themes about loss on personal and societal levels, with one critic infamously writing that the film had “all the emotional uplift of ‘Mein Kampf.’ ” But this entry is a major visual turning point for the genre. Its barren wasteland setting and leather-and-scraps wearing characters are an aesthetic that’s still being emulated today in projects like Graham Wagner and Geneva Robertson-Dworet’s video game adaptation “Fallout” (2024). The mood would also be heightened by Miller himself in each sequel: “Mad Max 2” (1981), “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985), and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015). 

“The Terminator” (1984)

Courtesy Orion Pictures

Of course, humans are nothing if not obstinate. By the time 1984 rolled around (a fairly significant year as far as post-apocalyptic storytelling goes), it was no wonder that films were no longer resigned to an abysmal fate. Instead, audiences wanted to fight the future. From that desire came James Cameron’s “The Terminator,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a robot assassin sent from a future ruled by sentient machines. Schwarzenegger’s robot, a T-800, is dedicated to stopping the leader of a future human resistance, John Connor, by killing his mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton).

“The Terminator” is unique for several reasons. It took the slasher template set in stone by John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film “Halloween” and added a healthy dose of science fiction. It’s a post-apocalyptic movie set largely before the story’s apocalypse that attempts to prevent what’s to come. But more than that, while films like “Mad Max” and “Soylent Green” focused on a dire future, “The Terminator” had the audacity to suggest that maybe, if people put their minds to it, things didn’t have to turn out that way. 

“Delicatessen” (1991) 

Delicatessen movieCourtesy UGC Distribution

As audiences warmed up to the idea of movies about the end of the world, it was only a matter of time before filmmakers decided that we may as well laugh about it. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, the French film “Delicatessen” follows an unemployed circus clown, Louison (Dominique Pinon), who applies to work in a local butcher’s shop following the death (see: murder) of its last employee. While, in the wake of a societal collapse, the butcher is in the habit of killing his workers as a source of cheap meat, he is hesitant to murder Louison, because he’s actually good at his job.  

Using humans as a source of food in a post-apocalyptic society is hardly new, but “Delicatessen” stays fresh by exploring its subject matter with a comedic touch, leaning into the absurdity of the premise. 

“The Matrix” (1999)

The MatrixCourtesy Warner Bros. 

By the end of the 20th century, post-apocalyptic films were becoming old hat—or so it seemed, until the Wachowski sisters unleashed “The Matrix” on the world. Set in a future when sentient machines use humans as batteries, the film follows hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) as he is awakened from the simulation and discovers the reality of humans in the 23rd(ish) century—hiding from and in resistance to their robot overlords. 

“The Matrix” revolutionized not only post-apocalyptic cinema, but film in general, pushing the limits of special effects technology and action choreography to previously unheard-of extremes. The next several decades saw countless imitations of its aesthetic, style, worldbuilding, and story. It’s fitting that “The Matrix” sparked such a change in the industry; what better catalyst to throw caution to the wind than the end of the world?

Post-apocalyptic storytelling in the 21st century

“Children of Men” (2006)

Children of MenCourtesy Universal Pictures

Perhaps it was the changing of the clocks to a new millennium—or maybe filmmakers realized there was no reason to rewalk well-trod ground—but the post-2000 crop of post-apocalyptic films truly exploded the genre. Case in point: “Children of Men” from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón. Clive Owen stars as Theo, a man surviving in a future when babies are no longer being born. He crosses paths with a pregnant woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), who is determined to make her way to a rumored safe haven where scientists are working to solve the infertility crisis. 

The modern era of post-apocalyptic cinema has, in some ways, blended the nihilism of the earliest entries of the genre with stubborn hope, delivering bleak stories tinged with the barest whiff of optimism. “Children of Men” features a world on the brink of collapse, but it refuses to fully give in to despair. 

“WALL-E” (2008)

Wall-ECourtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Did you realize Pixar’s “WALL-E” was a post-apocalyptic film? Set sometime in the 29th century, “WALL-E” follows the titular garbage-compacting robot whose curiosity leads it to encounter a ship full of the last surviving humans of a depleted Earth. The humans ultimately stage an uprising against their robot overlord (perhaps you’re detecting a theme in this genre?) in their determination to return to their home planet to see if it can sustain life again. 

It feels almost odd to consider “WALL-E” a post-apocalyptic film, but it’s important to remember that the genre does not have to be bleak. It can be funny, optimistic, and even aspirational, given the right story. Just as we can’t truly know what might bring about the end of the world, we also have no way to predict how we might feel in the aftermath. While it makes sense that we might give in to despair, “WALL-E” reminds us that no matter what the future holds, there is always room for hope.

“Warm Bodies” (2013)

Courtesy Lionsgate

A rom-com in the zombie apocalypse, you say? Maybe such a thing would be unheard of back in the “Night of the Living Dead” days, but by 2013, it was time to introduce new and seemingly incompatible genres to the post-apocalyptic oeuvre. Based on Isaac Marion’s 2010 novel, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Warm Bodies” follows a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who falls in love with a human (Teresa Palmer) after eating her boyfriend’s brains. 

Silly? Maybe—but it works, with true love conquering all, including a taste for gray matter. Not only does “Warm Bodies” serve as another solid entry into the post-apocalyptic canon, but it also proves that no subgenre is off-limits when it comes to the end of the world. 

“World War Z” (2013)

Brad Pitt in World War ZCourtesy Paramount Pictures 

Over the decades, zombie apocalypse fiction has morphed in many ways into pandemic fiction. Few films demonstrate this better than Marc Foster’s “World War Z.” The film, adapted from Max Brooks’ 2006 novel, follows United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) as he leads a team dedicated to understanding and stopping a lethal virus that’s turning people into flesh-eating monsters. In this version of the apocalypse, humanity has come together to put every reasonable measure in place to stop the contagion, but it continues to spread.

Of course, now that we’ve lived through a real-life pandemic, “World War Z” feels overly optimistic, and maybe even naive. Still, if your goal is to familiarize yourself with the themes of the genre, this film’s balance of hope with brutal pragmatism is a worthy entry. 

“It Comes at Night” (2017)

It Comes at Night Courtesy A24

Where “Warm Bodies” experimented with tone and “World War Z” elevated the post-apocalyptic storyline to a global scale, “It Comes at Night” parsed the apocalypse down to its barest essentials. Trey Edward Shults’ claustrophobic horror centers around a father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), and his family trying to avoid a mysterious, fatal illness in a remote cabin. After Paul invites another family of survivors into his home, paranoia grows.

Recently, the genre has become increasingly less interested in the cause of the apocalypse (there are plenty of current headlines every day that could point the way) than the intimate, personal relationships that develop in the aftermath. In “It Comes at Night,” we learn very little about what’s happening outside the few square miles around Paul’s cabin. Shults chooses instead to focus on what we’re willing to do to protect our own, even when the threat is impossible to understand. 

“A Quiet Place” (2018)

John Krasinski in A Quiet PlaceCourtesy Paramount Pictures

John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” came with a theater-friendly hook. Thanks to the film’s central premise of a world overrun by aliens with super-sensitive hearing, the narrative largely plays out without sound. And while it’s definitely novel to watch a movie devoid of dialogue, the biggest draw of “A Quiet Place” is how much emphasis it places on the nuclear family amid the chaos. 

The film focuses on two parents—played by Krasinski and Emily Blunt—who have a daughter (Millicent Simmonds), a son (Noah Jupe), and a third child on the way. While the constant silence helps add to the tension, it’s the way “A Quiet Place” makes you feel for this family that hits hardest. It forces the viewer to consider not just how you might survive, but everyone you care about as well.