The theme of the apocalypse in film tends to deal with either some type of event that has led to the end of the world, or a prelude to the end, or the aftermath in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The cause is not always revealed. Most often it is due to a nuclear event or war, but it has also involved an alien invasion or attack, a disease that has wiped out most of the population, and the ever popular zombies.
One of the earliest examples of the apocalypse theme is a 1916 Danish Sci-fi drama titled The End of the World, which deals with a comet that comes near earth and causes numerous natural disasters and a breakdown of civilization.
The end of World War II and the threat of nuclear war with Russia during the Cold War brought about a large number of motion pictures dealing with the subject during the 1950’s.
This continued well into the 1970’s and 1980’s as the potential threat of total annihilation always loomed. Some of the more popular ones included the Planet of the Apes series, Logan’s Run, Omega Man, and Mad Max. The popularity of the Mad Max trilogy and Escape From L.A. during the 1980’s led to many clones and rip off movies with similar looks and themes trying to capitalize off of their success.
The subject is still popular today especially with the recent release of Mad Max: Fury Road and the new Planet of the Apes trilogy. It also includes the many zombie movies that have recently been released such as Zombieworld and World War Z and the immensely successful television show The Walking Dead.
This list contains a little bit of everything, with at least one film from every decade between 1950 and 1990 and at least one from America, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, and the Philippines. This list is a varied collection of cult films and trashy pictures; all ranging between being critically hailed, being exploitative and controversial, and being considered so bad that they are great.
[Author’s Note: This list is not meant to be an all inclusive list or a best of list; it is simply fifteen cult movies that may be worth your time.]
1. Day the World Ended (1955)
“A new high in naked shrieking terror!” . This was Roger Corman’s fourth film as a director and his first in the science fiction genre. After an atomic war, a canyon ends up serving as natural fallout shelter from the radiation.
Located in the canyon is the home of a former Navy commander and his daughter, who end up letting in five strangers. They face multiple threats in their attempt to survive; this includes the threat of contamination of their shelter from the radiation, a mutated monster that looks to kill anything that it comes across and eat beings that are contaminated, and the threat of a man whose intentions are to get rid of the other men so he can have the women for himself.
Despite the low budget, weak plot, stock characters, and somewhat cheap looking monster effects, this film is “still notable as one of the few films of the 1950s that actually showed the effects of radiation on humans, however unrealistic its depiction of those effects might have been” . Shot in only ten days on a budget of around $90,000, it would go on to gross $400,000 on a double bill with The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues.
2. Creation of the Humanoids (1962)
“Never Has the Screen Brought You A More *Shocking* Revelation!” . This is a low budget sci-fi film that suffers in terms of effects and set designs, but makes up for it in the story and themes that it touches upon. An atomic war has destroyed most of the human population and led to a low birthrate amongst the remaining survivors.
The human race creates a series of robots to perform most jobs, leading to an evolution of robots that are referred to as humanoids. These blue skinned robots look somewhat similar to humans; however they do not have the capacity for emotions. With the help of a human doctor, these humanoids have found a way to transplant all of the memories of a human into an android.
There are several robots living within the society as humans, completely unaware that they are anything else but human. It is unclear what the humanoids goal in doing this is and there is a racist group called The Order of Flesh and Blood that wants to have them disassembled.
This movie touches on themes of race and politics that closely resembled the civil rights issues that were taking place in America during the 1960’s. The robots have been swapped in for African Americans and are treated like slaves by many of the humans, being referred to in the movie by the humans as “clickers.”
The group that is called the order dresses in an outfit that is very similar to the confederate soldiers outfits worn during the civil war, including the cap and knife on their belts. There is also a subplot involving a female having a relationship with one of the humanoids and how that impacts and upsets her brother.
Despite the low budget effects, they had a particularly breakthrough technique used for the silvery looking eyes of the humanoids. Jack Pierce was responsible for the makeup design. He is probably best known for his work with Universal Pictures during the 1930’s and 1940’s, which included Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.
The contact lenses that were used in production were created by Dr. Louis M. Zabner, an optometrist who is considered the pioneer of using contact lenses to change the color of an actor’s eye. While most versions of this consist of a running time of 75 minutes, the release by Dark Sky DVD has some additional footage and is 84 minutes long.
3. Panic in the Year Zero! (1962)
This surprisingly effective sci-fi drama directed and starring Ray Milland involves a family of four leaving Los Angeles for a camping trip right as a nuclear war breaks out and destroys the city. He adopts a strong survivalist code in order to protect his family as civilization starts to break down, taking them into the wilderness and living inside of a cave. During their ordeal, they encounter other refugees and violent juveniles willing to kill for fun and supplies.
This could be considered an early precursor or grandfather to Mad Max and other similar apocalyptic dramas. It is an excellent drama with a strong performance from the lead actor Milland as the father. Its statement shows a grim portrayal of man, in that the real enemies after a nuclear catastrophe will be his fellow citizens.
Film critic Michael Atkinson said that “this forgotten, saber-toothed 1962 AIP cheapie might be the most expressive on-the-ground nightmare of the Cold War era, providing a template not only for countless social-breakdown genre flicks (most particularly, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf) but also for authentic crisis—shades of New Orleans haunt its DVD margins…the movie is nevertheless an anxious, detail-rich on moral collapse” .
4. Zardoz (1974)
“I have seen the future and it doesn’t work” . In the year 2293, the world has been divided into two groups, the civilized immortal Eternals and the barely civilized mortal Brutals. A group of Brutal Exterminators maintain control and kill the other Brutals, at the orders of a huge flying head called Zardoz. In exchange for food that is collected, Zardoz exchanges weapons for the Brutal Exterminator.
One Exterminator named Zed (Sean Connery), hides on Zardoz to discover what is on the other side. There he meets two Eternals and discovers that a plague is among the Eternals, causing them to lose interest in life and fall into catatonia. While there he discovers the true origin and nature of the god called Zardoz.
This one will probably cause a divide in opinion among sci-fi fans, you’re either going to love it or hate it. It has some amazing imagery, especially the large Zardoz head and the look of the Brutals. The overall cinematography is great; it is a pretty mesmerizing movie. There is some humor, plus you’ll either love or laugh at the way Sean Connery looks in the film. The downside is the plot can get confusing and slow at times, plus the big reveal moment may not be as exciting as people had hoped for.
This was written, produced, and directed by John Boorman, who had previous success with Point Blank, Hell in the Pacific, and most notable Deliverance. It was his commercial success with Deliverance that gave him free reign on this film. In his career, he has been noted for being a bit pretentious and for going on ego-trips .
He should be commended for trying to push the boundaries in the hopes of making something that was on the level of a Stanley Kubrick and 2001 . The movie did not do very well at the box office, but has cult following among sci-fi fans, “playing at revival houses, on college campuses, and on the midnight movie circuit for several years” .
5. Creation of the Damned AKA El refugio del Miedo (1974)
“Time… The not too distant future. Place… The USA. Problem… Nuclear war. Effect… A society with no rules” . This is a somewhat hard to find Spanish production that is more of a character study about what happens when people are forced to be confined in quarters for a long period of time.
Two military couples and their son try to survive in an underground fallout shelter after some type of nuclear holocaust has occurred in the United States. When supplies start to run short, tensions mount and some of the members begin to act in a bizarre and irrational manor. Many people disliked it and have described it as slow and boring, so you have been warned in advance.
6. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
“The year is 2024… a future you’ll probably live to see” . Based on a series of short stories turned into a novella by author Harlan Ellison, it is a post apocalyptic tale of a teenage boy (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog working together in order to survive. It’s pretty much as if Mad Max and Clockwork Orange screwed each other, had a baby and popped this sucker out.
The film is basically a buddy comedy, mixed with rape and ultra violence as the boy finds food for the dog and the dog sniffs out women for him to rape. In between, they have comedic banter as the more intelligent dog berates the boy, battle marauders that pull a makeshift car like a chariot led by a man wearing a blanket cape, watch porno movies at a make shift movie theater, and deal with an underground society that wear clown like makeup and want to use the boy for breading.
The movie is all sorts of crazy and that’s what makes it great. Its lack of financial success has made it grow as a cult film and has inspired other films and media. It is obvious that this film is an inspiration for the Mad Max films; there are several scenes from this movie that were clearly recreated in The Road Warrior movie.
Max also has the dog as a companion in the second film, even though it doesn’t talk to him. The film was also an inspiration for the popular video game series Fallout .
7. Wizards (1977)
“An epic fantasy of peace and magic” . Two million years after a nuclear war has devastated the earth, only several humans survived along with a bunch of mutants. The true ancestors of the earth, fairies, elves, dwarves end up returning back to earth. The queen of the fairies gives birth to twin wizards, one that is good and the other is evil.
Three thousand years later, the queen dies and the evil wizard, Blackwolf, looks to take control of the land he believes is his. The good wizard named Avatar must save the earth from his evil brother and his dream machine, with the help of a fairy princess, a warrior elf, and a former robot of Blackwood’s.
This was written, directed, and produced by Ralph Bakshi. He is an animator mostly known for his use of combining animation and live-action sequences, from the 1970’s through early 1990’s.
Most of his films were independently produced and contained adult themes. He is known for the films Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, American Pop, Fire and Ice, and Cool World. On a side note, Fire and Ice is a great Frank Frazetta Conan comic book inspired film that was left out of this list.
This is sort of the futuristic version of Lord of the Rings, if it would have fast forwarded in time and included mutated Nazi soldiers and images of Hitler. The theme of the story is magic versus technology and how technology destroyed the world and is inherently evil. There is a lot of Nazi imagery that is used to portray the evil side as more evil.
Blackwood has found their old technology and is recreating tanks and weapons. He sits on top of a throne that has a big swastika underneath of it. The dream machine that he uses to confuse his enemies is an old film projector with images of the Nazis and Hitler.
The animation is great, especially if you’re a Bakshi fan. There are exquisite background paintings that combine watercolor and detailed line drawings. Then that is mixed in with the cartoon animation and its unique style. On top of that, there is that added element of live action scenes spliced in with it.
The combination is something that Bakshi became known for and would later be copied in films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There is a mix of serious and humor, with most of the comedic elements coming from the human soldiers in gas masks that work for Blackwood.
The film ended up doing pretty well, grossing somewhere around $9,000,000. It has gained a strong cult following among sci-fi and fantasy fans, and fans of Bakshi’s work. If you haven’t seen and you like any of his other films or underground comics from the 1970’s, then you should check this out.