As usual I have been wallowing in B-grade movie bliss for the last few evenings. My selection at the local video store last time took in a whole spate of post-apocalyptic gems (sometimes you just need to believe that others have it worse than you, right?). Anyway, it got me thinking: what are the five best post-apocalyptic films of all time? Here’s a list I prepared earlier…
1. 28 Days Later (2002)
In league with the remake of Dawn of the Dead, this film sparked the contemporary debate over whether ‘infected people’ were in fact Zombies. It’s a pointless argument that ignores the exceptional nature of this film.
Danny Boyle is my favourite director of all time (I didn’t even really hate the sentimental melodrama of Slumdog Millionaire), but to my mind this is his masterwork (yes, even better than Trainspotting). The acting is great, the film work is eerie and gritty, the soundtrack is absolute gold but, mostly, it’s the intertextual references and symbolism of the film’s construction that makes this one to watch again and again. Are the statues of the soldiers in the earlier scenes a precursor to the fallen soldiers of the final scenes? What exactly does the statue of Laokoon in the foyer of the soldiers mansion signify? And, in the transition to the denouement, when Jim’s life/death question is unanswered that momentary cut to the inverted HELL (which turns out to be the beginnings of the word HELLO) – just brilliant.
Granted, it’s not strictly speaking a “post-apocalyptic” film for reasons that I can’t enter into without spoiling it all for the uninitiated – but it sits squarely within the genre, nonetheless.
2. The Salute of the Jugger (1989)
A slept on gem of a film from 1989 which is sometimes called ‘Blood of Heroes’. This film starred Rutger Hauer (the lead android from Blade Runner plus a slew of B-grade classics), Joan Chen and Vincent d’Onofrio. It’s actually, against all odds, a really very good film. Shot entirely in Australia (Sydney and the mining town of Coober Pedy) the cinematography captures the desolation of the post-apocalyptic wastelands perfectly. The acting all around is excellent and the script is actually tightly written with a minimal of waffle or self-indulgence. The premise involves a roving bands of “juggers” moving from poverty stricken village to poverty stricken village so they may play other teams of “juggers” in a brutal bloodsport that has no real rules except for the number of players and the ultimate aim of putting a dogs skull on a spike. Granted, this has all the hallmarks of a quintessentially bad film, but the premise is treated with such conviction by all involved that it never for a moment really seems outlandish. Furthermore, the sport is just a sidenote for the broader story arc about hopes, dreams, honour, mistakes and redemption.
3. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George A. Romero’s classic and genre defining Zombie film is akin to film legend. I’ve posted before about the technical “badness” of this film, but its importance is undeniable. The film pointedly shakes its head in disappointment at an American society on the cusp of the MTV generation (first airing 1981). Passing comment on the exponential growth of consumer culture embodied in the mall where they hide out, and providing genuinely meaningful criticism of authoritarian cold war rhetoric that would soon give rise to the neo-liberal economic hegemony of Reaganomics (Reagan won Presidency in 1981 but the neo-liberal movement had gathered momentum since the mid-70’s). Sure, the film has its problems but it was so insightful that the problems seemed like minor issues. Very clever stuff.
4. The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Undoubtedly an influence on Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), The Last Man on Earth is the first film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (which later spawned the very good Omega Man in 1971, and the barely passable I Am Legend in 2007). Unlike the other two films, Matheson had a hand in the screenplay for this film but ultimately disowned it. Nevertheless, it does have the interesting, ingenuous claim to being perhaps the only film in the genre that effectively combines the zombie and the vampire myth. But it’s not the mythology of the film that makes it so good – it’s the performance put in by Vincent Price and the eerie direction and soundwork that supports him. Most scenes have no one but Vincent Price (as the duty bound but pretty unstable Dr. Robert Morgan) moving through the dialogue-less, mundane motions of day to day life. Yet, it is fascinating and somehow moves along with a sense of tension and pace that flashier films often fail to capture. This is an Italian marvel.
5. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Produced in the same year as Night of the Living Dead, these two films could not be at more polar ends of the production value spectrum. Night of the Living Dead stretched every single dollar to maximum advantage whilst Planet of the Apes wantonly threw about it’s enormous budget to excess. Usually, such budget boons signify attempts by producers to film ever growing black holes in plot or scripting. In this case, the film simply works. Solid acting from the wooden face Heston and marvellous aping of apes by Roddy McDowell plus a twist that really has a sense of gravitas (although it has become a pop culture staple these days and, thus, can never really be viewed with fresh eyes – which is a shame) give the film a deeper meaning that the silly costumes and pretty ridiculous plot could ever have hoped to communicate. Sometimes things just work.
Night of the Living Dead, The Omega Man, Day of the Dead (original), Tank Girl, Swordfight at Double Flag Town (probably more of a Eastern-Western-Sword flick, but watch it and try to tell me it’s not post-apocalyptic), and the Dawn of the Dead remake (a cracker of a film but without the poignancy of the original).
The Three Worst Post-Apocalyptic Films
1. Day of the Dead remake
Oh, I see… Zombies, despite being dead and less able-bodied human beings, are actually able to defy the laws of gravity and crawl across the cieling! Riggggghhhhtttttt….
I have never seen a film that is so binary in its decent-to-terrible movement. It’s watchable right up until the knights in armour. Trust me. Watch it and you’ll see…
Okay. So I have seen this about four times. It’s really not that bad but at the same time, it is really, really bad. I can’t explain it. It has terrible acting, a stupid plot, a bad script, and far to many exploding things but… well… I’ve been swallowed by the Hollywood monster.