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Identifying the Sub-Genres of Apocalypse Films!

Article by Gary W. Tooze

There are many movies labeled as 'apocalypse films'. I feel like I have been generalizing about this genre, that I appreciate more all the time. Technically the word, 'apocalypse' is described as "any universal or widespread destruction or disaster". That seems a very broad definition encompassing many films - so I'd like to explore and identify some of its sub-genres as well as document all of those pure apocalypse or simply apocalypse-leaning films that I rate as worthy or 're-watchable'. They are hyper-linked below to our reviews.
Preface - I am not naming every apocalypse film in this article and there may be spoilers in some of my brief descriptions or categorizations.

Dystopian movies usually have a central focus of describing existence in a devolved society gone, horribly, wrong. Most include a Post-Apocalyptic aspect - sometimes which is never fully addressed. The hows and whys become, largely, irrelevant to the storyline - John Hillcoat's impressive 2009 film The Road from Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel - is a definitive example. A father trying to maintain the dream of a civilization still alive somewhere... for his son.  The audience need only accept that there was a civilization denouement in a future fraught with its own unique ordeals, hardships and consequences.
Apocalypse film subsets frequently crossover. Many of these screenplays have the cornerstone of some mass extermination event that entails imaginative burdens such as, a favorite, 'flesh-eating plants' - as in 1962's marvelous The Day of the Triffids, from the John Wyndham novel, its remakes (1981, 2009) or, the marginal shift, found in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening with eerie suicide-inducing trees. Uninhabitable weather is a popular scenario for mankind's ruination used in both Val Guest's 1961's The Day the Earth Caught Fire - where it was far too hot or 2004's highly re-watchable The Day After Tomorrow - too damn cold! A fatal, commonly transmitted, virus diegesis as in Contagion, World War Z, Nightmare City - or a host of other science-created zombie imaginings are frequently replicated on celluloid.  Mass physical debilitation can initiate a civilization collapse as in 2006's Blindness (mass impaired vision as an humankind-regressive aspect also a part of Triffids) or, example, infertility as utilized in 2006's desperately kinetic Children of Men. Inter-planetary aliens are a common threat with War of the Worlds (1953, 2005) - Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) and its latest iteration remake; The Invasion (2007), Shyamalan's brilliant Signs, Independence Day and thought-provoking science-fiction movies like the intelligent Knowing with Nicolas Cage (a surprisingly strong, relatively recent, film from him) as a father who sets out to prevent the ultimate catastrophe by deciphering alien-related clues. There are plenty invested in the 'space invasion' milieu that hint are enslavement, take-over or our total destruction as the apocalyptic driver. How about simply 'monsters' - seen but  only vaguely referenced - as in 2007's The Mist or 2016's 10 Cloverfield Lane. The mystery behind their existence being part of the film's horror agent.  Meteor panic created a mild paranoia in the late 90's sparking enjoyable apocalypse efforts like Deep Impact and Armageddon. Self-ware androids ala The Terminator franchise (1984, 1991, 2003, 2009, 2015) remain popular. Realistically, Soylent Green detailed overpopulation and food scarcity as mankind's future villains. A biblical prophecy can help spin an in-depth apocalypse yarn like 1988's The Seventh Sign, and, of course, everyone's favorite, and the most common, convention; Zombies. A linchpin mainstay of the generalized subset which seems to have more spinoffs than the entire rest of the genre combined. I love them, too - but they require an entire article of their own.

The potential or Pre-Apocalypse movie is one in which the majority of the film features the 'How" aspect of an impending catastrophe - sometimes leaving the end of the film less-detailed for the dour, and non-visualized, occurrence. Springing to mind are Peter Weir's culturally mystifying
The Last Wave (1977), and 2011's Take Shelter which piggy-backed on the growing popularity of emergency paranoid-prepping. Contrarily, establishing hope after removing of the potential earth-leveling menace - The Day of the Triffids, Michael Bay's excessively-produced Armageddon or the two Independence Day films - all take the positive spin.
The Mid-Apocalypse movie may or may not detail the event, but centers more on the 'new world' and conflicts arising from an unprecedented paradigm shift exporting side stories of the personal survivalism that ensues. Often these are portrayed with man's-inhumanity-to-man surfacing in 'uncivilized' areas. An intriguing example would be 1962's Panic in Year Zero! riding an early 60s wave of cold-war-panic. More harsh, although fully established, would be Children of Men. Often politics, power and control are central to the human engagements of a discordant society rebuilding in the aftermath of an 'event'. See 2015's Snowpiercer and 2010's The Book of Eli which were highly inventive utilizing both 'oppression' and 'human-spirit' themes.

There is also the "Threatened Apocalypse" where we can go through much of the film questioning the veracity of a central character, who may be preparing, insisting that an unproven apocalypse already has, or will imminently, transpire. Occasionally, it can be, potentially, averted by a manipulated protagonist's actions. A wiped-out planet earth may only represent a foil, red herring or pivotal twist, in the eventual conclusion. These include the revelatory Take Shelter with Michael Shannon as his character's dramatic 'prepping' makes him an outcast to his small community and misunderstood by his family. Retreat with Thandie Newton
taking place on an isolated and uninhabited island not cognoscente of the rest of the world's, potential, pandemic, and 2016's dark, claustrophobic 10 Cloverfield Lane, are equally apt. All three films carry strong attributes, in this reviewer's opinion. Also under this sub-genre I'd be remiss not including the excellent drama Miracle Mile (1988) which deserves mention as an official apocalypse film. It's a wonderful, unique, viewing experience and dissimilar to most of these listings although shares emotional undercurrents with The Day the Earth Caught Fire. What to do knowing the end is nigh...

My favorites of all, however, tend to be the 'Limited Survivor Apocalypse' storylines with the interaction of a handful of characters driving the narrative. Everybody's gone! The pioneer in this seems to have been 1964's The Last Man on Earth, written by the iconic Richard Matheson, which trail-blazed a sub-genre showcasing a lone Vincent Price battling inhuman zombie hoards as the titular character. From that germinating bud came, replicates, 1971's The Omega Man with Charleston Heston and 2007's I Am Legend starring Will Smith comfortably fitting in this sub-genre.
Night of the Comet (1984) sneaks into this category but its cuteness and satirical qualities keep it on the outer edge. But I was most keen on films like 1985's The Quiet Earth, and it's modern equivalent - also with two men and one gal as lone survivors - 2015's Z For Zachariah with Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie. Retreat also has only three characters - a husband, wife and stranger - strong-holding against a, supposed, apocalyptic virus sweeping across Europe. These three films could aptly be labeled 'apocalyptic chamber pieces'. They all represent pure examples of the genre. Plus, I include in this group The Road, which I have seen at least a dozen times and, obviously, also rate extremely highly.

Lastly, is the 'Idyllic-Facade Apocalypse' where the future seems more a panacea for our current-existence ills via a harmonious, pristine, high-tec, push-button, world - automated and sanitized. These can represent only quasi-apocalypse films as extinction is a programmable policy aside from a defined calamitous event. Include the inventive Logan's Run (1976), Michael Bay's 2005 updated offshoot The Island, with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, as well as Alex Proyas' I, Robot with Will Smith. In these films the illusion is eventually exposed - uncovering the future's corrupt soulless identity, and deadly, inner-workings. The dark-design manifesting as our self-built system.
There are quite a few films that have garnered the 'apocalypse' label that even if I don't see as 'primarily' (dominantly adhering to enough of the genre's characteristics) are worthy of mention. Many consider Andrei Tarkovsky's brilliant 1979 Stalker an apocalypse film. I don't - although I wouldn't argue its inclusion or that it's the best film on this page. The entire film, especially the wasteland of "The Zone" is akin to visual art as a dystopian expression and that overwhelms my apocalypse-based suspension of disbelief - as does my knowledge of the fate of three members of the crew, including Tarkovsky, who died as a result of chemical contamination encountered filming on location in Tallinn, Estonia.  So, no - I don't label it an 'apocalypse film' but it is not written in stone. Lars von Trier's, 2011, film Melancholia also has me viewing it as an art film more than an apocalypse film. In my small world, those two genres don't rub shoulders as, say, crime-drama or mystery-thriller. Sure, the original Planet of the Apes (1968), references an earth-apocalypse in its conclusion, but for the majority of my viewing I saw a cool, inventive, space-adventure and later smatterings of nostalgia. I suppose a case could be made for a "apocalypse-in-retrospect" categorization. Both Zardoz (1974) and Blade Runner (1982) are pure science-fiction with more varied themes than apocalypse-distinguishing origins. Masterpieces both but I don't watch them for a apocalypse appeal. Then there's Escape from New York (1981) and Escape From L.A. (1996), plus Mad Max (1979) and it sequels including the latest Mad Max: Fury Road (2015.) Probably obvious choices to many but they are action films, first and foremost with science-fiction and/or fantasy as rear-guards. My irrational bias keeps them out. As for 28 Days Later (2002)/ 28 Weeks Later (2007), I need to revisit them - it's been years.  I recall liking them both but more for their horror attributes. Stay tuned. I'm also on the fence about On the Beach (1959) - it's quite introspective and intellectual. Perhaps it and The Andromeda Strain (1971), as well as the creature-ish feature Phase IV (1974) deserve a second examination. Lastly, I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar (2014) and it identifies that Earth's future has been riddled by disasters, famines, and droughts. But it is so much more to pigeon-hole it in this way. Thanks for reading - now that you have a sense of my interpretation of the genre and favorites, I'm always up for suggestions. Better hurry - I hear we don't have much time left... :) 


Apocalypse-related films on Blu-ray and DVD in chronological order (click review buttons to also see

comparisons where applicable)



Invasion of the Body Snatchers


World Without End


On the Beach


The Day the Earth Caught Fire


La Jetee


Panic in Year Zero


The Day of the Triffids (1963)


The Last Man on Earth


Colossus: The Forbin Project


The Andromeda Strain


The Omega








Soylent Green



Phase IV




A Boy and His Dog


Logan's Run


Damnation Alley


The Last Wave


Invasion of the Body Snatchers



Escape From New York (1981)

Blade Runner (1982)

Night of the Comet


The Quiet Earth


Miracle Mile


The Seventh Sign


They Live (1988)


Twelve Monkeys




Deep Impact  




The Day After Tomorrow


I, Robot


The Island



V For Vendetta


War of the Worlds


Children of Men


The Invasion




The Mist


Planet Terror





The Day the Earth Stood Still


The Happening






The Road



The Book of Eli






Take Shelter




World War Z


Interstellar (2014)


Z for Zachariah


10 Cloverfield Lane


Train to Busan

















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