I have to admit, it’s scary out there right now, but I believe it’s going to get better! Sure, there’s some uncertainty, and it’s hard to know who you can trust, but at least we have movies to tide us over while we wait. Go ahead and get yourself lost in a celluloid dream for a few hours… you probably have time right now.
If anything, use the movies I’m about to nerd out about as a learning tool. Each film showcases the aftermath of a civilization-ending event and how the characters rebuilt their societies. Some formed small groups, while others built new cities. In some cases, all forms of modern technology were destroyed, while in others, technology thrived. In every case, society was changed after a cataclysmic event. It could go either way, so it’s best to watch every film on this list to cover all of your bases. So, get out your notepads, people. It’s time to jot some stuff down.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
I’m starting this list with what I consider to be the most iconic post-apocalyptic movie: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). I chose the sequel since the original film Mad Max (1979 – read our retro review here), a harrowing tale about a state trooper in a civilization on decline, is a great film, but not nearly as well known as The Road Warrior. While the first one made it clear that law and order were on the decline, civilization hadn’t quite fallen yet. The Road Warrior drops us in years later, giving us a world even more devolved.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior takes place in a post apocalyptic Australia. Fuel is scarce, ammo is limited, and allies are in high demand as roving biker gangs ravage the land. Max, still reeling from the loss of his family in the previous movie, lives a meager existence. His only companions are a dog and a sawed-off shotgun. The story really takes off after he is confronted by Lord Humongous, a hockey-masked monster of a man who sounds like he memorized a thesaurus, and his gang of marauders.
While the first Mad Max film caught the attention of Hollywood, the second one cemented Writer/Director George Miller as an in demand talent. Mel Gibson, the face of the franchise, went on to meteoric stardom, becoming a staple of ’80s and ’90s films. There are currently two sequels, with the newest one taking place just after Road Warrior, as well as a few video games.
Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)
Yes, this one is another sequel, but it works so I’m going with it. Differentiating itself from the rest of the series, I give you Highlander 2: The Quickening, the red headed step child to the Highlander franchise, but one I still find enjoyable.
On the far off planet of Zeist, the elders send Ramirez (Sean Connery) and our hero, Connor Macleod (the amazing Christopher Lambert), to earth as immortals who must fight for The Prize before they are captured by their foe, General Katana (perennial ’80s villain Michael Ironside),
Afterwards, Connor chooses to stay on Earth as a scientist to develop an artificial ozone layer, which leaves the planet stuck in perpetual night. Eventually, political terrorist Louisa Marcus (Virginia Madsen of Candyman fame) discovers that the ozone layer has replenished itself. Unfortunately, the evil corporation in charge of running the artificial ozone, which charges a fee for their service, has declined to turn it off. Trouble ensues.
The story behind the filming of Highlander 2 is a bit of a disaster. Shot in Argentina, the producers took over production after the country’s economy crashed, pushing for a more sci-fi feel with the sets resembling something out of Total Recall (1990). During the premiere, Director Russell Mulcahy hated the product so much that he left after the first 15 minutes. Lambert nearly left as well, but in the end, decided against it.
I do enjoy this one. It’s just so different from the rest, but its influence can be seen in the follow up anime series, 2007’s OVA Highlander: The Search For Vengeance, and, to a loose extent, the SyFy Channel original movie, Highlander: The Source.
Resident Evil Extinction (2007)
Okay, this is the last sequel, I promise. Just like with Highlander 2, Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) moves into a more post-apocalyptic vision, even sharing the same director, Russell Mulcahy! Penned by Paul W.S. Anderson, the story returns to the confusingly convoluted series of events revolving around Milla Jovovich’s Alice, as life should be.
We are now introduced to a Road Warrior-esque land in which the T Virus has ravaged everything, including plant and animal life. Alice travels the world alone, constantly on the run from the ever watchful eye of Umbrella, who are constantly experimenting with Alice clones. Meanwhile, Carlos (Oded Fehr) and LJ (Mike Epps) now travel the land in a convoy led by Claire Redfield (Ali Larter).
Although Milla Jovovich, Oded Fehr, and Mike Epps reprised their roles from the previous film, Sienna Guillory who played franchise favorite Jill Valentine, backed out due to other commitments. Initially, other fan favorite characters, like Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield, were in talks to be added, but they didn’t make an appearance until later in the series.
As mentioned, Russell Mulcahy was brought on to direct. Paul W.S. Anderson was a fan of his previous work, citing his work on the Highlander franchise as an influence. I get it if you’re a series purist and you hate how the movies turned out, but if you look at them as a separate entity from the games, you’ll definitely get a kick out of this series.
Tank Girl (1995)
Let’s take a break from all of this doom and gloom for a minute and talk about something a little more lighthearted. Tank Girl is the 1995 comic book adaptation that you’ve always wanted but didn’t know it. A glorious celebration of the absurd, it has the kind of humor Deadpool would popularize much later. The movie plot deviates from the comic, but I’m willing to give it a pass.
In 2022, a comet hits the Earth, drying up the planet. The evil Water and Power, a militaristic dictatorship led by Kessler (played with zeal by Malcolm McDowell), controls most of the remaining water.
Scavenger Rebecca (Lori Petty) lives in a commune that’s been siphoning water from a reservoir. The commune is raided and she is taken prisoner. Initially forced into slavery, she escapes with fellow slave, Jet (Naomi Watts), after an attack by the Rippers, mutant kangaroos who defy Water and Power. With each with their own customized vehicles – Rebecca with a tank and Jet with a… jet – they set out to stop Water and Power and save their friends.
Tom Astor, original publisher of Tank Girl through Deadline magazine, was looking for a studio interested in making the story into a film. Meanwhile, Rachel Talalay, who was shooting Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), read a Tank Girl comic between takes and became fascinated. Talalay contacted Astor and was granted the rights to the film.
Oddly enough, Disney put in a bid on the film, but Talalay declined, saying she didn’t think they’d go for the levels of violence and humor the script required. Emily Lloyd was initially cast in the part of Rebecca, but the role was later given to Lori Petty in an open casting. It’s been stated that Lloyd dropped out of the production due to not wanting to shave her head, but she has since denied this claim. Singers Iggy Pop and Bjork were both offered cameos, but Bjork turned hers down.
Now for a film starring Jean-Claude van Damme. In 1988, Cannon Films looked to make a sequel to the Dolph Lundgren led Masters of the Universe (1987). Director Albert Pyun had planned to shoot Masters 2 and a live action Spider-Man film simultaneously, but due to funding issues, was forced to change his plans. Seeing as how Cannon had already spent $2 million on costumes and sets for both projects, they opted to still make a film. Under the pen name Kitty Chalmers, Albert Pyun wrote a script called Cyborg over a weekend.
In the future, a plague known only as The Living Death has ravaged the world. The last remaining scientists have worked tirelessly to find a breakthrough. Unfortunately, data is required from a computer in New York, and they are in South Carolina. Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon) volunteers for the journey and is converted into a cyborg so she can transport the data. Unfortunately, Pearl is captured by a sadistic gang leader named Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn), but not before she acquires the service of a Slinger named Gibson Rickenbacker (Jean Claude van Damme).
Also known as Slinger, Cyborg holds the distinct honor of being the final project released by Cannon Films before they went bankrupt. The film’s budget was only $500,000, which included van Damme’s fees. Sharp-eyed fans will notice several props and items of clothing that were reused from Masters of the Universe, such as Fender’s costume, which was originally worn by the character, Blade.
In the original, unaltered vision, Cyborg had an X rating due to the violence, so major cuts were made. Currently, there exists Director’s Cut that you can purchase on Amazon.
This oddball of a film is another personal favorite of mine. Released in 2008, Doomsday is a loving homage to films such as Escape from New York (1981), Mad Max (1979), and 28 Days Later (2002). Directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent 2005, Dog Soldiers 2002), Doomsday was the filmmaker’s largest undertaking at the time. Initially envisioned as soldiers vs. knights, Doomsday evolved into something even more awesome.
In 2008, the Reaper virus has plagued Scotland. With no known cure in sight, the country is barricaded by a wall to keep the rest of the world safe from the contagion. Twenty-seven years later, a tanker is discovered to have several carriers of the deadly virus. Seeing an outbreak as inevitable, the Prime Minister charges the Head of Domestic Security (Bob Hoskins of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame) with assembling a team to head into Scotland to locate Dr. Kane (Malcolm McDowell), a medical researcher who studied the virus before the quarantine.
Among those chosen are Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who was a child when she escaped Scotland. As she ventures into Scotland, she comes into contact with Sol (Craig Conway), the hyperactive yet endearing psychopathic leader of an army of psychos.
Rhona Mitra’s portrayal of Eden is based heavily on Kurt Russel’s Snake Plissken. Initially, the character was written as a smart as, but that was toned down in favor of a more stoic professional, someone who hides her humanity. On the other hand, the character of Sol stole the show for me. Craig Conway’s manic performance, especially when speaking with his followers, had me cracking up.
Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
Here we have another light-hearted affair, and this one star the legendary Rowdy Roddy Piper to boot! While far from the most well known post-apocalyptic film out there, Hell Comes To Frogtown has quite the cult following.
After a devastating nuclear war, the majority of the world’s population has been left sterile. Those who who are still fertile are treated as a priceless commodity and forced to breed. Wandering Mercenary Sam Hell is one such commodity. After being captured by a group of warrior nurses who run the local government in their region, he is initially to be used strictly for breeding. Unfortunately for them, the fertile women get captured by the denizens of Frogtown, a sanctuary of mutant, anthropomorphic frogs. Sam is tasked with rescuing the women along with the stern Spangle (Sandahl Bergman) and tough as nails Centinella (Cec Verrell).
Released in 1988, Hell Comes to Frogtown was the first of two movies starring Piper in the lead, with the second being They Live (1988). Initially, others, including Daniel Stern, were considered for the lead, but Piper was picked instead. This movie spawned a sequel, 1993’s Return to Frogtown, which went straight to video. A 1996 spinoff, initially titled Toad Warrior, premiered, but was re-released in 2002 as Max Hell Frog Warrior.
Escape From New York (1981)
Of course, I’m adding this John Carpenter classic! This is another one of those iconic post-apocalyptic films released in the ’80s, releasing just a few months before Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Initially wanting to shoot this after finishing 1974’s Dark Star, Carpenter had trouble finding anyone who would hire him, so he settled on being a scriptwriter until striking gold with 1978’s Halloween. After that, it only took a few years for the filmmaker to get Escape From New York off the ground.
In the far off year of 1997, Air Force One is shot down over Manhattan which was converted into a penal colony. The President (Donald Pleasance) manages to get into an escape pod but before he can get away, it gets intercepted by one of the colony’s gangs. The gang’s leader, The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), plans on using The President as a human shield to escape Manhattan unscathed.
Initially, Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) sends soldiers to retrieve the President, but their efforts are unsuccessful. He then contacts former Special Forces operative turned felon, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), offering him a full pardon if he succeeds. To ensure he follows orders, Snake is injected with nano bombs that are set to explode after 22 hours if he doesn’t make it back.
Initially, the studios were against using Kurt Russell for the lead as he was mostly known for Disney films at the time, instead opting for Charles Bronson. But after several back and forth sessions, Russell was picked. He proved to be the right choice, working his butt off and putting on a more muscular physique through intense training to get ready for the role. He even did some method acting in between takes to keep in character.
While the story takes place in Manhattan, Escape From New York was actually shot in East St. Louis, Illinois, for budgetary and convenience reasons. East St. Louis had suffered several building fires at the time and had the right look. Escape From New York has gone onto have one sequel and a comic book series detailing what happened between the first and second movies.
Double Dragon (1994)
Yes, I’m adding another video game movie to my list. Plus, it’s also a martial arts movie featuring the work of the legendary Al Leong and the underrated Mark Dacascos! While the story differentiates itself from the original storyline, Double Dragon is a constant in video game movies, and the setting and action are still pretty entertaining.
The film opens with a narration form bleach blonde villain Koga Shuko (Robert Patrick):
Thousands of years ago in ancient China, an evil army of shadow warriors… terrorized the great city of Shang-sa. To save his people, the good king sacrificed himself to create a mystical medallion. Realizing the ultimate powers of the medallion, the king split it in half. To one son, he gave the power over body, to the other, power over the soul. This is the legend of the Double Dragon.
In the future year of 2007, Los Angeles is a desolation. Half of the city has sunk into the ground after a great earthquake. The police have a shaky truce with the street gangs. Regular folks are free during the day, but the gangs rule the city at night. Brothers Jimmy and Billy Lee (Mark Dacascos, Scott Wolf) train in martial arts with their adoptive mother, Satori (Julia Nickson). The brothers soon find out that Satori bears half of the magic amulet the Shuko is looking for. After locating the other half, Shuko gains it’s power of the soul, allowing him to become ghost-like and possess anyone’s body. The boys are then hunted by corporate thugs, street gangs, and mutant giants as they try to activate their half of the amulet.
While far from a commercial success, Double Dragon was proven to be positive experience for some involved. Jason Patrick has lamented his time filming it, by stating:
“That was a movie I did that, on paper, I thought could really work. It, uh, didn’t really work that well… There’s some funny aspects to that character, and it was a fairly liberating experience to be funny and try to be menacing at the same time. I am proud of my performance. It’s a pretty extreme performance. Yeah, and I got to work with Scott Wolf, Mark Dacascos, and Alyssa Milano.”
In the film’s defense, I see it as having a level of “so bad it’s good” campiness similar standing to Street Fighter. Sure, it lacks Raul Julia giving it his all, but Robert Patrick as a calmly arrogant psychopath who makes mutants in his basement has me sold!
Turbo Kid (2015)
I figured I’d end this list on a lighter note. In Turbo Kid (read our review here), Michael Ironside is back again as a villain. Released to much anticipation in 2015, Turbo Kid is the tale of a young man forced to survive in a Mad Max-type world. The film is a bright spot on my radar, being filled with all sorts of retro media like ’80s synth rock and neon colors.
In the future year of 1997, a boy known only as The Kid (Munro Chambers) survives as a scavenger. Initially scraping by on his own, The Kid befriends the free spirited Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) and shows her how to get by in The Wasteland. After Apple is captured by one of Zeus’ (Michael Ironside) men, The Kid discovers the entrance to a ship that belonged to his favorite comic book character, Turbo Rider. Donning the suit and wrist blaster, The Kid becomes a one man war machine on a quest to rescue his new friend.
Initially pitched as a entry in The ABC’s of Death, Turbo Kid was instead turned into a feature at the suggestion of Ant Timpson. The whole movie has a retro feel, giving it a BMX Bandits meets Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior vibe. As of February 2020, a sequel is still in the works. Meanwhile, if you want to quell that Turbo Kid hunger, Laurence Lebouef reprised her role as Apple for Le Matos “No Tomorrow” music video, which serves as a prequel.
While there are many more movies I can put on this list, I’ll save those for the next apocalypse. Most of us here at PopHorror grew up with at least one of these films, which has helped mold us all into the weirdos you all know and love. While the times we face at the moment may be horrifying, as long as we all have each other, we can get through this.