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25 best apocalypse movies

With the world set to end in 2012 – if you believe the Mayans – here are the best films to get you in the mood for Armageddon

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Stanley Kubrick originally intended to make a straight adaptation of the Cold War thriller novel Red Alert, but soon found that the black absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction would best suit a “nightmare comedy.”

When a rogue general orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, the Russkies respond by revealing that they have a Doomsday weapon that’ll automatically respond with a massive nuclear retailation. By the end of the film, the titular Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers) is suggesting that the political and military elite hide themselves away in disused mines – “with a ratio of ten females to each male” – preparing to repopulate the world.

Day of the Dead (1985)

Where many zombie films show the moment when the walking dead emerge, the third film in George Romero’s Dead series shows what happens in the aftermath. The zombies have already taken over, and humanity is reduced to small enclaves – including a military outpost where a group of scientists are researching the living dead.

As one scientist attempts to train docile zombie Bub, tensions mount with his superior Captain Rhodes. Like the previous Dead films, Romero uses the zombies as a device to heighten the tension while a very human struggle plays out between the survivors.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Initially, Terminator 3 looks set to be a hoary old retread of the preceding films in the series, with robot assassins from a war-torn future chasing around in the present.

Then, halfway through, Arnie’s T-850 throws us a curveball – the nuclear war against the machines, teased throughout the series, is set to kick off today.

Director Jonathan Mostow steps things up a gear in the final act, as our heroes race to save the world from nuclear destruction – only to end things on an unexpectedly dark note.

Delicatessen (1991)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s pitch-black comedy takes place in a near future where food shortages have led a butcher landlord to resort to chopping up his tenants. Dominique Pinon plays an ex-clown who takes a flat in the butcher’s tenement block – but will his bed and board end up being the chopping board?

Recalling the off-kilter visual stylings of Terry Gilliam, Jeunet conjures up a sepia-tinted, distorted world of fairytale romances and extremist vegetarians.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Yes, we know – the original Planet of the Apes is probably the better film, but if you’re looking for an apocalypse movie, the sequel offers up a double whammy of armageddon action.

Not only is it set in (spoilers!) the post-apocalyptic Earth revealed at the end of the original film, it goes on to (more spoilers!) blow up the already-ravaged planet with a whopping great Doomsday Bomb. More bang for your buck.

I Am Legend (2007)

The particular legend in this plague-ridden world is Will Smith. He’s a military scientist immune to the speedy-zombie creating disease, so he stays behind in a deserted and quarantined New York to find a cure. Keep your peepers peeled for the I Am Legend director’s cut – which features a far superior ending to the theatrical version.

The Road (2009)

Based on a book by Cormac McCarthy – so you know it’s going to be dark. Viggo Mortensen trudges through an unrelentingly bleak world devastated by an unspecified extinction event, trying to keep himself and his son alive in the face of the worst nature can throw at them – also, cannibals. You’ll need the Skittles to hand to pull you back out of this graying survival realism. See if you can spot Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) in a small role.

Independence Day (1996) 

Independence Day has all the essential ingredients for an apocalypse movie – well, an almost-apocalypse movie. Area 51 intrigue, the American President hanging out with the rest of the boys – oh, and some downright mean aliens. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are the dream team combining computer smarts with wise-cracking stupidity – we mean – bravery in the face of flying saucers zapping every US landmark in sight.

Children of Men (2006) 

Kids: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Particularly if you’re stuck in an infertility epidemic causing global panic, violence and the collapse of governments. Loosely based on P.D. James’ novel, Clive Owen’s civil servant gets to play hero as he tries to escort a pregnant refugee to safety. Cracking single-shot action sequences are mixed in with highbrow cultural references against the backdrop of the drab, ruined London of 2027.

12 Monkeys (1995) 

If you leave a voicemail right now, will scientists in a post-apocalyptic future get it? Probably, according to 12 Monkeys. Terry Gilliam’s future is underground – and not in an alternative, hip club kind of way. Survivor James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to avert a viral apocalypse – but meddling in the past never turns out well.

Contagion (2011) 

This year’s Hollywood medical thriller Contagion – yes, you read that correctly – earns top marks for killing off Gwyneth Paltrow quickly and trying to recreate what would actually happen if a supervirus spread through indirect contact around the world. According to Stephen Soderbergh, everyone would panic, shops wouldn’t close till after the sales and the media would make things worse. Yep, sounds about right. Watch this and you’ll be washing your hands for a week.

Book of Eli (2010)

Ah, Denzel Washington, the control freak’s ultimate fantasy father – he has everything planned out. And yes, he’s playing the usual I-know-more-than-you character – but frankly you’d want that, in the wild post-apocalyptic world where Book of Eli takes place. It’s a bit like Pale Rider but with more obvious religious overtones – thanks to the book that can save humanity – more gore and less Clint.

When the Wind Blows (1986)

At first glance this looks like a children’s film, with its cute animation and its lovely old couple. In reality, it’s the harrowing tale of two poor Brits that survive a nuclear attack after building a bomb-shelter using government pamphlet advice. What their unrelenting trust in authority – built up during the Second World War – doesn’t reveal, is that they can’t survive the nuclear fallout and are slowly dying. Yeah, one for the generation of Cold War kids.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Crazy old Mel Gibson plays an on-the-edge ex-cop survivor in post-apocalyptic Australia. His suitably psychotic portrayal of a man who’s lost everything but clings to his humanity is probably Gibson’s best work (though in Lethal Weapon he’s playing much the same character). In this instance he clings to that humanity by helping a fuel rich community fight off murderous raiders. Clever director George Miller changed the tone of each Mad Max film rather than going back over old ground – we can’t wait to see what he has cooked up for the long-delayed sequel (set to star Tom Hardy).

The Matrix (1999)

This Sci-Fi action-laden blockbuster is packed with amazing fight scenes, ground-breaking bullet-time technology and more shiny black latex than a bondage orgy. Sure Keanu Reeves’ acting is a bit stilted (“Woah.”), but with insane effects and a mind-blowing philosophical storyline centred around a post apocalyptic dream world, who cares?

War of the Worlds (2005)

Tom Cruise reminds us that we’re puny and insignificant in the face of extraterrestrial intellects “vast and cool and unsympathetic,” in this alien apocalypse film. Faced with giant tripods armed with laser beams, Cruise and his children battle across the ravaged US to find sanctuary – and are saved in the end by microscopic bacteria.

9 (2009)

This eye-friendly CGI animation is based on Shane Acker’s 2005 short film and follows a group of animated rag dolls striving to survive in a war-ravaged world plagued by monsters and machines. Stunning visuals and a touching storyline offer up an experience that differs from the wastelands of other post-apocalyptic movies.

Last Man on Earth (1964)

All of humanity is turned in to the living dead by a disease, forcing the last remaining human on earth to fend for himself, killing vampires along the way. Sound familiar? The Last Man on Earth is another adaptation of I Am Legend, but starring a true horror icon in the form of Vincent Price.

Zardoz (1974)

We imagine that you won’t be paying much attention to this text, your eyes seared by the image of Sean Connery wearing that, er, thing. But just in case your brain hasn’t been scrambled and you can make sense of these words, Zardoz is a bizarre film in which Connery (a trained death-dealing savage) roams around a land of immortals as a warrior.

No, it’s not a classic for the ages, but it does have some excellent cinematography courtesy of director John Boorman, and some truly deathless dialogue. Delivered by a giant stone head. To Sean Connery, wearing a nappy.

Melancholia (2011) 

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia serves up armageddon in the form of a rogue planet, and follows the reactions of two sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg); one depressed and calm about her impending doom, the other much more worried about the whole ordeal. It’s a big fairytale film with some marital and family problems thrown in – and without, of course, the guaranteed happy ending.

Deep Impact (1998)

This science fiction disaster drama is all about the possible extinction of humankind after it’s discovered an Earth destroying comet is only 365 days away. After a botched job by a team of astronauts appointed to destroy it – which leaves New York completely obliterated – the US President (Morgan Freeman) initiates Plan B: a cavernous underground retreat constructed to hold one million Americans. Of course, not everyone is invited to the party…

Waterworld (1995)

The polar ice caps have melted and humanity is forced to adopt an aquatic lifestyle. The Smokers launch an attack on the surviving Drifters in a bid to hunt down a girl with a tattoo of a map on her neck that will lead them to the mythical Dryland. In a desperate bid to get the hell out of Dodge, the girl’s mother bribes a mysterious mutant drifter played by Kevin Costner to take them to this mythical place. Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing. Sorry.

Yes, the story made no sense, and yes, Waterworld cost a ludicrous amount of money to make – but it delivered in terms of spectacle.

WALL-E (2008)

Wall-E gave us a computer-generated cartoon vision of our own potential extinction. Earth may have been over-run with garbage and devoid of any plant or animal life – but instead of thinking about the environmental consequences of our consumerist lifestyle, we were too distracted by what is arguably the most loveable robot in the world.

All together now: Waaaaaaaaaalllllllll-Eeeeeeeeeeeee!

Threads (1984) 

Okay, it’s not technically a film – but harrowing BBC drama Threads is probably the most accurate rendition of the impact of nuclear war ever filmed. This documentary style account of a nuclear blast and its effect on the working class folk of Sheffield – made at the height of the Cold War fears of nuclear conflict – traumatised the nation with its depiction of the struggle to survive in the face of nuclear winter. One word: grim.

Miracle Mile (1988)

Imagine being on the receiving end of a chance phone call only to hear the frantic voice of someone warning you that a nuclear war has begun and impending doom in the form of enemy missiles is about to hit your home town? Wasting no time, Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) tracks down the girl he met on what could be his last day on Earth and attempts to guide her to safety. Is he successful? Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

Profile image of Dan Grabham Dan Grabham Editor-in-Chief


Dan is Editor-in-chief of Stuff, working across the magazine and the Stuff.tv website.  Our Editor-in-Chief is a regular at tech shows such as CES in Las Vegas, IFA in Berlin and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona as well as at other launches and events. He has been a CES Innovation Awards judge. Dan is completely platform agnostic and very at home using and writing about Windows, macOS, Android and iOS/iPadOS plus lots and lots of gadgets including audio and smart home gear, laptops and smartphones. He's also been interviewed and quoted in a wide variety of places including The Sun, BBC World Service, BBC News Online, BBC Radio 5Live, BBC Radio 4, Sky News Radio and BBC Local Radio.

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