When Will Smith hits the screen today in “I Am Legend,” playing the single survivor of a viral attack that kills off humanity, he’ll hardly be alone. The apocalypse, in either its aftermath or the moments preceding it, has long been a popular idea in fiction, especially in the post-nuclear era.
From novels (Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling “The Road,” Stephen King’s “The Stand,” George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides,” Pat Frank’s “Alas, Babylon!,” the “Left Behind” series) to TV (a memorable “Twilight Zone” episode starring Burgess Meredith as the last man standing), the notion of the human herd getting thinned to near zero never seems to lose its appeal.
But it’s on the big screen that the subject has really come to life.
Kevin Costner has even starred in two such films—“Waterworld” (1995), in which most of the globe is submerged, and “The Postman” (1997), where the hero believes delivering long-lost letters is a way to return hope to the remaining stragglers in a post-apocalyptic America.
So, if you just can’t get enough of watching the final humans shuffle across the planet, here are a dozen films to track down to satisfy your apocalypse fix:
1. “The Omega Man” (1971)
2. “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)
If you think you’ve seen “I Am Legend” before but without Will Smith doing his “Fresh Prince of the Apocalypse thing,” you’re probably recalling one of these two films. All three movies are based on the influential 1954 novel “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson and are set in a near-future where our hero (Vincent Price in “The Last Man on Earth,” Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man”) finds himself alone after a plague has wiped out all life on Earth—well, not quite all, and that’s the problem. The earlier films are definitely worth catching up with, if only to see how advances in special-effects technology have evolved over the past 43 years.
3. “On the Beach” (1959)
Nevil Shute’s bleak novel about the aftermath of a nuclear war—in which survivors cluster at the bottom of Australia as the radioactive cloud moves south—becomes an equally despairing movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. Bonus points: It features the best use of “Waltzing Matilda” in a film ever—not that there’s a lot of competition.
4. “The Road Warrior” (1982)
Well before Mel Gibson went cuckoo on a California highway, he was dispensing roadside justice on the mean streets of a post-apocalyptic Australian Outback as the brooding Max Rockatansky in this second part of the epic “Mad Max” trilogy. Oil is down to its last drops, and civilization has been reduced to nomadic hide-and-seek as highway gangs—whose members are a brutal blend of punk-rock poser, biker chic and leather-clad go-go dancer—terrorize the wandering and the weak. Shot with kinetic cool by director George Miller, “The Road Warrior” forged the template that so many straight-to-video, after-the-disaster `80s flicks—not to mention 2Pac’s awesome “California Love” music clip—followed.
5. “Planet of the Apes” (1969)
With the way things are going, this world that apes created after man’s fall is starting to look better and better. Can someone get Dr. Zaius to run in the primaries? Of course, this movie is known for at least two great scenes: the “hold the popcorn, didn’t see that coming” finale and Charlton Heston’s classic line worthy of Thomas Paine, Joan of Arc or “Braveheart”: “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape.” Avoid Tim Burton’s 2001 remake like it’s the Forbidden Zone.
6. “28 Weeks Later” (2007)
This list could have been filled with just zombie movies (what’s more apocalyptic than the undead?), but they deserve their own category in which “Night of the Living Dead” would rule like Kim Jong Il. But if there’s a crossover spot, it should go to this gripping update of the zombie motif in which the “rage virus” has decimated much of the population of the U.K., and a few brave souls struggle to repopulate the place. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo builds on the terror of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” with this savage sequel, and it will make you wish you had the whole planet to yourself.
7. “The Last Wave” (1977)
In most modern-day stories of the world’s end, it’s either nuclear hellfire or a cruel contagion that lays low our species. But Australian director Peter Weir’s modest, eerie thriller, starring Richard Chamberlain, brings to life an Aboriginal myth that the world will be destroyed by water. This was one of Weir’s last movies before he began making big-budget Hollywood movies such as “Witness,” “The Mosquito Coast” and “Master and Commander.”
8. “Night of the Comet” (1984)
It’s up to two teenage girls from the San Fernando Valley to fight for humanity after a comet destroys most of the life on Earth. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the film manages to be both humorous and horrifying. Co-starring are Robert Beltran (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and character actors Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis (both in “The Devil’s Rejects”).
9. “The Quiet Earth” (1985)
This low-key New Zealand film features a terrific performance by the late Bruno Lawrence as a man who wakes up to find that almost everyone else has vanished. If that sounds similar to “I Am Legend,” it is, but here the monsters are loneliness and frail human emotions.
10. “Miracle Mile” (1988)
A very young, pre-“ER” Anthony Edwards, fresh from roles in “Top Gun” and “Revenge of the Nerds II,” plays a guy who accidentally intercepts a call in which he finds out a nuclear attack will be launched shortly. What should he do with what little time he has left before the world goes boom? Amusingly, the entire film takes place (rather heavy-handedly) along a stretch of L.A.‘s Wilshire Boulevard, the so-called “Miracle Mile.”
11. “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” (1961)
This haunting British import piggybacks on the Cold War fears so prevalent in American speculative fiction of the time. Things start heating up as Earth wanders off its orbit and heads into the sun after the U.S. and U.S.S.R. detonate nuclear bombs simultaneously. Without the monsters of many of its sci-fi contemporaries, “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” is less about sharp jolts of horror and more about escalating dread and fear.
12. “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)
This global-warming nightmare may be outlandish in its science—tornadoes ripping up L.A., etc.—but the special effects make the end of life as we know it look pretty cool.
Bonus Film—“Threads” (1984)
If all the mid-‘80s hubbub over nuclear winter drove American TV execs to green light the anemic “The Day After,” it compelled British TV to produce the far superior—and far more frightening and graphic—“Threads,” arguably the best post-nuclear survival film yet. Set in 1980s Sheffield, England, after the Soviet Union invades Iran and hurls ICBMs at the West, “Threads” is a grim look at comfortably consumerist lives sent hurtling back to the Stone Age. This would have been high on the main list if not for the fact that “Threads” is currently only available on VHS tape and Region 2 DVDs, meaning you need a DVD player that plays European discs. But if you have the right equipment and can find the movie (through Amazon.com for example), grab it.