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The 30 best post-apocalyptic movies of all time

10. 12 Monkeys

(Image credit: Universal)

Former member of the Monty Python troupe, Terry Gilliam, directs this dark time-travel journey. James (Bruce Willis) is sent to the past to find a cure for the disease which has since ravaged mankind. When he arrives in 1990, he has the not-so-easy task of convincing everyone that he isn't crazy, and he’s subsequently put into a psychiatric facility. David Peoples, the film’s screenwriter, also penned Blade Runner, so expect similar impressive landscapes alongside a story that’s both unsettling and moving.

9. 28 Days Later

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

A staple feature of many "best zombie movies" lists, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later never actually refers to any of it’s infected as zombies. Instead of focussing on the monsters, the director spends a good chunk of the film encompassing the viewer in an eerie, empty London. The atmosphere is heavy as protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma to a ghost town following an outbreak of the "rage virus". 28 Days Later and its home-made, gritty look make it a standout of the genre. It’s chilling to watch as Jim wanders an abandoned city unbeknownst to what happened to everyone around him, and it only becomes bleaker and bleaker as he meets the infected and the military on his search for answers.

8. The Terminator

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

There's a reason Terminator has spawned countless sequels and spin-off shows: there's are simply dozens upon dozens of potential stories to tell in James Cameron's dystopian world. while Terminator takes place, for the most part, in the very regular '80s, Arnold Schwarzenegger's eponymous character is actually a cyborg sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) the mother of future resistance leader, John. Now, the resistance also has their own protective plans in place, and send Sarah a protector in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who will do anything to keep her safe. The Terminator, of course, put James Cameron on the map, proving his skills at world-building, character development, and genre were exceedingly good.

7. Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead

(Image credit: Universal)

Equal parts parody and homage, Edgar Wright’s first entry in the unofficial cornetto trilogy is the most fun you can have when the apocalypse hits. Our eponymous protagonist is dealing with a break-up when a zombie outbreak takes over the town, and in very British fashion, his solution is to gather his mates, head to the pub, and wait for it to all blow over. With loving references to Night of the Living Dead and the Evil Dead trilogy sprinkled throughout, Shaun of the Dead tackles the aftermath of an apocalyptic-outbreak with an infectious sense of fun. It’s also the film where Wright truly found his visual voice, paving the way for his recognisable whip-cuts and expert comedic timing.

6. The Matrix

The Matrix

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Written and directed by the Wachowski sisters, The Matrix is a hall of fame post-apocalyptic sci-fi. When Neo wakes up to the real world around him, thanks to computer hacker Morpheus, he encounters a ravaged wasteland where it’s man versus machine. The movie features some ground-breaking fight choreography and an instantly recognisable style that still captivates audiences 20 years later. Embedded into pop culture references by countless movies and TV shows, The Matrix more than earns its spot in our top ten.

5. Stalker

(Image credit: Mosfilm)

This Russian arthouse flick takes place in an industrial landscape known as The Zone. We follow three men, Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky), Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), and Professor (Nikolai Grinko) through the devastated land to a hidden room that is said to grant people’s deepest held wishes. The movie is renowned for its striking visuals and layered ideologies. Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky crafts a challenging story that debates philosophy, nihilism, truth, and beauty. As weird as it gets, stick with it till the end for an immensely rewarding experience.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

One of the greatest action movies in recent years, Mad Max: Fury Road is non-stop adrenaline from start to end. Starring Tom Hardy’s Max alongside Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, the famed trilogy’s original creator George Miller brings back his post-apocalyptic nightmare with new technologies and even riskier vehicle stunts. Fury Road takes you racing through a scorched wasteland with amped-up warboys, fire-breathing guitars, and some of the most insane stunts seen on screen. It’s a staggering technical achievement made all the more energetic thanks to Margaret Sixel’s genius editing and Junkie XL’s intense score. Theron’s Imperator Furisoa becomes a fearsome protagonist in her bid to rescue Immortan Joe’s ‘wives’ from captivity. The women grafiti the wall with “We are not things” in a refreshing feminist war cry that finds its place beautifully amidst the frenetic action.

3. WALL-E

(Image credit: Pixar)

At this point, the Pixar formula is pretty much untouchable. The film studio is able to elicit tears from the hardest of hearts with their moving tributes to family and adventure, and WALL-E is perhaps a standout in their filmography. The movie tells the story of an adorable garbage-collecting robot on an abandoned Earth far into the future. WALL-E journeys into space after falling in love with another robot named EVE, and yes, of course robots can fall in love.

WALL-E remains simply charming whilst it deals with some harrowing issues around climate change and how we treat the earth and each other. Looking to a future that we’re probably headed for in reality, the film targets greed, excess, and big corporations in the form of fictional conglomerate Buy n Large. However, thanks to our endearing robot protagonist, WALL-E is an ultimately hopeful dystopian tale, that promises humanity will still do the right thing if given the chance.

2. Children of Men

(Image credit: Universal Studios)

It’s 2027, women are infertile and the youngest person in the world – just 18 – has died. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men puts a reluctant hero in a broken world at its centre in the form of Theo (Clive Owen). When the former activist encounters a pregnant woman for the first time in years, he missions to get her to safety. The film remains memorable for its realistic shaky-cam combat and impressive one-shot scenes, including one inside a packed getaway car. 

The bleak story acts both as a post-apocalyptic thriller and a parable of sorts, as the closed borders, internment camps, and the rich hid away in their ivory towers feel all too familiar as we head further into 2020. Easily one of Cuarón’s best, the masterful Children of Men feels just as impactful upon every rewatch.

1. The Road

(Image credit: Dimension Films)

Probably the saddest entry on this list, The Road – based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel and directed by John Hillcoat – is an equally harrowing and tender experience. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi McPhee play a father and his young son, travelling across a charred America following an extinction-level event. We follow as the pair work to stay alive and avoid roaming gangs as they search the coast for warmth. It’s slow, sombre, and completely absorbing. The chemistry between the two actors and the tiny glimmer of hope at its heart are enough to earn the movie the top spot on our list of best post-apocalyptic movies.

Want more recommendations for what to watch? Then check out our lists for best horror movies and best sci-fi movies of all time.