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Post-apocalyptic Books & Movies

Updated on May 24, 2013

Visions of the world after catastrophe

What remains after a major disaster -- when the world as we know it is largely destroyed, and mankind must reconstruct the essence of civilization? The cataclysm may be caused by widespread war, nuclear or biological attack, the spread of virulent disease, environmental destruction, a massive technological failure, or even attack by aliens.

Countless science fiction books and movies have explored these dark scenarios in much detail. The first such novel may have been Mary Shelley's 1826 novel, The Last Man, which described humanity wiped out by plague. Of course the concept is as old as the biblical story of Noah and the book of Revelations.

Why the appeal of post-apocalyptic scenarios?

Post-apocalyptic literature and movies are popular because they challenge us to think about our response to overwhelming catastrophe. How would humanity pick up the pieces to forge civilization once again? Technology is usually one of the first things to go. In the absence of electricity, water, heat, transportation, and medical care, survival becomes a daily challenge.

In most scenarios, some people become monsters, roving bands of criminals banding together to wreak havoc. Meanwhile, the majority of people struggle to survive day to day, eking out a tenuous, fragile existence in a terrifying world. Yet, a few rare individuals rise to the occasion to become heroes, saviors of mankind.

The predominant theme of post-apocalyptic stories is one of loss. What would we miss most from our day-to day life? Sometimes it's the little things that matter: a daily shower, a newspaper, books, regular mail delivery. But it's the larger things that define our society: democracy, freedom, a sense of connection with the larger world. In many of these stories, the survivors are isolated. One wonders what is going on in the rest of world. Has civilization survived elsewhere?

It's the imagery that haunts the viewer or reader: barren landscapes, demolished buildings, burned farmlands, gloomy skies, scenes of death and destruction everywhere.

Many of these stories have served as self-preventing prohecies, perhaps helping to forestall the terrible scenarios so vividly portrayed.

End of the World Scenarios

  1. Nuclear War, causing widespread annihilation
  2. Epidemic, pandemic or plague: vast contagion
  3. Biological Warfare: intentional release of a deadly virus
  4. Runaway Global Warming: drought, flooding of coastal areas
  5. Comet Impact, or Collision with an asteroid
  6. Technological failure, perhaps due to release of a computer virus
  7. Pollution
  8. Alien Invasion
  9. Singularity: everything changes so rapidly that our future is uncertain
  10. Gray goo: out-of-control nanobots
  11. Death of our sun
  12. The Big Crunch: the universe collapses
  13. Biblical apocalypse

A Close-up look at Post-apocalyptic Fiction

Visions of catastrophic worlds from science fiction authors such as J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, Philip Wylie, Nevil Shute, Richard Matheson, and Russell Hoban, as well as Cormac McCarthy.

Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We're Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise

Excerpted from Scientific American September 2010

Once again, the world is about to end. The latest source of doomsday dread comes courtesy of the ancient Mayans, whose calendar runs out in 2012, as interpreted by a cadre of opportunistic authors and blockbuster movie directors. Not long before, three separate lawsuits charged that the Large Hadron Collider would seed a metastasizing black hole under Lake Geneva. Before that, captains of industry shelled out billions preparing for the appearance of two zeros in the date field of computer programs too numerous to count; left alone, this tick of the clock would surely have shaken modern civilization to its foundations.

You might think that the enterprise of science, with its method and its facts, would inoculate us against the most extravagant doomsday obsessions. But it doesn't. If anything, it just gives us more to worry about.

Some of the most fervent and convincing doomsayers, after all, are scientists. Bill Joy, co-founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, has warned that of out-of-control nanobots could consume everything on earth. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees has publicly offered a bet that a biological catastrophe-accidental or intentional-will kill at least one million people by 2020 (so far, no takers). Numerous climatologists sound the alarm about the possibility of runaway global warming. They all stand on the shoulders of giants: British economist Thomas Malthus predicted in the 19th century that the rise in population would lead to widespread famine and catastrophe. It never happened, but that didn't stop Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich from renewing the warning in his 1968 book The Population Bomb when he predicted that global famine was less than two decades away. Catastrophe didn't arrive then, either, but does that mean it never will? Not necessarily. Still, people often worry disproportionately about disasters that are unlikely to occur.

Classic Sci Fi

Science fiction authors have been writing about the end of the world for decades. These 'classic' novels date back to the 1930's (When Worlds Collide), the 40's (Earth Abides) and the 50's (A Canticle for Leibowitz). Richard Matheson's I am Legend was recently made into a movie.

Post-apocalyptic books on Amazon

The Road (Movie Tie-in Edition 2009) (Vintage International)
The Road (Movie Tie-in Edition 2009) (Vintage International)

Cormac McCarthy's books, recently made into a movie, presents a world where all wildlife is extinct after a nuclear war. A father and his son face starvation, the cold and violence, as they struggle to survive against all odds.

After America
After America

This book is set three years after a major catastrophe has devastated much of America. Foreign armies are invading, as what remains of the U.S. military battles amid the urban ruins to restore order to the wastelands...

The Postman
The Postman

A drifter seeking to survive amid the ravages of war, takes shelter in an abandoned postal van, and dons a Postal Service uniform for warmth. Finding a sack of mail, he delivers letters to villages, which have been cut off from all communication in the chaos of war. In doing so, he brings hope to isolated towns, who dare to hope that their country has been restored.

A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller's classic "A Canticle for Leibowitz," is set in a monastery in the southwestern United States, after a terrible nuclear war has destroyed much of civilization. The monks struggle to preserve remnants of learning and pass on fragments of knowledge.

Earth Abides
Earth Abides

A plague of epic proportions has wiped out all of humanity. One lone survivor remains, immune to the epidemic. He sets out into a world, alone...


Post-apocalyptic Films

From Mad Max to The Road, movies have offered sobering visions of life after major catastrophe.The world has been flooded (Waterworld), destroyed by nuclear war (The Road Warrior), decimated by virus (Twelve Monkeys, Aeon Flux), frozen solid (The Day After Tomorrow), or taken over by apes (Planet of the Apes), the range of stark images stick with us, hopefully inspiring us to make a better tomorrow.

A Top Ten list of post-apocalyptic movies

Post-apocalyptic movies on Amazon

The Road
The Road

The movie presentation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, with Viggo Mortenson. A father and his son struggle against all odds to survive in a world where nearly all life has been wiped out.

I Am Legend (Widescreen Single-Disc Edition)
I Am Legend (Widescreen Single-Disc Edition)

Will Smith stars in this adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel. Smith is a military scientist who struggles to find a cure to the virus that has infected nearly all of humanity, turning survivors into vampire-like creatures.

12 Monkeys (Special Edition)
12 Monkeys (Special Edition)

Bruce Willis stars in this dark vision, set in the world 2035, where a plague has forced humans to live in squalid underground centers. Willis volunteers to travel into the future to seek a cure to the virus.

The Road Warrior
The Road Warrior

This is the second of the Mad Max films, starring Mel Gibson. A thrilling action film set in a devastated world, Max helps a band of survivors fight off savages...



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      ResortMembersAssociation 5 years ago

      Love your lens! I have always loved movies and books on post apocalyptic events! Thanks for sharing.

      Resort Members Association

    • LabKittyDesign profile image

      LabKittyDesign 5 years ago

      W00t! Another opportunity to recommend "Six-string Samurai"!

    • axiomsedge profile image

      axiomsedge 6 years ago

      Just wanted to let you know that your page has been included in our list of Squidoo Sci Fi/Fantasy Lenses over at A Lens on Sci Fi ( Go there to vote for your lens and to submit others that genre fans will like.

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 7 years ago

      I certainly don't want to survive an apocalyptic event...matter of fact I want my house to be a direct hit of whatever. We fools of human beings are slowly destroying earth on our own, we have no respect of what is good.