Do you get excited watching a survivor in a pandemic-purged neighborhood discover a yet-to-be-looted steamer trunk in the basement of a house? I do. When it comes to end of days entertainment, I prefer films that showcase scavenging rather than zombie disposal tutorials. When Will Smith is keeping a checklist of all the buildings he has searched in I Am Legend — that’s the stuff I like.
This inventory captures every different flavor of post-apocalyptic journey, categorized by the following characteristics:
These films all take place on Earth, usually after it has either been ravaged by a virus with no cure, thrown into chaos by a natural disaster, or a vital resource has been depleted, leading an overpopulated society to implode. I opted not to include movies with aliens, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out The Colony, A Quiet Place, and 10 Cloverfield Lane. I also stripped out more fantasy-oriented fare, like Mad Max: Fury Road and the highly recommended Snowpiercer, as well as survivalist fantasies such as the highly entertaining Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace.
There are three major story types: A mission to a cure for travel companion, a journey to a destination rumored to offer salvation, or a quest to track down a loved one who is far from home when the pandemic or attack started.
There are also three types of threat: Roving bands of dirtbags who want to take your shit and have their way with you; braindead infected, potentially with distinctive traits like a fear of light or that they only react to sounds or smells; and finally, you have morally ambiguous soldiers. A movie might end with infected still on the prowl, but the dirtbags and soldiers rarely make it to the credits.
For anyone who, like me, is particular about their post-apocalyptic fare, I’ve included this handy legend so you can scan for the type you love.
Legend: Dirtbags = D, Infected = I, Soldiers = S, Recommended = R
Between (I, S)
Virus outbreak in a small community makes people over 21 die, so kids are on their own when the city is quarantined.
Bird Box (I, D, R)
Like The Happening, something in the air is causing people to commit suicide, but in this instance, they have to see it first. What “it” is isn’t entirely clear,, but the film keeps you engaged from start to finish.
Blindness (D, I, S, R)
A blindness epidemic spreads while the afflicted are quarantined and forced to survive without assistance. This movie captures unbelievable squalor. If you’ve ever wondered what happens when the plumbing stops working after the end of the world, this is your movie …
One morning in Iceland, a couple wakes up to find that everyone else has disappeared. Co-starring Maika Monroe, the lead from It Follows, Bokeh is probably the biggest outlier on this list. While the movie received a mediocre reception from critics, it is one of the films that I found myself thinking about a lot after it ended. It stimulates the imagination to wonder what it would be like in the situation presented.
The Book of Eli (D)
As Denzel Washington makes his way across the country in this Western-inspired movie, he takes down roaming gangs with action hero fighting moves. On top of the over-the-top combat, there is a villain on the hunt for a specific book, all of which undercuts the realism and places this film on the comic book rack.
Cargo (I, D, R)
Martin Freeman stars in this Outback-set story where a pandemic turns people into cannibals. To avoid the infected, he and his family take a boat down the river.
Carriers (I, D)
Two brothers and one of their girlfriends are traveling cross country to reach a beach house and avoid infected people. Chris Pine plays an enormous jerk. His character makes the movie hard to enjoy since you just want him to die.
Children of Men (S, D, R)
Set in the distant future where no humans have been born in 18 years, a woman gets pregnant. To ensure a safe birth, Clive Owen must get her to an alleged sanctuary. This film has several indelible moments that make it worth watching. And it has Clive Owen.
Containment (D, I, S)
An epidemic breaks out in Atlanta, so the contaminated zone is cordoned off with a giant fence patrolled by soldiers. It’s not bad, but it’s lacking the kind of cliffhanger ending that make you want to see what happens next.
The Day (D)
A group of friends and one stranger travel across a rural country years after an undefined apocalypse in order to find food and shelter. Meanwhile, crafty cannibal tribes are looking for something to eat, which results in a long stand-off.
The Divide (D, I, S)
A bomb traps a bunch of unlikeable people in a basement. Top it off with some sexual depravity, a little bit of torture, and a mysterious subplot with scientist soldiers that is only partially explored.
Extinction (I, S)
Not to be confused with the 2018 Netflix film of the same name, this 2015 offering deals with a guy and his kid surviving next door to another guy in a snow-smothered town. While they are separated by a grudge, they continue to stay rooted with the hopes that the infected creatures which killed everyone else off nine years earlier are gone. The answer may surprise you.
The Girl with all the Gifts (D, I, S, R)
Set in England, the movie is about a fungus-based disease that causes adults to go crazy. Afflicted but seemingly normal kids are quarantined and feared by the soldiers who guard them. This is one of the more creative approaches to the pandemic genre.
The Happening (D, I)
The earth is sick of people ruining the environment, so the planet releases a toxin that turns humans violent and suicidal. There are some indelible moments, such as construction workers walking off rooftops to their deaths, and the film has a second act that is like a different movie, but M. Night Shyamalan fails to capture the magic of his hits.
The sun has heated up, rendering it impossible to survive outdoors during the day. Traversing a desert wasteland in a taped up car on a quest for water and greenery are a guy and two sisters. It starts out strong, but peters out like a wasteland junker running out of gas.
Here Alone (I, R)
To avoid flesh-eating and fast-moving virus-infected people with highly acute hearing, a survivalist gets by on her own in a car parked in the woods … until some strangers arrive.
The Hidden (I, S, R)
This is a solid family-in-a-bunker film from the Duffer Brothers prior to their Stranger Things fame. Like any good bunker drama, the thrill is wondering what lies above it. Some good pay-offs make this recommended.
How It Ends (D, S)
After a mysterious attack takes out all communications, a father and his pregnant daughter’s fiancée decide to travel across a panic-seized country from Chicago to Seattle to track her down.
I Am Legend (I, R)
A pandemic hits New York and everyone in the city is evacuated except for Will Smith. As a virologist, he stays behind to try and find a cure while dealing with nocturnal zombies who are burned by the sun and fear bright lights. It has some of my favorite abandoned city exploration scenes.
Into the Forest (D, R)
The power goes out around the country, so a dad and his two daughters decide to wait it out deep in the woods. The film focuses less on attackers and more on how to survive on your own when you no longer have access to stores and electricity. This has some heavy moments and strikes a chord with its realism.
It Comes at Night (D, I)
A family is living off the grid in the woods to avoid contact with a contagious and lethal outbreak, but they are eventually faced with uninvited guests. Some of the precautions they take to safeguard their house from intruders make this a nice addition to the genre.
The Last Days (D)
In this Spanish-language film, people suddenly become agoraphobic and are unable to go outside without seizures. A man separated from his wife must still find a way to reach her, so he sets off on an unground expedition.
The Last Survivors (D)
The rain has stopped in Oregon, but rather than leave, people seem content to try and survive in the desert. On top of that, a water hoarder and his goons are gleefully hunting the remaining locals. If you’ve watched the trailer, then you’ve already watched more than you need to.
The Night Eats the World (I, R)
This film is like Bokeh, but instead of a couple waking up in Iceland with no one else around, it centers on a guy waking up in Paris and finding it occupied only by infected people. Like with Bokeh, you never find out what caused the situation and a lot of time is spent exploring. Even if not a lot of new material is mined, I still enjoyed living vicariously through the survivor.
In this French-language film, plague-infected people who crave flesh yet also enjoy stacking and worshiping furniture are gradually taking over the rural countryside in Quebec, forcing the residents to fight or take flight.
The Road (D, R)
Father and son traverse a dying world populated by roaming thugs as they trek towards the coast. This is considered the gold standard of survival movies with solid acting from a small, but strong cast including Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, and Guy Pearce. This film also features plenty of scavenging from bunkers and even boats in the bleakest countryside to date.
The Rover (D, S)
In an Australian setting oddly reminiscent of the original Mad Max film, Guy Pearce is on a mission to reclaim his stolen car. While everything takes place in a dusty desolate world that seems relatively lawless, The Rover oddly still adheres to a money-driven economy.
These Final Hours (D)
The people in this Australian film know the Earth is coming to an end as a giant wave of fire moves across the globe. The film chronicles a multi-purpose road trip to friends, family, and an end-of-the-world rave, all while dealing with locals immersed in violence and sex-driven hedonism.
The Survivalist (D, R)
Filmed in Northern Ireland, but it could just as easily be the Ozarks, this is the ultimate depiction of what hardcore wilderness survival might look like. A guy lives on his own in the woods after society collapses due to the depletion of oil. And then, of course, strangers arrive.
Time of the Wolf (D)
This is a French film that takes place in the rural part of the country after some unknown catastrophe has tainted the water and livestock. It moves very slowly, and while there are bad people out for themselves, it is much tamer than most films in the genre in terms of dystopian violence and depravity.
28 Days Later (I, S, R)
After Cillian Murphy wakes up from a coma in a seemingly abandoned London, he sets off to find out where all of the people have gone. Murphy encounters sprinting zombies infected with a “rage virus,” whose speedy attacks were a nice departure from the lumbering undead which were most common when the movie first released. Another notable touch is a clever second act that almost turns it into two films.
28 Weeks Later (I, S)
This decent sequel with a different cast and director deals with the containment of the infected from the first film. The most memorable aspect was when lead actor (Robert Carlyle) is faced with a moral quandary between saving himself or risking his life to save his family.
Viral (I, S)
An outbreak that turns people crazy spreads in a small community, leaving several high schoolers on their own when the city is quarantined. It might resonate more with kids who are the same age as the cast.
What Still Remains (I, D)
25 years after a viral pandemic turned some people violent, others have formed recruit-hungry religious sects worshipping either God or the plague. Among the forest-based survivors are two surprisingly attractive well-groomed leads. One of the leads is way too trusting given how dangerous the times have become.
World War Z (I, S, D, R)
This is probably the biggest Hollywood film on this list in terms of budget, effects, and an ending that wraps things up a little too quickly and cleanly. A global pandemic results in fast moving zombies who are triggered by sound. Brad Pitt looks all over the world for a cure. This film has non-stop action which will keep viewers engaged, as well as memorable special effects in terms of zombie hordes and a classic, darkly comic scene involving a virologist that is almost right up there with Samuel Jackson’s demise in Deep Blue Sea.
The Worthy (D)
The water supply is almost depleted in this film set in the Middle East, resulting in people living in guarded encampments to protect their limited resources. Wait, who is that at the door? Strangers, of course.
Z for Zachariah (I)
A good snapshot of life among the last few people on Earth. Rather than focus on action, it’s more of a meditation about two guys and one female love interest surviving on a farm.
Zombieland (I, R)
This comedy definitely blurs the line between a horror and survival film, but it features a cross-country road trip filled with exploration that lends itself to this lineup. It’s also hilarious.