post-apocalyptic movies: where did they come from?

I’m trying to research the origin of the whole post-nuclear-fallout movie genre, stuff like Mad Max and Waterworld. Where and how did it get started? What factors had an influence on it? I mean both historically AND artistically (since film is an art form)



I have no real idea but I would suspect such movies are an outgrowth of the Cold War and the relatively new Nuclear Age that spawned it. Remember all the bomb shelters people built back int he 50’s and 60’s? That’s a clear indication that there was a communal fear of this stuff. When someone sets out to write a story such a thing would be forefront in their minds as potential material. How many movies have been made of giant insects and spiders? Same thing…they give most people the creepy-crawlies so it’s an easy emotion to tap and exploit in a story.

The first one that I can think of was 1956’s “World Without End.” Other, more popular, early post-apocalyptic films were Rod Serling’s “A Carol for Another Christmas,” (1964), and–of course–1968’s “Planet of the Apes.”

Also, remember that the pilot for “Star Trek,” “The Cage,” later reworked into “The Menagerie,” dealt with a barren post-apocalyptic world, albeit in a slightly different venue.

IMHO, post-apocalyptic movies were a logical outgrowth of the popular apocalyptic movies of the early 50’s. Invasion USA (1952) is a good example of the genre.

There were also films about the short term aftermath of a nuclear war, replete with gangs of raping mutants and 6 armed psychic squirrel-monsters. Hollywood made a lot of these films, but unfortunately they’ve gotten hard to find.

And how could I have forgotten “Things to Come” (1936)!

Post-Apolcalyptic scenes figured heavily in science fiction short stories of the 1950s. Co-incidentally, some of these writers and some of these stiories ended up on Twilight Zone, which featured a few post-apocalyptic stories. There weree, as mentioned, post-apocalyptic movies in the 1950s, too. Besides World Without End (which I watched over and over as a kid) there were Beyond the Time Barrier, Terror from the Year 5000, The Day the World Ended, Teenage Caveman, and others. They continued making these flicks through the 1960s and on into the 1970s before the ones that catch everyone’s attention (Mad Max et al) came out.

Damn !

Don’t forget H.G Wells’ Time Machine.

If you haven’t seen it already, maybe you ought to take a look at Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema. I remember coming across another similar film and pop culture theory book, and can’t recall the name but do remember seeing a picture of Mad Max on the cover. There’s also no shortage of books and films that deal specifically with nuclear weapons and fallout, particularly in Japan after WW2; Godzilla is one of the best known but if you’re interested check out Yume (also known as Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams), which is a profound and beautiful statement on the subject.

And as a slight thread hijack:
For the ultimate in post-apocalypic gaming, try Fallout and Fallout 2. :slight_smile:

Post-nuclear-apocalypse stories are only as new as fission, but stories about major destruction and people barely surviving in the sooty rubble go back quite a ways.

One presumes they did not need to chase away a helmeted gorilla with a bubble machine before taking control of the cave.

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Anyway, my guess is that On the Beach might be the very first postapocalyptic movie to get a big audience and critical acclaim. Since it’s not dealing with the invasions or red threat, per se, but what surviving would be like. The dread, the dust. It’s all there. It’s scared me to sleeplessness when I first saw it, 12 years old.

It makes for a good story, in that you can write a science-fiction novel about a post-apocalyptic world, without actually coming up with any new technology (one of the stumbling blocks of many an aspiring SF writer–inventing new tech). Just blow the world up, and tell the story of normal people picking up the pieces.

I remember playing a game called “Morrow Project” when I was a little younger. Many of the plot elements of that game were pretty frightening.

The Gaspode appears to be on target in citing On the Beach as the first major “serious” post-apocolyptic movie. It likely had some influence in guiding the public’s thoughts about the possibility of nuclear war; I recall some years ago reading that some conservative pundits in and out of the U.S. government “blamed” Neville Shute’s novel for “scaring” people about fallout.

Prior to On the Beach, post-apocolyptic films were either extremely low budget independent productions such as Panic in Year Zero (Frankie Avalon’s family go on vacation in the woods, civilization blows up, and they have to defend themselves against bands of marauders) or else cheap monster movies, such as the before-cited I Was a Teenage Caveman.

This last film is interesting in that it is actually based (very loosely) on a story from the 1930s, By the Waters of Babylon, by Stephen Vincent Benet. There it comes as a sort of punchline that the ruins the young hero has been exploring are actually the remains of Manhattan Island. Benet’s story seems to have been an uncredited source for the Planet of the Apes movies, as they sometimes have more in common with it than with Pierre Boule’s novel. In Boulle’s novel, the astronauts had not landed back on earth by mistake, but were on a far distant planet.

This also brings to mind Rocketship XM, a film with Hugh O’Brien and Lloyd Bridges from around 1950. There the first astronauts to land on Mars determine that the Martians had an advanced civilization but suffered an atomic war which drove them back to the stone age.

Also of interest is Five, a film written and produced by Arch Oboler, the long-time host and head writer of the radio series Lights Out! The title refers to a small group of people gathered together in a remote house after cities are destroyed in a war. In the opening of the film the destruction of an atomic blast is suggested by showing a skeleton sitting in a window from which black smoke is pouring.

IIRC, the general term for novels which are set in an apolyptic future is “dystopia” - kind of the opposite of an utopia. You might want to do a web search on that term.

Not exactly. A “dystopia” is the opposite of a “utopia” – an undesirable system. Some people call the world of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World a dystopia, even thopugh it’s not at all post-apocalyptic. Neither, for that matter, is the world of 1984, even though war figures heavily in its tone.

I think slipster has a pretty good handle on it, as do many of the others above. I’d completely forgotten about Things to Come, which features a pretty good post-apocalypse, but that type of thing really came into its own with the advent of the atomic bomb and its possibility of sudden and complete destruction. That was what spurred the wave of such things in the late forties and early fifties. Nevil Shute’s [B[On the Beach** may have been the most mainstream of these, but it was by no means the first. Arch Oboler’s Five was the type of 50s science fiction I referred to inmy earlier post. The World, the Flesh and the Devil is another. You find a lot of stories about people wandering through radioactive ruined cities in, for instance, Robert Sheckley’s short stories.

No, a dystopia is more a place where you wouldn’t want to live, for any number of reasons, not necessarily because civilization has been destroyed. 1984 and Brave New World are the canonical examples of dystopian novels, but neither one is post-apocalyptic.

Well, since post-apocalyptic could apply to any story describing events taking place after an enormous disaster, you could go back as far as the 1929 film “Noah’s Ark.” But I think I’d stick closer to 1936’s “Things to Come”, as it has all the elements we’ve come to associate with p-a films: huge war kills most of the population; civilization and technology break down, centralized government is replaced with small dictatorships.

Incidentally, “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil” also came out the same year as “On the Beach”, and also is set in a p-a world. It boiled the standard survivors down to just three people. It gets overlooked as the focus of the story is more on racism and sexual politics.

What started it? Well, you could say the p-a has been with us since Man started telling stories–the Flood, Ragnarok, the Book of Revelations, etc. I’m no historian, but it seems to me that primitive civilizations seemed to have an understanding that they’d been preceded by other civilizations that disappeared, and they feared that fate might happen to them. Shelley summed it up in his poem “Ozymandias”, when he described the desolation surrounding an ancient statue in the desert.

But as to your question about p-a films, I think we can all agree that the 1950’s were a time of paranoia. The world had just been through the trauma of WWII, had seen the horror of the concetration camps, and were now faced with the fact that we now had weapons that could destroy most of the planet. Films just fed off that parnoia, in serious (On the Beach), ridiculous (Robot Monster) and metaphorical (all the Godilla and other kaiju movies) form.

Some of the tropes of post-apocalyptic movies come from War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. These elements are often recognisable in later movies, whether they are about allies, commies or other questionable elements.