Whether it’s Denzel Washington dining on a meal of hairless cat in this weekend’s The Book of Eli or Knowing’s Nicolas Cage screeching, “How can I stop the end of the world?” grisly images of post apocalyptic lifestyle have recently been dominating movie screens.
Perhaps it’s the recession or the result of the anxious times we live in, but end-of-the-world stories are all the rage, but they are not new. Whether it’s nuclear fallout, an unexpected ice age or a zombie holocaust that brings about the end, filmmakers have peddled post apocalyptica for years.
In 1959 Gregory Peck headlined a dystopian drama that set the date for the end of the world just after World War III in 1964. In On the Beach nuclear war has destroyed all life on the planet save for a small enclave in Australia, but even they will succumb once the radiation clouds drift by. “We’re all doomed,” says Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire). “Doomed by the air we’re about to breathe.” As doomsday dramas go this one is particularly depressing—for example people gobble up “suicide pills”—but its Cold War commentary led one contemporary writer to label it “the most important film of our time.”
Several years later the post-atomic war film Panic in Year Zero! opened with one of filmdom’s great understatements. While on a fishing trip Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his family see a mushroom cloud over Los Angeles. “We’ve had it; haven’t we dad?” says son Rick (Frankie Avalon). Well, not quite Rick, but the world as you know it is over. Made on a shoe-string, Panic in Year Zero! is notable not for its special effects—there aren’t any—but for its take on the difficult decisions Milland’s character must make to ensure his family’s survival in a world where old principles of humanity are obsolete.
Finally, to end the end-of-the-world list, fans of post apocalyptic fantasy will find a payday in the form of Rock & Rule, an animated film featuring Deborah Harry and Lou Reed’s voice work. In it the world has been destroyed and “legendary super-rocker” Mok—whose record went “gold, platinum, and plutonium in one day”—tries to use a demonic code to rule what’s left of the world.
With such a range of dystopian stories to mine it seems filmmakers could make post apocalyptic movies until the end of the world comes for real.