It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Top 10 Apocalyptic Horror Movies

2020 has been an exhausting year, yes, but sometimes the best way to cope with the horrors of the real world is to escape into the horrors of a fictional one. If any year has felt as quasi-apocalyptic as this one, I haven’t been around to see it, and quite honestly, I hope I’m never around for when 2020 is topped. Should, I don’t know, 2062 reign supreme as the actual worst year of our lifetime, well, that would really just suck.

Nonetheless, the post-apocalyptic and disaster genres have routinely traded in this kind of dour projection. Granted, their estimates are usually wildly off base– we’ve yet to have aliens blow up the white house or the core of the earth meltdown– but there’s a strange, almost misanthropic comfort in escaping to a fictional plateau that’s even more replete with doomsday characteristics than ours. That seems to conceptualize the horror genre well. I’ve often said (ad nauseum, really) that the horror genre is curative, and sometimes genre needs to probe the darkest recesses of the human condition to find that guiding light back to healing.

In the spirit of that kind of descent into healing, I have decided to list my top 10 picks for apocalyptic horror movies. In terms of criteria, it should be noted that my entries here, while not all strictly horror, must at least trade in genre tropes to qualify. That said, certain preeminent disaster and post-apocalyptic movies will be missing. Indeed, only those outright genre films, or those informed by horror, qualify for inclusion. Moreover, my qualification for “apocalyptic” will include only those movies where the world does, in fact, end, or at least movies where it is strongly suggested that it will soon. Movies that end triumphantly with the world returning to normal are unfortunately excluded– these apocalypses have to commit.

10. It Comes at Night (2017). Directed by Trey Edward Shults

It Comes at Night was controversial upon release. The movie follows Paul (Joel Edgarton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a family living in deep, wooded seclusion after an unknown disease ravages the rest of the world. Their bucolic solitude is compromised after the arrival of a strange new couple seeking refuge. Audiences took umbrage with both the title, chiefly that, well, nothing comes at night– nothing monstrous, anyway. I disagree– the paranoia and unknowable menace hidden in the dark of night is sufficiently terrifying without being rendered literal– and consider It Comes at Night as one of 2017’s strongest genre entries, and one of the most frightening contemporary apocalyptic horror movies. If you haven’t yet caught it, when it comes it night, be sure to let it in.

9. The Road (2009). Directed by John Hillcoat

The Road is anchored by a powerhouse performance from Viggo Mortensen as the father of a young boy struggling to survive after a cataclysmic extension event. Mortensen must endure his own profound grief, dwindling supplies, a hostile environment, and even cannibals as he endeavors to protect his son and find a new home amongst the rubble. The Road is denser and more languorous than most post-apocalyptic fright fare but still sufficiently frightening and tense where it counts most. Think of it as Tarkovskian introspection meets Romero’s roaming bands of bloodthirsty fiends.

8. The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Directed by Drew Goddard

The final frame of The Cabin in the Woods confirms its qualification as an apocalyptic horror movie. Subversive, gut-bustlingly funny, and genuinely frightening in spurts, The Cabin in the Woods is the kind of meta, deconstructed horror eulogy that, upon release, hadn’t been seen since 1996’s Scream and, now eight years later, hasn’t really been seen since. I don’t hold the film in quite as high a regard as some horror fans– I really, really like it, but can’t quite get around to loving it– but it’s still an incessantly entertaining fright flick that poses some pretty profound questions– at one point do we surrender our right to exist?

7. Contagion (2011). Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Contagion has taken on new, terrifying power on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. The transmission of communicable diseases is literalized in Soderbergh’s procedural, pandemic masterpiece. What Soderbergh does here renders a sneeze or a sniffle as terrifying as Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, and in some cases, even more terrifying. The A-list, international cast is dazzling, the direction is tight, and Soderbergh emulates the beats of a genre picture successfully throughout. Contagion is considerably less comforting than the other entries on this list, but it’s worth a watch for those in the right frame of mind to handle it.

6. The War Game (1966). Directed by Peter Watkins

The War Game is a strikingly realistic depiction of both the prelude and aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack against Great Britain. Though The War Game won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary, the movie is fiction, though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Director Peter Watkins captures the stark horror of life after a nuclear holocaust, casting principally non-actors as he navigates the charred corpses, demolished cityscapes, and unremitting horror of a nuclear strike. The War Game, like the bombs dropped therein, is sure to leave a permanent, haunting impression on your mind.

5. 28 Days Later (2002). Directed by Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a masterpiece, the freshest and fiercest zombie movie of the 21st-century. Cillian Murphy stars as Jim, one of four survivors trying to evade those infected with the rage virus, a highly contagious pathogen that’s caused the destruction of contemporary society. The rage virus functions similarly to the standard zombie infection with a few distinct caveats– in Alex Garland’s script, these creatures are faster, meaner, and smarter. Few post-apocalyptic horror movies have maintained quite this stellar a level of tension and visceral thrills– 28 Days Later is one for the books.

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Directed by Philip Kaufman

You know how they say there are really only three different kinds of plots? Well, I’d contend there are really four, and that fourth would be “gelatinous creatures travel to earth and start replacing the citizenry with alien duplicates.” Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers,” has been remade countless times, both in clear remakes (see the 1956 film or the 1993 film) or Body Snatcher homages (e.g., The Faculty). Despite the dozens of adaptations out there, Kaufman’s is clearly king, a superbly acted, expertly paced shocker that genuinely chills to this day. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, like the best horror films, sticks with you, like it’s replicating the original terror in your mind over and over again ad infinitum. There are a lot of ways the apocalypse could happen and Kaufman’s rendition, with its shrieking pod people, is among the most terrifying.

3. Children of Men (2006). Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men isn’t just one of the greatest post-apocalyptic movies ever made, by most accounts, it’s simply one of the greatest movies ever made, period. The year is 2027 and for 18 years, the earth has been plagued with infertility and a global economic depression. Immigration is strictly enforced, and everyone is miserable in that distinctly British way. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is recruited by his ex-wife to escort young refugee, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) the first woman to become pregnant in years, to the Human Project, a group working on curing infertility. Naturally, complications ensue, and director Cuarón imbues the proceedings with tinges of horror, particularly during on breathlessly nasty and spellbinding one-shot sequence toward the dénouement. Children of Men is considerably more hopeful than most other entries on this list, but it’s a long, frightening, and demoralizing journey to get there.

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968). Directed by George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead has a dark ending. Ben (Duane Jones) is shot and burned along with the rest of the ghouls. Optimistically, though, the movie doesn’t exactly suggest that the zombie epidemic stands to spread considerably more than it has. It wasn’t until Romero’s follow-up, Dawn of the Dead was released a decade later that the full scope of his undead progenitor was known. Night of the Living Dead, the first in Romero’s long-running franchise, is the most frightening of the bunch. The movie features remarkable casting, an adroit control of tone and tension, and some of the most relentlessly terrifying undead ever committed to film. The original most always reigns supreme. With Night of the Living Dead, Romero crafted the most frightening zombie apocalypse to date.

1. Threads (1984). Directed by Barry Hines

I saw Threads when it premiered on Shudder the summer before last, having never heard of it before. The synopsis was interesting enough, and Shudder was wise enough to bait me with the note that it had absolutely decimated its BBC2 audience when it premiered, scaring the hell out of most everyone who watched, similar to another future BBC production. I watched it, not quite knowing what to expect, and walked away stunned. Genuinely stunned. Threads, more than its American counterpart The Day After, is the bleakest, most terrifying fictionalized account of a nuclear holocaust ever.

Director Barry Hines dramatizes the aftermath of a nuclear war on the city of Sheffield in Northern England after a nuclear conflict erupts between the United States and the Soviet Union. Hines, in an almost documentarian fashion, details the medical, economic, social, interpersonal, and environmental impact of the nuclear strikes, never once abstaining from the grim, Baltic conditions.

The final act of the film features Jane, one of the Sheffield residents audiences have followed since the beginning, assaulted on the streets after fighting with a group of boys over some food. Months later, Jane is in a makeshift refugee hospital and, after screaming in terror, gives birth to a stillborn child. Hines keeps the deceased child center-frame, almost daring the audience to take in this graphic microcosm of nuclear war. It’s a gut-wrenching scene, a dour end to a dour feature. Threads will terrify you and haunt you for days afterwards. Informed by fact, not fiction, it almost feels too real, and for that, is deservedly ranks as the scariest apocalyptic horror movie ever made. 

Well, those are my picks for the Top 10 Apocalyptic Horror Movies. Let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter @ChadisCollins. Stay safe. Stay festive. Stay prepared– you never know when the apocalypse might happen.



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