The post-apocalyptic road movie has perhaps reached its zenith with Mad Max: Fury Road, which finds the title character (Tom Hardy) and a determined woman named Furiosa (Charlize Theron) ferrying some very precious stolen “property” across a vast wasteland as terrible and treacherous as it is stark and beautiful. Their goal lies somewhere on the far side of that empty, ominous terrain, and as they are pursued by a literal army they don’t even have time to wonder if they’ll even find what they are looking for.
A journey across the ruins of civilization or the world itself has formed the basis of some of the more memorable end-times movies that have come our way over the years, and with Mad Max: Fury Road quite possibly the greatest of its kind yet, we thought a look back at some others in this particular subgenre was in order. Walking, driving or pedaling, it makes no difference — the road through hell on earth remains a harsh one.
Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
Veteran actor Ray Milland (who also directed) tries to lead his family to their secluded vacation home as a nuclear attack brings society to its knees. Surprisingly brutal and pessimistic for its time, this low-budget melodrama puts Milland’s character in a morally gray area: he is quite willing to steal from or shoot at anyone as he deems necessary.
Milland is cranky in front of the camera and confident behind it: this B-movie arguably created the template for a lot of the other films we’re going to talk about. But it’s also quite a dark twist on a classic survivalist scenario — Milland’s character (and, by extension, Milland himself) almost seems to enjoy having the shackles of civilization removed so he can live according to how he sees fit.
No Blade of Grass (1970)
Even more downbeat than Panic in Year Zero!, No Blade of Grass was based on a novel called The Death of Grass which chronicled a virus that wipes out all forms of grass on Earth. As worldwide famine hits, one man (Nigel Davenport) attempts to shepherd his family from London to his brother’s remote farm in Northern England as the world descends into anarchy around them.
Not easy to see for many years (it’s available as an on-demand DVD from Warner Archive), No Blade of Grass is an unsparingly grim, violent, and unpleasant look at humanity’s ability to quickly turn on itself.
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
This adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s classic novella follows Vic (a young Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) as they traverse a wasteland not too far removed from that of Mad Max, with Blood sniffing out both food for them to eat and women for Vic to rape as they kill any other nomads they come in contact with.
It’s wickedly satirical (especially when they find a fascist regime disguised as a small town from the ‘50s is living underground), and Vic’s final choice between his dog and the one girl he might have feelings for would send today’s Culture of Outrage into overdrive, but Vic and Blood are two of the most memorable characters to ever appear in sci-fi cinema.
Logan’s Run (1976)
This fondly remembered if somewhat labored sci-fi semi-classic turns into a road movie only in its second half, as Logan (Michael York) and Jessica (Jenny Agutter) venture outside their domed city in search of Sanctuary, a mythical place where you can survive past 30. That, of course, is against the law in the city, and Logan has been secretly sent to destroy Sanctuary. His and Jessica’s journey takes them through lush forests and clear springs (we presume that all the radiation from the old nuclear wars has faded) until they stumble upon the overgrown remains of Washington D.C. and its sole, ancient, befuddled occupant (Peter Ustinov).
Damnation Alley (1977)
Fondly remembered for…well, it’s not actually fondly remembered for anything except perhaps the cool Landmaster vehicles that the cast — which includes Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard and Paul Winfield — uses to trek across the former United States in search of a post-nuclear war pocket of civilization in Albany, New York.
Extreme weather, giant scorpions, and mutant cockroaches all get in the way, but production difficulties made the monster effects in director Jack Smight’s loose adaptation of a Roger Zelazny novel look shoddy. This expensive (for its time) project also had the unfortunate luck of being one of two sci-fi films released by 20th Century Fox in the same year. The other one was Star Wars.
The Road Warrior (1981)
The second movie in the Mad Max series is one of the stone cold action/sci-fi masterpieces of all time. This is not just brilliant filmmaking all around, but it’s enormously influential on all post-apocalyptic cinema since (including Mad Max: Fury Road). Director George Miller and star Mel Gibson followed the smaller, more exploitational Mad Max with this nearly perfect chase film.
Max, now wandering the wastelands after society’s collapse, is drawn to help a small community under siege from a brutal warlord known as The Humungus. The action, stunts, editing, and cinematography are all groundbreaking, and the climactic tanker chase is legendary. Until Fury Road came alone, it was the post-apocalyptic road movie to beat.
28 Days Later (2002)
Four survivors head out of London and into the north of England as an escaped virus turns most of the population into homicidal maniacs. The movie that reinvented the zombie genre (yes, we know, they’re not really zombies…) is also cut from the same template as earlier post-disaster road films like No Blade of Grass, as our small band of heroes struggle to make their way across a dangerous new landscape. And of course, their goal is not what they hoped it would be: instead of finding some kind of sane authority attempting to hold things together, they find a military unit turned into sexual slavers.
The Road (2009)
Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, unrelenting yet Pulitzer-winning novel of a man and his son trudging hopelessly through the devastated ruins of the world, evading vicious marauders and cannibals, and scrounging for whatever scraps of food they can find, made it to the screen largely intact – incredible for such a grim tale told through prose that frequently turned eerily poetic and beautiful.
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are moving and captivating as the unnamed man and boy, while director John Hillcoat captures a world in freefall with searing intensity. Whereas other post-apocalyptic films can sometimes revel in the sheer mania of their environments (the Mad Max films do this quite well), The Road is stark and unsparing.
This low-budget take on the “apocalyptic virus” narrative sat on the shelf for a couple of years until its star, Chris Pine, rocketed to fame as Captain Kirk in the revived Star Trek franchise. Which is a shame, because Carriers is a small but effective film, following two brothers and two women (one a girlfriend, the other a friend) who set out to reach a secluded motel in the southwest U.S. where they believe they can wait out the pandemic and start life again once it’s over. Silly them for thinking that. The story follows the now-standard beats, but the relationship between the brothers and the focus on a small group trying to retain their humanity makes the film chilling and memorable.
The complete opposite of the other 2009 releases we just discussed, Zombieland is a road comedy that happens to take place after a worldwide plague of zombies. The jokes are somewhat stale at the outset and the direction workmanlike, but the movie kicks up a notch with the arrival of the always hilarious Woody Harrelson as a would-be survivalist who teams with the more neurotic Jesse Eisenberg. The interplay between their characters and the two sisters they meet up with (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) gives Zombieland its likeability and value. And of course there’s the Bill Murray scene – a moment of flat-out brilliance.
The Book of Eli (2010)
Coming after the poetic nihilism of The Road, this Hughes Brothers-directed fable seemed to just copy that movie’s desaturated look while jamming a ham-handed religious allegory atop a sub-Mad Max action programmer. Denzel Washington is always watchable and surprisingly earnest as the title character, who carries a book that he believes can restart civilization, but the movie mashes together elements of several others and never fully explores the themes it throws out there.
Stake Land (2010)
Working with an even tinier budget than, say, Carriers (less than $1 million), the excellent indie director Jim Mickle (Cold in July) manages to fashion a somewhat epic tale of a vampire hunter (the superb Nick Damici) and a young boy (Connor Paolo) he takes under his wing as they travel through a United States destroyed by a pandemic of zombie-like vampires and divided into territories controlled by various fundamentalist factions.
The characters and situations are surprisingly strong, and inject some fresh energy into a well-worn tale, while the lack of big effects or sets gives the movie a gritty, realistic, and eerie feel.