The Last Man on Earth, now in its second season on Fox, and the lonely premise is a fairly unusual one to transplant onto a television show, let alone a comedy. There are many different directions to take this fantastical concept, and it’s the sort of story we’ve seen played with for decades now. It’s safe to say that we’ve been fascinated with this idea and the pangs of isolation that so often accompany it. So, in honor of Will Forte’s new series, we decided to take a look at the 20 best “Last Man on Earth” films (or some that just focus on an ultra-dwindling population apocalypse).
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
A fitting place to start, and often seen as the “biggest” Last Man on Earth film, is this 1964 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic science fiction novel, I Am Legend. Starring a very in-his-element Vincent Price, the film posits a world where biological warfare has wiped out most of the population. Price’s character manages to somehow be immune and survives all of this with the rest of the world being turned into mutants that are essentially vampires.
They come out at night and prey on the living (as well as being weak to sunlight and vulnerable to garlic) while he is forced to stay in his home. This very chilling version of the end of the world focuses on the grueling routine that Price’s character goes through every day as he is forced to hunt and hide. Eventually, he carelessly falls asleep at his wife’s grave, awakening to the mutants being upon him, as the story takes a turn for the worse.
The Omega Man (1971)
Also being an adaptation of Matheson’s I Am Legend, The Omega Man puts Charlton Heston in the leading role and jumps the year forward to 1975. While largely being the same story that’s seen in The Last Man on Earth, it’s interesting to notice the subtle changes between the films. This time around, there’s certainly a less stark, ultra-serious tone to it. The initial threat has also been shifted to the Chinese and Russians, as a means of reflecting the current times.
The film emphasizes the increasing threat of biological warfare, whereas before it was just an unknown plague that had decimated humanity. It’s also worth mentioning that the film contains one of the first interracial onscreen kisses between Heston and Rosalind Cash. It’s especially notable since race issues and equality were heavily part of the make-up from this period. These sorts of films almost became known for re-purposing themselves as parables for what was going on in the times. They almost feel like modern fables.
It’s not surprising then that this same appropriation would happen in 2007’s I Am Legend, this time using a re-engineered measles virus developed to help cure cancer as the bug that got out of hand and wipes out the population. It surely won’t be the last time we see Matheson’s novel getting adapted either.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
In what’s a thoroughly bonkers film, The Quiet Earth (which is based on the New Zealand novel of the same name) really just explores how a man can go mad when he thinks that he’s the last person on Earth. The miniscule population this time is brought about by an electrical grid experiment gone wrong, and it’s one of the more creative angles seen from these films. The movie does not have fun with this idea or try to turn the world into a playground in any sense, but really just focuses on the madness and exhaustion of what this situation would do to you.
If you thought all of this was enough of a mind trip, there’s also a truly ridiculous, what-the-fuck, amazing ending that the film goes out on that you won’t be soon forgetting.
On the Beach (1959)
Set in 1964, a few months in the advent of World War III, a nuclear disaster has wiped out nearly everyone in the world by polluting its atmosphere. With the population now agonizingly low, everyone becomes obsessed with making contact and the hope of there being more people out there that are alive.
The biggest discovery comes in the form of a signal that Anthony Perkins and Gregory Peck (yeah, the cast here is stacked) stumble upon on the other side of the world. What follows is the deeply bleak voyage to this signal to find the other survivors that are out there. But once the signal is reached, it’s ultimately discovered to be bunk. What follows is really all that can follow with Perkins and Peck’s characters sadly and slowly returning home to oblivion. On the Beach is an incredibly cynical, quiet film that isn’t interested in being a super spectacle, but still makes its point and works.
The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959)
In a film that bears many similarities to The Quiet Earth, this one sees a man being trapped in a mineshaft when the pivotal apocalyptic event happens. When the man finally emerges from the mine, he finds himself in a deserted NYC.
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil starts out slow but begins to pick up once our protagonist runs into a woman. This is a film that’s heavily about race and politics, and so to see things like race be abandoned here as only these two are left to survive is beautiful. This of course becomes more complicated when another man is eventually thrown into the mix.
There are also just tons of great scenes throughout the film like spending the time to fix a phone when there’s only one other person on Earth, and other moments of stability framed in chaos. There are many great (as well as cliché) set-pieces around the whole apocalypse idea. It’s really a thrilling movie that manages to still be deeply optimistic, unlike The Quiet Earth, and explores some fascinating things here.
A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Based on sci-fi heavyweight Harlan Ellison’s stories, the film gets into the overdone territory of the apocalypse but makes it feel fresh with an incredibly unique perspective. What follows is the hauntingly beautiful, almost poem-like film that follows a boy and his telepathic dog who roam the Earth in a post-apocalypse. It’s also easy to see how something as simple as this could be a clear influence to some of the later films in this “genre,” like Oblivion. It’s not as flashy and might not have as much to say as some of the other films on this list, but there’s such a strong voice to it all. It’s quite soothing to watch this minimalistic story play out around the end of world.
La Jetee (1962)
Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris during the fallout of World War III, the film looks at the few remaining humans that are left. These people have resorted to trying to figure out time travel, so someone can be sent back in time to get food, supplies, and maybe even have an answer on how to reverse their fate.
If this all sounds a little familiar, it’s also what Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys pulls from. Gilliam’s adaptation would also fit well on this list, but La Jétee does a better job at playing with the feeling of isolation, and I daresay is the better film.
Oblivion is actually one of the more refined takes on the Last Man on Earth idea, in spite of it being generally overlooked upon its release (it opened near the very similar, but deeply inferior After Earth from M. Night Shymalan). A very stylistic film, boasting a score entirely done by M83, there’s a heavy ‘70s sci-fi influence coursing through this picture.
Set 60 years in the future, after aliens have not only plagued our planet, but also destroyed our moon, our home has been made into a desolate and tumultuous playground. As a solution, sanctuary is sought on Saturn’s moon, Titan, with a bleak, cold story ensuing.
Much of this is looking at if survival is possible, but after all the loss that’s been seen there’s barely anything left to survive for. There are some really stirring visuals, like how Tom Cruise clings onto any remainders of humanity that he finds on his journey, building a pseudo-nest out of them to feel more at home.
28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle is an incredible filmmaker in his own right, absolutely nailing films from all different genres. This makes his entry into the Last Man on Earth library hold tremendous weight, and truly, 28 Days Later is likely the scariest film on this list. What’s so powerful about this picture is what it starts off as and then what it slowly turns into.
Initially we get an infinitely creepy look at Cillian Murphy waking up from a coma to a world that has emptied out around him. Boyle gets in all of those staples of a man wandering an empty world, but then turns this on its head by essentially switching gears to a zombie movie (albeit a very different one). The product is two separate takes on this idea, both of which are executed perfectly.
Panic in the Year Zero! (aka End of the World) (1962)
This film attempts to show you a regular American family (which includes a young Frankie Avalon as the son) trying to go on vacation as the world ends around them. Rather than taking an even more inspired angle by having this family attempt to maintain their vacation itinerary, it is instead a treaty on chaos, and how men panic when put in a tight situation.
As people are pushed to their limit here, we see some fairly shocking (especially for 1962) measures resorted to, including a lot of murder, sex slaves, and even the rape of one of our main characters. It’s a tough film, but one that still manages to have a hopeful ending where this family at least isn’t infected with radiation. The film closes with the message, “There must be no end –- only a new beginning” in what apparently passes for optimism in the face of utter destruction.
A surrealist black comedy from visual extraordinaire, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), Delicatessen has one of the better premises on the list. In a post-apocalyptic society, those that are still alive have turned to looking at food as currency, giving it tremendous value and it even splitting up society.
For instance, those that only deal with grain live underground, and are referred to as troglodytes, where those above ground eat meat, with it often costing people their lives and fostering business arrangements in the process. A truly unique film that has a lot to say about society and class, it’s part of a new branch of French cinema often referred to as “La Nouvelle Vague.”
Reign of Fire (2002)
Surprising I know, but hear me out: It’s 20 years in the future, dragons have been re-awakened and only a few humans are left on the planet. Christian Bale is the leader of these survivors, as they struggle to maintain crops and survive in these apocalyptic settings. A particularly insane Matthew McConaughey then shows up as the new hero to kill these dragons and save the day while some fairly ridiculous stuff goes down.
Gerard Butler is also along for the ride as one of the other questionable heavyweights in this picture that was directed by Rob Bowman, a veteran of the The X-Files. The project was a pretty colossal misfire and Disney even banked for big things from the film, including a theme park extension at Disney World.
And speaking of failures…the highly over-budget Waterworld saw the polar ice caps melting and most of the world being swallowed up in the process (and what wasn’t subsequently being referred to as Dryland). Kevin Costner stars as the Mariner, who has adapted to all of these changes to the point of having gills, as he fights for life amongst all of this. This was a weird time for Costner with him also doing The Postman in 1997, which put him in another Messianic role after the apocalypse.
Waterworld is a messy if ambitious film that’s still worth checking out for this bizarre aquatic take on Mad Max.
Aptly enough, an atomic blast goes off and only five people (one woman and four men…eep) are left standing. In what’s a beautiful, bottle episode-esque piece of near-theatre, each of these individuals goes on an interesting journey as they examine the parts of their lives that have left them, and what sort of future they can possible have now. There are some jarring visuals and ideas played with, like how strangely all buildings and architecture remain standing in the wake of humanity disappearing.
The film also nicely uses Cold War logic to get through its problems (like how hiding in a bank vault could keep you safe from radiation annihilation). Frequent thoughts of invincibility flash through these people’s minds only to find themselves faced with situations like burying their children or showing signs of infection after all. Five functions as another intensely pessimistic sort of story as we see this really boiling down to a tug of war between these five people’s egos.
The Day of the Triffids (1963)
In one of the true classics of the genre, a man wakes up in the hospital with his eyes bandaged and he learns that he’s missed an atypical meteor shower that has blinded most of the population. In this small amount of time, a giant plant race has taken over Earth, killing humanity with poisonous stings and only a few people remain. While The Day of the Triffids does feel a little more populated than a lot of other films on here, it’s just so damn good, scary, and a large influence on a lot of future zombie fodder that it can’t be passed up.
Night of the Comet (1984)
A comet, which hasn’t appeared in 65 million years, is passing Earth, and the last time it reared its head, it rendered the dinosaurs extinct. So this kind of seems like the time to panic. People respond to this in different ways as they watch the event, either celebrating or freaking out, with a haze of crazy being placed over everyone as erraticness reigns free. It’s a really unique and unpredictable take on this sort of premise, and not with the typical sort of causal factors being resorted to. It also has one of the cleanest endings out of all of these films with a solution being very much in sight, and a real feeling of “Boy, wasn’t that a crazy dream?” washing over everyone.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
A monumental picture that was also scripted (in part) by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, some people might consider Planet of the Apes to be a bit of a cheat since Charlton Heston here is very much not the Last Man on Earth. But there are still plenty of apes moving around and in the picture. That being said, the moment of Heston at the Statue of Liberty is so emblematic of this genre (and so is Heston himself, to a degree) that it felt like a necessary inclusion.
Children of Men (2006)
Another film that is a bit of a stretch, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is just so freaking gorgeous (not enough can be said for that shoot-out in the car) that it’s more than deserving of an inclusion. With a rather inventive twist on the end-of-the-world premise, the Earth has been dealing with human infertility for 20 years, and much of what’s left has been crumbling around them. While they’re not down to the last man on Earth yet, they will be, and they’re approaching that point quickly until a miraculous birth takes place; everyone else is just running out the clock.
It’s a bit of twist here that this isn’t a film about a man stranded or alone, but rather a robot, yet when we eventually see what humanity has become, Wall-E feels far more like the lone human individual. The beginning of this movie is so distant and quiet too, it really captures the feeling of being deserted and is perhaps just as bleak as the On the Beach. That’s pretty incredible and progressive for what ostensibly functions as a children’s film.
The Last Woman on Earth (1960)
Originally released as a double feature with Little Shop of Horrors, with that title being the more memorable of the two, it doesn’t mean that The Last Woman on Earth isn’t still without its charms. In a fairly bizarre set-up that kind of feels right up director Roger Corman’s alley, a man, his wife, and another man go on a scuba diving escapade, and when they re-surface, everyone in their area (and in what appears to be a pretty big leap of an extrapolation, the world) is dead. As these three try to carry on, the film soon reveals that it’s title is a nice bit of trickery with the woman not being the last human on earth, but merely the last female.
A bitter love triangle ensues and tears them apart (as is usually the way in these affairs). Honestly, The Last Woman on Earth is probably the weakest film on this list, but Corman’s tone and classic hammy sensibilities save this film from irrelevancy.
It’s interesting to see that in so many of these disparate films, there are still common themes and ideas that are being fallen on. It might be because we keep turning to the same classic texts to approach these films, or maybe because there’s something inherent about this terrifying premise that we can all connect to. We’re surely not going to stop making Last Man on Earth films anytime soon, but hopefully, as the movies continue to get made, we’ll still have Will Forte on our television screens living out the tragedy for years to come.
This article originally ran in 2015 ahead of the Last Man on Earth series premiere.