America’s Love Affair With the Post-Apocalyptic Movie
The greatest twist ending in Hollywood history came in 1968 when Charlton Heston rode shirtless on a horse down a beach, saw something horrid, and threw himself to the ground. “You maniacs! You blew it all up!” he shouted as the camera pulled back to show the Statue of Liberty mired in the sand on the Planet of the Apes. It turned out that Astronaut Heston had not journeyed deep into space; rather, he was hundreds of years in the future and the Planet of the Apes was our Earth, which had mutated in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
This moment, which still has the power to stagger even if you first saw it half a century ago (as I did), gave birth to an entire motion picture genre: the post-apocalyptic film. There had been two prior cinematic efforts that sought to depict the condition of the world after a global thermonuclear war. Both were released in 1959 and, remarkably, both had the same design concept, which was to show us stunning shots of entirely emptied cities. The World, the Flesh and the Devil showed us a New York with only three people in it, while On the Beach was largely set in a depopulated Melbourne.
Just revisiting some of the visuals of The World, the Flesh and the Devil on YouTube is enough to give you the creeps and make you wonder how on earth they pulled it off – long before computer-generated imagery created the same image with Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, we see Harry Belafonte walking entirely alone through Times Square.
The subject of these movies and the other nuke-obsessed films of the time was the Bomb itself, what it would do, and whether anyone could survive it.
Still, the subject of these movies and the other nuke-obsessed films of the time was the Bomb itself, what it would do, and whether anyone could survive it. Planet of the Apes took things in a new direction. It wasn’t about survival. It was – or as that last minute on the sand turned it into – a story about mutation. It was about how our children’s future was going to be a living nightmare and there wouldn’t be any way to fix it. Apes would be in charge, humans would be their voiceless slaves, and there was no getting off the planet and going somewhere else. “A change is gonna come,” as Sam Cooke sang, and it’s gonna be just hideous… The future of the Earth is a horror film.
It took a while for the ineffable chill of Planet of the Apes to permeate the minds of the next generation of filmmaking talent. Remember, Planet of the Apes preceded not only the Internet but cable TV and the advent of the VCR. A particularly crazy follow-on came in 1975 with a picture called A Boy and His Dog, in which Don Johnson wanders a devastated Earth with a mutt with whom he has established telepathic communications. The dog helps Johnson rape women in exchange for dog food. When he is kidnapped by a tribe to be used as a sperm donor, he finally escapes – and feeds the Machiavellian woman who has helped him to the dog. Surprisingly, the film was not a success.
The successful film that really pursued the closing argument of Planet of the Apes came along four years later from Australia. In Mad Max, civilization has basically ended, not because of nukes but because of gas shortages. Writer-director George Miller saw how the oil embargo of 1973 hurled all advanced industrial societies into ruinous recessions and conjured up the sense that it would take very little to send us back into the Stone Age… Or into the state of nature, which is where a young cop named Max Rockatansky finds himself plunged. He is supposed to keep the peace, but the cackling, marauding bands of gas thieves make a mockery of his efforts – and then rape and kill his wife and child. By the end, Max is handcuffing a crook to a car that he has set to blow up. He gives the guy a saw and says that it’ll probably take 10 minutes for the car to explode – so maybe the guy could saw off his own hand in five.
By the time its sequel, The Road Warrior, rolled around in 1981, there had been a second oil shock, the Russians had invaded Afghanistan, and Communists were on the move in Central America – and up on screen, any semblance of a civil society in Max’s world was long gone. Cities and governments had disappeared entirely. Life had become tribal. People no longer had normal names – they were Wez and the Gyro Captain and the Feral Kid and Lord Humungus. And what gave them status was the nature and condition of the vehicle in which they traveled.
As the novelist Michael Chabon has written, “Typically [the post-apocalyptic stories] deal with the changed nature of society in the wake of cataclysm, the strange new priesthoods, the caste systems of the genetically stable, the worshipers of techno-death, the rigid pastoral theocracies in which mutants and machinery are taboo, etc.; for inevitably these new societies mirror and comment upon our own.”
All the elements of the post-apocalyptic films that have followed come from The Road Warrior. The action takes place on a deserted landscape that looks sort of lunar. Battles between animalistic people are fought with tattered old cars doing the jobs of horses in a medieval joust. The humans seem to have regressed, either through some form of disease, radiation, or planetary alteration. And there’s usually one lone fighter who can help an overpowered community survive the onslaught by a band of marauders.
If that sounds familiar to moviegoers who have no taste for such fare, this is because the post-apocalyptic movie is basically a Western. Substitute the endless dusty vistas of The Road Warrior for Monument Valley. Substitute a gang of rustlers or a hostile Native American tribe or a misdirected posse for the snarling, giggling Hobbesian youth. And substitute Shane for Mad Max. Westerns comprise in aggregate the most popular genre in the history of motion pictures. By one estimate, more than 75% of the movies made until the 1960s were Westerns. People have always loved the black-and-white simplicity of the drama, but they tired of the form. So it came back in another form. (Remember that Heston, in that final scene, is riding a horse.)
Anyone who walked the aisles of video stores – remember video stores? – can summon up the images of the VCR boxes of the literally hundreds of movies written and filmed and sold on this model. Many of them had the word “apocalypse” in the title, in case you didn’t get the meaning from the box image. The lettering on the boxes mimicked the graphic design of heavy-metal albums, which in turn mimicked the design of the boxes.
And when George Miller revisited the Mad Max story in 2015’s Fury Road – which might be the greatest single action picture ever made – he incorporated the images of these boxes and heavy-metal albums into the vast battles across surreal landscapes. They included a man with long hair standing astride a tank-like car as he played an electric guitar. And he incorporated the original post-apocalyptic theme in a way he hadn’t before: This new iteration of Mad Max takes place 75 years after a nuclear war and many of the characters have been disfigured or poisoned by the continuing fallout. A warlord named Immortan Joe is the Big Cheese, and his power comes from the way he controls the lifeblood of humanity. “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water,” he instructs his slavish hordes. “It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.”
“…inevitably these new societies mirror and comment upon our own.”
This is a great line and an absurd one; how can people live without water, after all? They can if they’re not living in the real world, but inside a nightmare. Perhaps the most punishing of all post-apocalyptic stories is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a horrifying but brilliant 2006 novel made a few years later into, what is to my mind, the most depressing movie ever made. McCarthy’s work always has a mythopoeic aspect, and that is certainly true of The Road, which examines the ideas of the protean philosopher Thomas Hobbes through the lens of a living hellscape following a nuclear war in which all of society’s rules no longer have any purchase. The goal of the nameless man at the center of both the book and film is simple: He wants to keep his young son alive, and by alive, he means in large measure unmolested sexually and uneaten by cannibals. Not much more than that. Almost nothing more than that, in fact. But that is enough: McCarthy actually features a scene in which a baby is cooked on a spit.
Why did the world fall in love with these bleak, bleak visions of a terrible future in which there is no hope? Your answer is as good as mine. One thing is for sure: You certainly feel better about the present.