Movies & TV / Columns

A Bloody Good Time 06.13.13: Post-Apocalyptic Horror

June 13, 2013 | Posted by Joseph Lee

Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

Welcome to A Bloody Good Time.

If you’re wondering where I was last week, blame Time Warner Cable and their crappy service. We recently switched and then our internet blinked out, which kept me wrong writing last week’s edition. It’s actually something of a blessing in disguise, as my look on post-apocalyptic horror really matches up better with the apocalypse comedy This Is The End than it did with After Earth or The Purge.

The concept of a post-apocalyptic film is already slightly a horror topic to begin with. It’s a world that’s been so dramatically changed by an apocalyptic event that nothing will ever be the same again and life as we know it is over. Usually this means that the world is a wasteland of some kind, the population has dropped dramatically and most technology, if not all, is gone. It’s basically like the Wild West, but all over the world.

It just seems natural to set horror films in this setting, because what could be scarier than the idea that the world is either ending or already at an end? What’s scarier than the thought that everything you ever knew or loved is gone forever and you’re on your own? Well, how about we throw some sort of radioactive monster out there to pick off the survivors, just to make “hell on earth” a little more accurate.

The horror genre doesn’t usually go for the “after Armageddon” scenario as much as modern takes. This is because like period horror, it softens the impact to say that this thing is happening in a far off future/past. This kind of horror can still be very effective, but in the wrong hands it’s just some terrible thing happening to other people in a future you don’t have to worry about.

So this week we’re going to look at the various types of post-apocalyptic horror and the biggest examples of films from those types.

Zombie Apocalypse

The first of these is zombies. Almost every single zombie movie (there are a few exceptions) is either set after the apocalypse has already happened and zombies are everywhere or it is the beginning of said apocalypse when zombies are introduced. There’s rarely a horror film with a zombie in it that doesn’t end with the world ending. Romero’s Dead films are all about the end of the world. It starts in Night and Dawn (which appears to be not long after Night) and gets worse in Day and Land. Then it starts again with Diary and Survival, which I guess were reboots.

The Walking Dead is a huge example of the zombie apocalypse, as that’s all that show is about. The zombies are mostly supporting players to how certain types of people react to the fact the world as they know it has ended. Some go mad with power, others struggle to save as many lives as they can, some letter their inner jerk come out, etc. As I mentioned before, the best zombie movies are always about the survivors, with the zombies themselves as a means to an end. It’s the breakdown of society in these movies that is truly terrifying.

It doesn’t really matter how the zombie plague starts. In Resident Evil, it’s a virus that spreads like wildfire and consumes the world. In Return of the Living Dead, it’s a gas that kills living tissue and reanimates dead tissue. Then in some movies it just happens. For example, while an explanation is hinted at in Night of the Living Dead, it’s actually more of a theory. A concrete explanation was never really applied.

Of course if you’re a survivor in this world, your best bet to stay alive is to lock yourself up away from the living dead, stock up on supplies and kill any that come after you, if you can. If you can survive the dead, then you’ll have to deal with other survivors who come by seeking either refuge or to case mayhem. This isn’t just for a zombie scenario, this applies to any end of the world situation.

Zombies are one of the least likely of the apocalypse scenarios because it’s highly unlikely the dead are spontaneously going to return to life and eat us. We can make all the jokes we want, but this just isn’t going to happen, ever. Zombies scare us because they make us face death. That’s all zombies are. They’re no different than any other plague or viral outbreak except for the fact that they’re a more cinematic way of looking at it. We can leave a zombie movie chuckling about the gore or the living dead in a way that we can’t when looking at other, plausible scenarios.

Viral Outbreak

A natural extension of zombies is the viral outbreak, which can happen and is something that terrifies real people every day. Bird flu. Swine flu. SARS. Anthrax. These should ring bells because of the hysteria that resulted over each. I still remember seeing people in Walmart with face masks because they were so afraid to get swine flu and die. Part of this is the media’s fault and part of this is due to the fact that most people just fear disease, even if they aren’t willing to admit it.

It’s easy to make this into a horror film because the idea of catching some deadly illness can make every moment where you could contract it intense. There’s all sorts of illnesses like this, from the rage virus in 28 Days Later, the superflu in The Stand and whatever makes the people go nuts in The Crazies. An epidemic is a very real possibility and as much as we’d like to think medicine is advanced enough that we could stop an outbreak from killing too many people, we just don’t know.

The best moments of this type of movie are those when you know someone has a virus and they’re within proximity to infect someone else. The tension is off the charts if done right. Even better, there’s the idea that someone is sick but no one is sure who it is. This was played up in The Crazies, as you couldn’t tell who had the disease until they were already a threat to you. This is what I consider the most likely out of all the scenarios, because anyone can get sick at any time. All it takes is the right situation for a pandemic.

Alien Invasion

Obviously this one isn’t very likely either, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from releasing movie after movie of aliens taking over (or trying to take over) Earth, resulting in our destruction or some type of dystopia where they are completely in control. Even when we win, in movies like Independence Day (which isn’t horror, but I digress), the future is bleak. The idea is that these alien forces obviously have enough technology to travel through space, so they probably have the technology to wipe us out.

In the case of They Live, the aliens are smarter and take over through mind control. Why get involved with senseless fighting if you can just control humanity with subliminal messages? In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they don’t just take over our world, they take over us. It happens while we sleep and we can’t do a thing about it because most of us aren’t aware it’s going on. But there are actual assaults on the Earth, like in The War of the Worlds or Skyline (which was horrible, but that’s not my point).

The concept of beings from another world is scary because it would mean we are completely powerless to stop it and the way we live our lives would change drastically, that is if we were even allowed to continue living them. If aliens ever invaded us in real life, we’d be screwed. What good are bullets and bombs against creatures that can travel across galaxies. We don’t have some top secret laser shooting spaceship waiting somewhere. We can’t even get along in our own country, how could we expect to come together with the rest of the world to fight something else?

Biblical Apocalypse

There are some who would say this is the most likely of these scenarios. Some evil force, such as demons, the Anti-Christ or what-have-you, will be the one to cause the end of the world. Christians believe the Rapture will happen and take up all the good souls, leaving the rest of us in some hellish aftermath with evil all around. Horror has approached this several times, in The Omen (where it’s always a threat, but is eventually stopped), Demons (you don’t get more Biblical than demons taking over the world) or Legion (which sucked, but work with me here).

The idea behind the Anti-Christ is that he’s the son of the devil, and will acquire a great amount of power before he reveals himself and by then, it’s too late. This is why Damien Thorn was so scary in The Omen, because he was meant to get this power and he has all the evil forces in the world backing him to make sure this happens. If you try to stop it, you’ll get run through with a metal rod, decapitated or a variety of other deaths. It took three movies to kill him!

In the case of Demons or REC, it’s a demonic virus that causes people to become possessed and murder others. It works in the same way that zombies do, but it’s supernatural in origin so it goes here. Bibical horror films usually, but not always, set up the end of days but don’t actually play it out. The ones that do end up being very memorable because we can see exactly what all those religions have been warning us about.


This is just a general group of every other type of doomsday scenario that’s been played out in horror. As you can see in the photo, it takes a variety of forms. In Maximum Overdrive, our own machines turn against us and begin killing everyone. This is also the dreaded scenario in The Terminator, which is what we’re fighting against in those movies (and so they don’t count here). In another Stephen King tale, The Mist, forces from another world step into ours and begin killing us in the guise of a supernatural fog.

There are the four big categories above, but the imagination has no limits. Anyone can think of anything in regards to how to destroy humanity, and the most creative have already told their tales about it. Does a portal to another dimension open, letting an Eldritch Abomination through? Does mankind kill itself through radiation, leaving the survivors doomed to fight off cannibals, monsters and whatever else managed to survive? It’s all a matter of which story is being told.

In Pulse, ghosts invade the world through the Internet, which is everywhere and results in everyone being threatened. In Godzilla, radiation creates a giant monster that goes on a rampage and could conceivably destroy us all. In some of the movies, the apocalypse just happens, and what we’re left with is the aftermath.

I hope you enjoyed this look at post apocalyptic horror. I didn’t want to rank them because I had some things to say about the genre as a whole. Maybe some other time.

Ending Notes:

That’s it for me. Leave some comments here on or my Twitter. Next week, I will be ranking movies, as I look at the top ten horror anthology films.

Closing Logo courtesy of Kyle Morton (get your own custom artwork and commissions at his Etsy account)

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See you next week!

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Joseph Lee

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