31 Best Apocalyptic Movies Of All Time Ranked

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If the horror genre allows moviegoers to stare death in the face, its more existential cousin, the apocalypse movie, offers a way to contend with world-ending scenarios from the comfort of the couch. Apocalypse films blur genre lines: Dark comedies, melodramas, and action thrillers all fall under this umbrella. Accordingly, they’re infinitely imaginative in their attempts to predict how humanity will meet its end. We’d say the sky’s the limit as far as these visions go, but in movies about the apocalypse, the sky is rarely a welcoming place: It’s so often full of dire omens, swirling storm clouds, and incoming meteorites. 

In praise of this spectacular sub-genre, we’ve decided to assemble a ranked list of films that represent the best of apocalyptic cinema. Some have endings that will make you want to weep. Others offer a sliver of hope that mankind will always adapt and overcome. A few make the bold claim that humanity’s demise might not be the worst thing that could happen. Spanning decades, tones, and countries of origin, these are the 31 best apocalyptic movies of all time, ranked from the merely enthralling to the absolutely superb.

Updated on April 11, 2022: Hollywood pumps out new visions of the end times every year. We’ll be keeping an eye out for the cream of the nightmarish crop, and will update this list accordingly. Be sure to check back to stay current with the very best in apocalyptic cinema.

31. Reign of Fire

Apocalyptic films are teeming with the walking dead, nuclear threats, and catastrophic plagues. But only one film on this list sees the world sizzle to a crisp thanks to dragons. Set in the totally-not-apocalyptic year of 2020, where dragons have replaced mankind as the dominant species, the paltry remnants of the human race must work together to ensure their survival. Maligned upon its release and criminally under-seen, “Reign of Fire” is much more interesting, visually stunning, and sophisticated than its goofy premise suggests. With an all-star cast and some genuinely jaw-dropping creature effects, it’s a must-watch for anyone who wants to see the world burn.

30. I Am Legend

This loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel follows scientist Robert Neville who is, as far as he can tell, one of the last human beings on Earth. Thanks to an attempt to cure cancer that mutated into a deadly virus, most humans have become pallid, vampiric creatures. Balancing mind-numbing loneliness with his attempts to survive and develop a cure, Neville soon finds that he is far less alone than he initially suspected. Grounded by a heartfelt performance by Will Smith and featuring more action than the vast majority of films on this list, “I Am Legend” is a punchy, big-budget take on an apocalyptic ur-text.

  • Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok
  • Director: Francis Lawrence
  • Year: 2007
  • Runtime: 101 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 68%

29. No Blade of Grass

This film tells of a uniquely terrifying plague, which only attacks strains of grasses and grains, including wheat and rice. In the wake of this catastrophe, the world descends into famine, and, consequently, chaos. We follow an upper-middle class architect named John, who becomes the de facto patriarch of a group of family, friends, and stragglers as they make their way to the safe haven of his brother’s farm. Pay no attention to that middling Rotten Tomatoes score: What “No Blade of Grass” lacks in polish and a finer touch it more than makes up for in grim, stifling ecological terror. Enduringly relevant and dystopian, “No Blade of Grass” is an essential watch for anyone with a taste for the dreary, hopeless outlook of 1970s science fiction.

  • Starring: Nigel Davenport, Jean Wallace, John Hamill
  • Director: Cornel Wilde
  • Year: 1970
  • Runtime: 96 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 40%

28. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Ralph Burton is a miner who is trapped underground while a nuclear holocaust wipes out all of humanity. Emerging to find New York City deserted, Ralph assumes he’s the last man on Earth, and starts acting like it. Then Ralph meets Sarah, a fellow survivor. But their dynamic is soon disturbed by the arrival of another survivor. Starring the trailblazing screen star and activist Harry Belafonte, “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil” feels like a lost “Twilight Zone” episode filtered through the lens of Richard Matheson. Tackling its societal themes head-on and highlighting Belafonte’s undeniable screen presence, this film is an unmissable and decidedly more optimistic entry in apocalyptic cinema.

27. Sunshine

“Sunshine” dramatizes a horrific, world-ending scenario: The sun is dying. As the planet Earth is thrust into colder and colder temperatures, a team of crack astronauts are sent to kick-start the all-important star by firing a nuclear bomb into its core. Full of incredible visuals and shocking horror beats (particularly in the third act), “Sunshine” is an enthralling and atmospheric slice of science fiction with stakes that don’t just threaten humanity, but our whole solar system.

  • Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne
  • Director: Danny Boyle
  • Year: 2007
  • Runtime: 107 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%

26. 10 Cloverfield Lane

This sci-fi survival horror film (and not-so-covert “Cloverfield” sequel) follows Michelle, a young woman who wakes up in an underground bunker after a violent roadside accident. Unsettled by her domineering savior-captor Howard, who claims the air outside is toxic and she cannot leave under any circumstances, resourceful Michelle sets about plotting her escape. This economically paced and wildly tense single-location thriller boasts numerous top-shelf performances and a claustrophobic sense of unease. If the world ended and you were trapped underground with an overbearing psycho, what would you do?

  • Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
  • Director: Dan Trachtenberg
  • Year: 2016
  • Runtime: 104 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%

25. On the Beach

From its title, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this film for some kind of adorable sea-side romantic comedy. It is, in fact, about an atomic war that wipes out all organic life in the Northern Hemisphere. A surviving yankee submarine finds respite in Australia, which appears to be one of the few safe harbors on Earth. Where many films on this list veer into action or hard sci-fi territory, “On the Beach” opts for melodrama. Sure, there’s still plenty of nihilism and social commentary, but on the whole, it feels much more like an existential soap opera than an explosion-heavy thriller. “On the Beach” pulls this off by featuring a powerful ensemble cast full of big-name talent.

  • Starring: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire
  • Director: Stanley Kramer
  • Year: 1959
  • Runtime: 134 minutes
  • Rating: NR
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 77%

24. 12 Monkeys

Adapted from the 1962 French film “La Jetée,” “12 Monkeys” follows James Cole, a convict from the year 2035 sent through time to find a solution to the world’s dark fate. In 1996, a deadly virus of unknown origin eradicates almost all life on Earth, forcing those who survive underground. The plan is to send Cole back to the day of the outbreak to learn how it all went down. But when he’s accidentally transported too far back, his warnings of the end of days land him in a mental hospital. Boasting evocative production design and expectation-subverting performances from its two male leads, “12 Monkeys” is a frantic, doom-filled ride with both style and substance.

  • Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt
  • Director: Terry Gilliam
  • Year: 1995
  • Runtime: 129 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

23. A Boy and His Dog

“A Boy and His Dog” takes place in the barren, irradiated wastes of 2024. Our hero is Vic, a morally suspect teenage boy who wanders from one bombed-out hole in the ground to the next in search of food and women. Along for the ride is Blood, a telepathic dog full of wry commentary. This film is bleak, perverse, and offbeat — aka, the holy trinity of 1970s apocalyptic science fiction.

  • Starring: Don Johnson, Susanne Benton, Jason Robards
  • Director: L. Q. Jones
  • Year: 1975
  • Runtime: 91 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%

22. The Masque of the Red Death

If you shook your fists at those who held super-spreader house parties during the COVID-19 pandemic, boy have we got the film for you! A top-shelf product of Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s yen for Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, “The Masque of the Red Death” follows Prince Prospero, a hedonistic Satanist who has resolved to lock himself (and his party guests) in his enormous castle to stave off the terrible plague known as the Red Death. Full of cruelty, scene-chewing, and gorgeous production design realized in jaw-dropping Technicolor, “The Masque of the Red Death” is a sumptuous visual feast of gothic delights that overcomes its budgetary limitations to deliver one of the most striking products of Corman’s career.

  • Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher
  • Director: Roger Corman
  • Year: 1964
  • Runtime: 90 minutes
  • Rating: NR
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

21. 28 Days Later

When animal rights activists unwittingly release a rabies-like virus onto the British public, the country is catapulted back to the Dark Ages. Four weeks later, a man named Jim wakes from a coma and surveys the wreckage of what used to be London. Rescued by a group of survivors, Jim finds that infected humans now stalk (and run through) the streets, transformed into frothing, homicidal maniacs. Infusing the zombie genre with kinetic new life, “28 Days Later” proved the zombie genre still had life in it yet.

  • Starring: Cillian Murphy, Noah Huntley, Naomie Harris
  • Director: Danny Boyle
  • Year: 2002
  • Runtime: 113 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%

20. The Quiet Earth

In the aftermath of a top-secret experiment designed to create a global energy source, a scientist named Zac Hobson awakens to find that he is the last person alive on Earth — or so he thinks. Soon, Hobson happens upon two other survivors. As the trio discovers the common cause behind their survival, their emerging love triangle takes a backseat to Hobson’s revelation that the full extent of the experiment’s pernicious effects have yet to reveal themselves. Overwhelmingly cryptic and appropriately lonely, “The Quiet Earth” is a gorgeously photographed low-budget gem grounded by three soul-wrenching lead performances.

  • Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Peter Smith
  • Director: Geoff Murphy
  • Year: 1985
  • Runtime: 91 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%

19. Contagion

Boasting an incredible ensemble cast and an unsetting degree of plausibility, “Contagion” details the arrival and fallout of an airborne viral pandemic. This film’s procedural bent makes the spread that much more compelling (and terrifying): We follow the illness as it takes root, spawns conspiracy theories, and destabilizes society. “Contagion” makes particularly major use of Soderbergh’s talent for depicting catastrophes and hyper-competence in equal measure. This film was a nerve-wracking watch in 2011, and has only become more uncanny and unsettling in the wake of the eerily similar COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne
  • Director: Steven Soderbergh
  • Year: 2011
  • Runtime: 106 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%

18. Planet of the Apes

This iconic film may not initially read as apocalyptic fiction. But — brace yourself for a 60-year-old spoiler — when the plot’s larger context is ultimately revealed, its qualification as “end of days” cinema becomes painfully, ironically obvious. This film follows George Taylor, an astronaut stranded on a strange planet dominated by sentient ape-like creatures who use human captives for sport and scientific experiments. Still one of the bleakest (and campiest) films to come out of Hollywood, “Planet of the Apes” features a grounded performance from Roddy McDowall as the benevolent chimp Dr. Cornelius and one of the most infamous (and gut-wrenching) final shots in all of cinema.

  • Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
  • Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
  • Year: 1968
  • Runtime: 112 minutes
  • Rating: G
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%

17. Take Shelter

When Curtis begins to experience terrifying hallucinations, he seeks medical help and counseling. While Curtis’ work and family suffer in the wake of his violent outbursts and horrifying visions of environmental catastrophe, he can’t shake the feeling that something truly terrible is on the horizon. Are these dreams a genuine premonition of an incoming apocalypse … or are they actually the onset of the inherited schizophrenia he’s feared his whole life? A genuinely gripping portrait of the erosive effects of undiagnosed mental illness, “Take Shelter” is a gripping, anxiety-riddled viewing experience grounded by a gut-wrenching lead performance from Michael Shannon.

16. Miracle Mile

Just as Harry is preparing to go on his first date with his dream girl, he accidentally receives a chilling tip-off that nuclear missiles are going to destroy Los Angeles in less than an hour. While Harry initially laughs off the information as a cruel joke or the ravings of a madman, he soon learns that the threat is very real and very imminent. Balancing endearingly unrelenting romantic idealism with an undeniable sense of hopelessness, this Tangerine Dream-scored neon-lit terror trip is a love story for the end times.

  • Starring: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar
  • Director: Steve De Jarnatt
  • Year: 1988
  • Runtime: 87 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%

15. Save the Green Planet!

This genre-defying feature debut follows Byeong-gu, an unemployed conspiracy nut who has convinced himself that his former employer is an evil alien who intends to take over the planet. As such, Byeong-gu abducts his boss and tortures him in a subterranean dungeon. As his paranoia spreads and his “alien” torture operation grows larger and larger, the resultant chaos grows ever more intense. Genre-defying and delightfully ridiculous, there is no film quite like “Save the Green Planet!” and for that fact alone, it’s well worth seeking out.

  • Starring: Shin Ha-kyun, Baek Yoon-sik, Hwang Jeong-min
  • Director: Jang Joon-hwan
  • Year: 2003
  • Runtime: 118 minutes
  • Rating: NR
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%

14. The Last Wave

Directed by the Australian auteur Peter Weir, “The Last Wave” follows David Burton, a taxation lawyer who is hired to act as the defense in a murder case involving the death of an Aboriginal man during a freak rainstorm. When Burton begins to experience bizarre, watery dreams, he starts to agree with the accused: The strange weather patterns are a sign of an incoming apocalypse. Ambiguous and lyrical, “The Last Wave” is steeped in otherworldly strangeness as reality refuses to sit still.

  • Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Year: 1977
  • Runtime: 106 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%

13. Phase IV

History may remember Saul Bass for his graphic design, but fans of apocalyptic fiction know his first (and only) directorial effort stands toe-to-toe with the kinetic typography of “Psycho.” A pair of scientific researchers in the Arizona desert find themselves held captive by the objects of their study: A colony of ants who have begun acting strangely in the wake of an unprecedented cosmic event. As the global implications of their ant-imposed lockdown take hold, driving the pair to nihilism and madness, humankind reveals itself to be an outmatched and overconfident species. Misanthropic and enormous in its scale, “Phase IV” takes the creature feature formula and endows it with a desperate sense of fatalism.

  • Starring: Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick, Michael Murphy
  • Director: Saul Bass
  • Year: 1974
  • Runtime: 84 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 53%

12. The Return of the Living Dead

When a pair of bumbling, underpaid employees at a top-secret military supply warehouse accidentally unleash a deadly gas, the malignant vapors begin to raise the dead. Did we mention the warehouse’s neighbors are a cemetery and a crematorium? This is sure to end well. As the dead wrench themselves back into the land of the living, they only have one thing on their minds: braaaains. One of the most confident directorial debuts in horror history, “The Return of the Living Dead” is a rare breed: A horror-comedy that truly delivers on the horror, both in the gore department and the existential probability that mankind is going to pratfall into its own destruction.

  • Starring: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa
  • Director: Dan O’Bannon
  • Year: 1985
  • Runtime: 91 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

11. City of the Living Dead

A séance unleashes a horrifying glimpse of a long-dead priest and seemingly kills the woman who experiences the vision. While other occult-leaning women attempt to warn the powers that be of the bad vibes, the seer herself (who is very much alive) is rescued from her grave by a passing journalist. Together, the pair digs deeper into the vision, uncovering an imminent prophecy of undead invasion. Arguably one of the gnarliest offerings from Italian goremaster Lucio Fulci, “City of the Living Dead” boasts unparalleled style and a refusal to dial down any of its apocalyptic spectacle. “City of the Living Dead” is a miraculous and foreboding piece of filmmaking.

  • Starring: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Janet Agren
  • Director: Lucio Fulci
  • Year: 1980
  • Runtime: 93 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 46%

10. The Andromeda Strain

Based on Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel, “The Andromeda Strain” begins with a mysterious catastrophe: The residents of a rural New Mexico town all die after the return of a satellite. The only survivors are an alcoholic man and a screaming infant. Suspecting the satellite may have brought a vicious alien organism into Earth’s atmosphere, a group of scientists conduct an investigation in a top-secret lab armed to self-destruct if any infectious agent threatens to escape. Featuring science fiction harder than a diamond with a procedural bent that will satisfy those with a love of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, “The Andromeda Strain” is the cruel pinnacle of the killer virus sub-genre.

  • Starring: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson
  • Director: Robert Wise
  • Year: 1971
  • Runtime: 130 minutes
  • Rating: G
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67%

9. The Land Before Time

Few end-of-days scenarios can contend with the literally Earth-shattering catastrophe that befell our planet roughly 66 million years ago. Directed by Don Bluth, the former Disney artist who dominated children’s feature animation during the 1980s, “The Land Before Time” tells of a group of young dinosaurs who are separated from their families during unprecedented environmental shifts. As they journey through the wasteland in search of a prophesied oasis, the group is hounded by predators and a planet keen to snuff out their young lives. As dire, ominous, and distressing as any of the “adult” films on this list, “The Land Before Time” is a masterful story of perseverance, devastation, and the difficult necessity of accepting loss.

  • Starring: Gabriel Damon, Candace Hutson, Judith Barsi
  • Director: Don Bluth
  • Year: 1988
  • Runtime: 69 minutes
  • Rating: G
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%

8. Melancholia

Even though it’s supposed to be the happiest day of her life, Justine is absolutely miserable throughout her wedding. She’s doing her best, but her severe depression shows through the cracks, much to the embarrassment of her controlling sister, Claire. Meanwhile, an immense blue planet, Melancholia, is on a collision course with Earth. As the gargantuan celestial object bears down on our planet, Justine finds elation and peace in the promise of imminent destruction. Claire, on the other hand, descends further and further into anxiety and panic as her helplessness gets the better of her. Weaponizing cataclysmic destruction as a metaphor for all-consuming depressive episodes, “Melancholia” is a masterful, engulfing, necessarily draining watch.

  • Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård
  • Director: Lars von Trier
  • Year: 2011
  • Runtime: 135 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%

7. Children of Men

The year is 2027 and humanity has become sterile. As extinction looms, the planet’s populace descends into marital law and total fury. We follow Theo, a former activist who is recruited by his anti-authority ex-wife to shepherd a very special woman to sanctuary. No human baby has been born in nearly 20 years, yet this woman, somehow, is pregnant. With a startlingly believable vision of dystopia grounded in impeccably detailed production design and unforgettable cinematography, “Children of Men” isn’t just one of the best pieces of apocalyptic fiction, but one of the greatest sci-fi films of the 21st century.

6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Aliens have invaded Earth, and not as little green men, but as microscopic, gelatinous spores capable of imitating and assimilating into the populace of prospective victims. Our hero is Matthew Bennell, a lab scientist who begins to grow wise to the extraterrestrial conspiracy as the signs of subversive takeover peek through the cracks. The question is, will he be able to alert the powers that be before it’s too late? Who can he confide in, when the enemy looks like a carbon copy of people he trusts?

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

For our money, it’s the fourth entry in the “Mad Max” franchise that takes the cake. Or the can of beans, or the barrel of guzzolene … look, this apocalypse definitely doesn’t have cake, but what we’re saying is that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a cut above. A feature-length car chase led by a rebellious Imperator attempting to shepherd a warlord’s brides to a safe haven, this film is a kinetic rock opera of dust clouds, skull-embedded wheels, and dogged perseverance. A modern classic with a wasteland we are keen to revisit time and time again, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the shiny, chromatic star of modern apocalyptic cinema.

4. Night of the Living Dead

For reasons unknown (though radiation from a disintegrating space probe may be to blame), the dead are rising from their graves. A group of survivors fleeing the rotting hordes find themselves under one roof, where they’re forced to steady their fragile nerves and work together to keep the flesh-hungry ghouls at bay. A groundbreaking, precedent-setting genre offering that set the stage for a litany of zombie films keenly interested in the human response to the end of days, “Night of the Living Dead” refuses to show its age, packing one heck of a punch over 50 years past its release.

  • Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
  • Director: George A. Romero
  • Year: 1968
  • Runtime: 96 minutes
  • Rating: NR
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%

3. The Thing

The stir-crazy residents of an Antarctic research station find themselves in a Lovecraftian nightmare when the dog they rescued explodes into a fleshy mass of spider legs and bullwhip tentacles. This high-stakes murder mystery is less of a whodunit than a whoisit, which unfolds as the men are preyed upon by an intergalactic creature capable of imitating organic life. The gem in the crown of John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (which also contains the exceptional “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness”), “The Thing” is a dread-drenched epic.

2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang, but with miscommunication and politicians fighting in the war room. (There is also a bang, for good measure). Simultaneously one of the scariest and funniest films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece focuses on a gaggle of politicians, generals, and diplomats attempting to thwart an unintended nuclear holocaust instigated by an American general maddened by conspiracy theories. Horrifyingly plausible and undeniably hilarious, “Dr. Strangelove” is a classic for a reason.

  • Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Year: 1964
  • Runtime: 94 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

1. Stalker

A guide (known as a “stalker”) shepherds two curious men through a bizarre area known as “the Zone.” Mysterious and forbidden, the Zone is a physics-defying land at the epicenter of an unspeakable extraterrestrial tragedy. In the core of the Zone lies their destination: The Room, a mystical space that seems to grant the deepest, darkest wishes of all who enter it. Directed by the great Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, “Stalker” is an evasive (but undoubtedly evocative) take on science fiction’s deepest questions.

  • Starring: Alexander Kaidanovsky, Nikolai Grinko, Anatoly Solonitsyn
  • Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Year: 1979
  • Runtime: 161 minutes
  • Rating: TV-14
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%

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31 Best Apocalyptic Movies Of All Time Ranked

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