Within the overarching genre of science fiction, the post-apocalyptic subgenre is huge—so huge that it has its own sub-sub-genres. One of these is what could be called the “desert wasteland” subgenre, popularized most memorably by George Miller’s Mad Max Trilogy, in which leather-clad heroes roam arid, dust-strewn landscapes that betray the genre’s true cinematic roots: the Western. And in which men would kill each other over a can of dog food and a sawed-off shotgun is the weapon de rigueur. With Mad Max: Fury Road hitting theaters in just a couple of weeks, here’s a list of desert wasteland movies to whet your appetite and count down the days until it’s time to hit the road with Max. But mind you, this isn’t a list of the best desert wasteland movies. There aren’t many good ones in general, and half the movies on this list are pretty bad. But there’s horrendously bad and enjoyably bad, and the choices on this list mostly fit the latter description. While not all of Pop Mythology’s lists are ranked, this one does go from bad to less bad to good. And the shared prerequisite in all these choices is sand. Lots and lots of sand. That’s why you won’t find other post-apocalyptic movies like The Road or I Am Legend here.
Based on the manga of the same name, Fist of the North Star mashed two genres—post-apocalyptic and martial arts—before genre mashing was even considered cool. In FotNS, kung fu doesn’t just cause bruises and broken bones—the hero’s chi-infused strikes cause body parts to explode. However, Akira or sophisticated anime this is not. It’s silly as hell and even nonsensical at times but for fans of gore it might be worth checking out for the over-the-top violence.
One of the quintessential MTV-esque movies from the early 90s with a soundtrack crammed as much as possible with alternative rock songs of said era. Based on the British comic by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, Tank Girl’s anarchist-influenced punk rock hipster chic will appeal to some while the campiness will prove cringeworthy to others. The lesbian/feminist empowerment themes from the comics are somewhat diluted but given a nod to. Bad as this movie is, there are a few genuine laughs and Lori Petty really is perfect as Tank Girl.
As with Tank Girl, this 1998 indie film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and you’ll either enjoy the campy satire or not be able to stand it. But it does manage to do something interesting with its budget, and its sheer weirdness and indie filmmaking gusto has elevated it to cult movie status.
From here the movies start getting a bit better. Steel Dawn’s essentially a post-apocalyptic reworking of the classic Western Shane with a touch of fantasy. Nomad (Patrick Swayze) wanders the wasteland and comes upon a farm run by a small family whom he comes to protect from the greed of the local warlord. Still not exactly what you’d call good but not awful either and the climactic sword fight is fairly well choreographed. Well, okay, the 80s glam rock outfits are awful.
Essentially an underdog movie in the vein of Rocky or Rudy, The Blood of Heroes has the distinction of being a desert wasteland post-apocalypse movie oriented around a sport—in this case a brutal, fictitious sport called Juggers. Mildly fun and stars Joan Chen, a young Vincent D’Onofrio (of current Daredevil fame), and Rutger Hauer back when he could still be regal with just a defiant look. Also, leave it to geeks to come up with niche activities based on a forgotten film: there’s a real-life version of the sport depicted in the movie called Jugger (without the “s”) and it’s even been incorporated into a LARP (live action role playing game) called Amtgard.
The coolest thing about this movie is Dylan McDermott’s robotic hand which is impressively waterproof judging from that shower scene. Actually, Hardware ain’t half bad even though it’s extremely derivative. The villain here was clearly modeled after the T-800 in Terminator and the claustrophobic horror is meant to mimic Alien. Nevertheless, at the time of its release some critics championed it, calling it an under-appreciated film.
Coming out of B-movie territory now. The Hughes Brothers own crack at the sub-genre is pretty decent. The religious themes are a bit heavy-handed, but the action’s cool and Denzel Washington is enjoyable to watch as the spiritual hero crossing the blighted landscape with quite the holy mission. If little else, the latter-day earnestness is refreshing in a genre where satire and camp have become more of the norm over the years.
Mad Max may have been the movie that launched the apocalyptic desert wasteland craze but it certainly wasn’t the first of its kind. Based on a novella by the great Harlan Ellison, A Boy and His Dog is a forgotten post-apocalyptic flick that deserves another look for those who don’t mind the slower 70s pacing. Starring a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson, the offbeat, surreal tone of this film resembles that of something by Terry Gilliam.
And speaking of Mad Max, here’s the movie that kicks off George Miller’s fabled trilogy. It’s my least favorite of the three films but there’s no question that it’s a classic and the impressive stunt work in it laid the groundwork for the truly amazing chase sequence in The Road Warrior.
Of the Mad Max trilogy, it’s almost universally agreed which is the greatest, but it’s heavily argued which is the second best. My personal choice is Thunderdome, partly because I’ve a soft spot for movies of the 80s and partly because, like The Road Warrior, Thunderdome further deepens Max’s character and gives him another purpose nobler than just the revenge that motivates him in the first film.
This was a then-24-year-old Luc Besson’s first pairing with Jean Reno and Reno’s first prominent film role overall. The nameless Man, lonely for female companionship, leaves the desert wasteland and travels to a city where he befriends the Doctor defending his hospital against the Brute (Reno). Starkly shot in black-and-white and containing only two words of dialogue, Le Dernier Combat is the most unique and fascinating film on this list.
As if there were any doubt, eh? Even more so than its predecessor Mad Max, this is the movie most responsible for the 80s trend of movies about sparsely populated wastelands filled with barbarians dressed in S&M gear, and it spawned a host of godawful imitators. The climactic chase sequence is one of the most remarkable action sequences ever captured on film and still holds up by today’s standards. George Miller’s other masterpiece apart from Babe.