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Back to the Apocalypse: the best of the 80’s post-apocalyptic films

Being a kid in the early 80s was tough. Thatcher’s Britain was like an amusement park that had failed a safety test — it looked fun, but was really a potential death trap. Heroin “screwed you up” and it was claimed you could catch AIDS off of a toilet seat. If the IRA didn’t blow you up (I missed a bomb by minutes once), then the punks down the park wanted to burn cigarettes up your arm.

The Sun told us striking miners were geared up like Jonathon E in “Rollerball” to fight the police, and race riots burned the inner cities. Further abroad, the Iran-Iraq war was kicking off and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan sowing the seeds of the last ten years. Great Britain “liberated” the Falkland Islands, proving we could still beat up on any upstart nations providing they didn’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But the Russians did, and films like “The Day After” and “Threads” with its tagline, “The closest you’ll ever want to come to nuclear war” scared us sh*tless. Nuclear annihilation seemed a foregone conclusion and even lovely Raymond Briggs broke our hearts with his seminal “When The Wind Blows.” You just know your days are numbered when the author of “Fungus The Bogeyman” writes about the apocalypse and kills off two cuddly OAPs in the process.

For all the doom and gloom, the 80s was just as much about beginnings as it was endings. Hip Hop took off, home computers and video games rescued us from rainy Sundays and we finally got a fourth TV channel. McDonalds conquered the world and microwave ovens ruined our dinners. Football hooligans became “Casuals” and gave us Italian sportswear shoplifted on European Cup nights. We all looked like miniature golfers, but who cared? We were the height of fashion down at the youth clubs and roller discos.

All of this innovation paled into insignificance when faced with the might of the VCR. The heads may have been big enough to be driven by hamster wheels and buttons protruded like Olympic diving boards, but this was the future and it was in our living rooms. Imagine having a Tiger Tank parked in your lounge with the TV smacked on top of it and you’ll get some idea of the monstrous scale of this technology.

On a personal level, we were the first house on our street to buy one and by god, we wore that fact like a working class badge of honour. My dad paid over £500 pound cash for it and it was a front loader. No one had a front loader. The first film we rented was “Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack” and the third was “Alien.” I have no idea what the second was.

From that moment on, Saturday mornings meant hiring videos with my best friend Paul. We’d take it in turns to choose movies going half on the hire fee. Looking back on it now, our favourite genre was the only logical choice in such a nihilistic time: the post-apocalyptic film.

Not quite the political statements of the zombie and dystopian films of the 60s and 70s, the post-apocalyptic movies were cheap and cheerful exploitation flicks. Basically, after a nuclear war, bands of survivors would dress up in S&M gear, American football pads and helmets, and kill each other with crossbows or baseball bats. They would invariably feature cannibalised cars smashing the f*ck out of trucks and scantily clad women on motorbikes.

There were two types of post-apocalyptic movies we enjoyed. Low budget Australian and American films that were good and zero budget Italian rip offs that were so bad they were good. The way to spot these in your local video store was via the cover. If it included stills of the film, you knew it was the former, if it had an action-packed painted cover, it was the latter.

Those Italian covers promised so much, but the films delivered so little. More often than not, Paul would fall for their charms and we’d be secretly disappointed as badly dubbed men in guyliner mugged their way through the action. Still, there was a naïve charm to them despite the ketchup violence, something that will be missing from the latest batch of post-apocalyptic films hitting our screens in 2010, including “The Road,” “Legion” and “The Book Of Eli.”

The genre is back in a big-budget way and I’m not sure whether to be happy to relive my childhood or depressed that we are still in the same place we were in the 80s. Anyway, as a refresher course, here are my top 5 post apocalyptic movies from that decade.

5. Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone.

Bounty hunter Wolff and his annoying sidekick Nikki search for three damsels in distress on a war ravaged planet. They do battle with mutants, mermaids and hang-gliders before facing Michael Ironside hamming it up magnificently as the metal armed Overdog. Watch out for the deadly maze near the end, full to the brim of acid, flames and swinging blades. Oh, and it was all in 3D originally.

4. Bronx Warriors.

“In the year 1990 the Bronx is officially declared No Man’s Land. The authorities give up all attempts to restore law and order. From then on the area is ruled by the Riders.” That all sounds very grand, but this Italian rip-off of “Escape From New York” and “The Warriors” is hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Check out muscleman Trash’s dainty walk or the drummer visible in the background at a gang meeting for no apparent reason. Still it does have Fred Williamson in it so it can’t be all bad. Can it?

3. Atlantis Interceptors.

A crazyass nutzoid movie discovered back in the day by my brother. Scientists try to raise a Russian nuclear sub, but instead unleash the full terror of the lost city of Atlantis on the world. None of it makes any sense but who gives a monkey’s when you have cheese wire decapitations, darts in girls necks and Vietnam vets kicking Atlantian butt? I really can’t do this film the justice it deserves; you’ll have to see it to believe it.

2. Escape From New York.

“Escape From New York” is quirky, bags of fun with a terrific central idea: Manhattan Island as a maximum-security prison. “Once you go in you don’t come out.” It offers a wealth of delights: an eclectic cast (Donald Pleasence, Lee Van-Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton), an iconic score, and a tough political satire on the state of the globe. Along with “Mad Max 2,” it set the standard for the post-apocalyptic genre. Naturally, Kurt Russell as the iconic Snake Plissken is the one who steals the show. He’s the anti-hero’s anti-hero, killing all and sundry with guns, throwing stars and baseball bats with nails in them.

1. Mad Max 2: The Roadwarrior

The daddy of them all. Back when we thought Mel Gibson was still a cool Australian, as opposed to a racist lunatic, he played Max Rockatansky, the leathered-up drifter fighting scores of camp biker gangs. Young Mel only needs about 17 lines of dialogue in the entire movie.

The oil has run out and nuclear war has left small ragged bands of survivors. This time Max is pitted against Lord Humungus, the self styled “Ayatollah of Rock N Rolla.” He’s a nasty piece of work hiding behind a hockey mask and an impossibly deep voice. The film is all about the third act and Max’s incredible sacrifice. The stunts are spectacular and there’s not a single computer generated effect in sight. Plus, there’s always the sight of Toadie losing his fingers to a razor sharp boomerang. Happy days indeed. Roll on “Mad Max4: Fury Road.”

4 thoughts on “Back to the Apocalypse: the best of the 80’s post-apocalyptic films

  1. See what I mean? What 12 year old wouldn’t be taken in by that cover. I nearly forgot how bad “Bronx Warriors” was all over again.

  2. I’d forgotten all about Spacehunter. They don’t make crappy movies like THAT anymore. Sigh. Also glad to see High Plains Drifter, uh, I mean Road Warrior at the top of the list. Give me bloodthirsty, mutant gays any day over transforming Peterbilts.

  3. well that is a list i tell y’a a real dinger of a list geez well off to watch some more blade and stake land

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