The films were inspired by two (or possibly three, read on) distinct things:
a) the cold war and its attendant nuclear paranoia (see also movies like Wargames (US) and When the Wind Blows (UK) and
b) other post-apocalyptic movies, the main progenitors being George Miller's excellent 1979 masterpiece Mad Max (and, even more importantly his inferior 1981 sequel, Mad Max 2, known internationally as The Road Warrior) and John Carpenter's 1981 masterpiece(ish) Escape From New York. In fact, so influential are these movies that many of those that follow could (and will) justifiably be referred to as 'Escape from Mad Max 2' movies. Most of these movies can be identified by their post-Mad Max/Snake Plissken heroes - brooding, grizzled, leather clad.
c) Less obvious, but arguably still there, is the distant influence of HG Wells' The Time Machine, with its vision of a small 'civilised' ruling elite (Eloi) living in comfort and bestial devolved humanoids (Morlocks) roaming the wilds.
The Time Machine was an even more obvious influence on John Boorman's excellent 1974 movie Zardoz, a great film (especially visually), but outside of the realm of this article.
Since the 1920s, most Hollywood movies have historically tried to sell themselves with a snappy tagline; as you will see, these movies have some of the best ever coined.
Countdown to Apocalypse...
Damnation Alley (1977)
Tagline: You Have Seen Great Adventures - You Are About To Live One
Basically a bunch of TV and B movie actors driving around the desert in ridiculous Robot-Wars-looking modified vehicles.
Many of the factors that would become clichés are firmly in place here; a shattered, post-apocalyptic world (cheap desert locations), a ramshackle group of survivors (though less fashionably ramshackle than in Mad Max 2 and its imitators), a pretty basic 'quest' style theme (in this case a search for fellow survivors).
In terms of general filmmaking competence and originality this, though not great, is far above the standard of the general 80s movie of this type.
tagline: 1991: Civilisation is Dead
It really IS dead; in this yawn-apocalypse, Richard Harris tries to find a way to safety through a decaying post-civilisation landscape populated by warring gangs. It is far less exciting than one would think possible.
1990; The Bronx Warriors (1982)
tagline; The lucky ones were the first to die!
In fact, the movie is kind of an amalgam of several sources, most notably Walter Hill's all-time great The Warriors and even Romeo & Juliet and spaghetti westerns as it does to the usual subgenre films. It is fun,more or less, but it has serious pacing problems (not to mention dubbing issues) that put it firmly in the z-list. The characters too are confusing, storyline-wise Mark Gregory's "Trash" should either be the hero or the villain but isn't really either. There is a character called 'Toblerone' however! This movie was part of a seam of post-apocalyptic movies with 'Bronx' in the title, possibly influenced by the depiction of the Bronx as violent no-man's-land in Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache The Bronx (1981). Bronx Warriors itself is followed by the very similar but not-at-all-better Bronx Warriors 2 (Escape from the Bronx). All you need to know about that one is on this poster:
Another, but better Escape from Mad Max 2 movie is Fred Olen Ray associate Steve Barkett's
The Aftermath (1982)
tagline; Hell in the Aftermath; who will survive?
Mad Max's bizarre mutant biker-gang leader was (strangely yet memorably) called Toecutter. The Aftermath has a gang of mutant weirdo bikers led by B-movie god Sid Haig's 'Cutter'. Despite the utter lack of originality, the story (astronauts return to Earth to find it a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by gangs of violent criminals et cetera) and direction actually make this a very watchable B-movie.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for
tagline; Sandahl Bergman tempted Conan and now she is ready to take on the World
Even the truly great Sandahl Bergman (of Conan the Barbarian etc) can't save this plodding post-apocalyptic updating of H Rider Haggard's classic adventure novel She. There are lots of excellent and bizarre elements; werewolves, gladiators, mad scientists and so on) but the pacing is bad and the atmosphere flatter than a dust-swept wasteland. A sad waste of talent, especially since it was directed by non-schlock Israeli director Avi Nesher.
Similarly unambitious but more fun is giallo maestro Joe (Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals) D'Amato's...
tagline; For An "Endgame" Champion In The Year 2025, There's Only One Way To Live. Dangerously
'Escape from Mad Max 2' again; this film shares many parallels with the later The Blood of Heroes (see below) and looks forward to The Running Man, but is much more fun than either. Telepathic mutants, violent gameshows, warriors, what's not to like?
Similar but SO much better, and perhaps the 'Escape from Mad Max 2' movie of all time arrived around the same time, in the shape of Italian exploitation master Sergio (La Montagna Del Dio Cannibale) Martino's 1983 opus...
2019: After The Fall of New York (1983)
tagline; Mankind will prevail if it can survive the year 2019...
After a nuclear war, naturally, (this film, like John Carpenter's, actually names the year, rather than giving the usual vague-but-infinitely-more-sensible date of 'the near future') society has broken down, technology has failed and gangs of radiation-infected mutants roam the ravaged wasteland blah-de-blah.
In this case, what's left of society is being led by the evil and repressive "Euraks", while a rebel Federation fights for the survival of the old ways of life.
In a blatant ripoff of Escape from New York, the Federation hires a mercenary (though not a nothing-to-lose criminal like Snake Plissken) called, somewhat loftily, Parsifal, who, naturally owes allegiance only to himself and his own survival and *snoooooore* but nevertheless accepts the mission to travel into the heart of New York(!) to retrieve the only fertile female left on earth.
The key to this film's enjoyability is its utter trashiness, and to be fair, the survival of the human race does seem like more of a 'prize' than the life of the President or fuel. Fun, nasty and unboring, like B movies should be.
Speaking of 'Escape from Mad Max 2' ...
tagline; After the holocaust, nothing matters but survival also, perhaps better; The Odds are a million-to-one. And Stryker is the one.
Filipino exploitation master Cirio H. Santiago (TNT Jackson, Nam Angels) directs this opus in which after the inevitable apocalypse, the world is running out of water (of course), and a group of Amazons guard the last known freshwater spring but are attacked by a gang of blah blah blah, until moody, monosyllabic tough guy "Stryker" turns up to help them out.
more of the same in....
2020 - Freedom Fighters (1984)
tagline; When earth becomes an arena... murder becomes a way of life.
Joe D'Amato again, but on much weaker form, this super cheap plodathon tells the story of a band of grizzled warriors fighting against fascism in post-holocaust Texas.
Business as usual in Bobby (The One-Armed Executioner) Suarez'
Warriors of the Apocalypse (1985)
tagline: They turned paradise into hell!
Although firmly in the Escape from Mad Max 2 mould, there is a welcome flavour of heroic fantasy in this movie. After civilization has obviously been wiped out by nuclear war, a ridiculous leather-clad adventurer leads a group of wanderers on a search for the fabled Mountain of Life, on the way encountering mutants, pygmies, ladies in fur bikinis etc. FUN.
A very welcome if sadly very bad addition to the genre is...
Robot Holocaust (1986)
tagline; It's machine versus man in the ultimate battle for the future!
Finally, someone (in fact Tim Kincaid, director of Bad Girls Dormitory and gay porn) realised that there might be robots after the apocalypse! In this timeless masterpiece (as much heroic fantasy as anything else) a 'drifter' called Neo and his rusty robot sidekick battle evil authorities who are using slave labour to run their power station, with extremely low budget results.
More typical (but less fun, even weaker premise) is...
Steel Dawn (1987)
tagline; there are several, none great. Best is probably In this frightening time, one man makes a difference
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, an evil gang are menacing a peaceful group of survivors because they want to steal their water. *YAAAWN*, and then a ludicrously bearded warrior in the shape of Patrick Swayze(!) arrives to sort everything out. Yep, it's 'Escape from Mad Max 2' again, only more good-natured and much less fun.
But what happens when you cross 'Escape from Mad Max 2' with the superior 70s sci-fi movie Rollerball...?
The Blood of Heroes (ridiculously aka The Salute of the Jugger) (1989)
tagline; The Time Will Come When Winning Is Everything
The second half of the 80s produces especially threadbare variations on the post-apocalyptic straight-to-video movie and this is one of the worst; in this future, the ragged survivors of nuclear war aren't looking for fuel, Presidents, ladies or even water; they are playing a nasty yet somehow extraordinarily dull version of football. 'The Time Will Come When Winning Is Everything' - hopefully not for a while yet though.
Fred Olen Ray got a brief mention earlier, and it would be strange if one of the foremost Z-movie directors of the era hadn't dabbled in a (presumably lucrative) straight-to-video genre: of course he did!
tagline: He came out of nowhere. A stranger, a soldier... and maybe a saviour
Seriously cheap (though less so than FOR's Phantom Empire) this endlessly boring Escape from Mad Max 2 movie has a cast of maybe 10 people, several of whom play handily-masked mutants that hero David Carradine despatches every 10 minutes or so. The 'plot'; Warlord (Sid 'the Cutter' Haig) kidnaps a girl and takes her into the mutant-ridden wastelands. David Carradine rescues her. Even fairly formidable quantities of gratuitous nudity fail to make this watchable.
Almost too late, but worth a mention is
World Gone Wild (1988)
tagline; 50 years after the end of the world the only ones left are nuked-out, zoned-out burnouts. The wildest adventure of all is about to begin.
Actually it isn't. A small role for Adam Ant as a bad guy is perhaps the most memorable thing about this 'ragtag bunch of survivors protecting dwindling water supplies' movie, but it is more-or-less watchable and fun.
'Watchable and fun' is more than can be said for the most recent additions to the genre - there are comparatively only a few these days but they are not on the whole even as enjoyable as the lamer entries here, and in some cases (Doomsday (2008)) fall into all the old 'Escape from Mad Max 2' clichés, only without the excuse of cashing in on a recent, fashion changing blockbuster. But there is enough of the 80s apocalypse out there (if not available on DVD, let alone Bluray) to keep even the most hardened leather-clad mercenary busy for some time...