It's easy to forget when service is spotty, but urban subway systems are one of the modern age's enduring achievements. So whenever movies and television show us the apocalypse, it just makes sense to show subways in ruins.
Here are some outstanding examples of post-apocalyptic subway stops.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Everyone knows how Charlton Heston realizes he's actually on Earth in the first Planet of the Apes. (If you haven't, we won't spoil it for you, but seriously: Get on that.) Less well-remembered is the moment of revelation for the fellow astronaut and would-be rescuer who comes chasing after him in the sequel. He stumbles into the underground city of mutants and discovers the ruins of 20th century New York City. But it's not a famous landmark like Radio City that tips him off. It's the ruins of a subway stop and a sign that says "Queensboro Plaza." But here's the kicker: The real Queensboro Plaza isn't an underground station, but a stop on the elevated. And frankly, it looks like it couldn't withstand a tornado, much less a nuclear blast.
This one isn't post-apocalyptic so much as it is mid-apocalyptic, but the Lexington Avenue line makes a prominent appearance when the main characters assume they'll be safe underground. After the monster takes out the Brooklyn Bridge, the survivors run for the nearest subway stop and start hiking uptown. That turns out to be a major miscalculation, but points for creative thinking!
The Bed Sitting Room
This absurdist British comedy depicts the lives of survivors wandering London, a few years after a nuclear war. Penelope is 17 months pregnant and everyone around her is mutating into bed sitting rooms and cupboards and parrots, and a Buckingham Palace charwoman is now the queen. Fortunately, with its abandoned trains and shuttered stations, the Underground provides a convenient place of residence.
In a world dominated by vampires, underground real estate becomes especially valuable. Daybreakers isn't the greatest movie ever made, but it does offer a couple of great subway scenes. As the world runs short of blood, we see the average vamp on the street grow increasingly desperate. But instead of watching a bunch of folks standing out on the corner, we see the situation grow dire on a subway platform, as healthy vampires morph into mad, blood-deprived bat-people. By the end of the movie, even the undead-friendly mass transit system is abandoned.
28 Days Later
A subway newsstand provides a convenient hideout in 28 Days Later. Poor Jim is wandering London in a daze when two rescuers arrive, blow up a gas station, and rescue him from the infected. The streetwise survivors then dash into the abandoned Canary Wharf and begin debriefing their new comrade on just how screwed he is. As bolt holes go, it's convenient, with a security grate and a good supply of Aero Bars for sustenance.
28 Weeks Later
But 28 Weeks Later shows that might not have been such a smart idea. In an operation that probably looked a lot better on paper, the American military secures and starts repopulating England. Unfortunately, there's still one half-zombified Londoner shambling around. Her family finds her, one thing leads to another, and the virus is back. Sad-faced Rose Byrne commits to evacuating the kids, but they've got to go through Paddington Station. It's dark, there are rats and trash and dead bodies and at least one zombie.
Sure, only the "real" world outside the Matrix is truly post-apocalyptic. But the computer-generated world has a lot of oddly abandoned, dusty corners. One of the movie's most memorable scenes takes place in a weirdly blank, abandoned-looking subway stop. There are no advertisements, no everyday grime. It's just dust and a broken-down payphone, like the AI hasn't given much thought to the mechanics of ferrying human consciousnesses around the city. And it seems like that one train only stops because Agent Smith needs a cool bounce-back after Neo throws him on the tracks.
Doctor Who, "The Web of Fear"
The Doctor has covered an awful lot of ground over the years, so naturally he's sorted out at least one post-apocalyptic subway station. When the TARDIS stalls out in space-time, the traveler and his companions pile out and discover a supernaturally cobwebby Covent Garden station. Much of the following serial is spent running along the tunnels from stop to stop, fighting the Yeti who have seized control of the Circle Line with some sort of poisonous web fungus. (Another post-apocalyptic subway station: Marble Arch, in the first episode of "Trial of a Time Lord." Plus you could make a case for "Invasion of the Dinosaurs.")
The Ultimate Warrior
If you associate Yul Brynner with Rodgers and Hammerstein, you are in for a treat. The Ultimate Warrior is yet another film from the mid-70s predicting New York would be a Thunderdome-like hellscape by the early 20th century. (No one predicted the bike lanes and cheesemongers.) The set-up: It's 2012. A pandemic has decimated the city. Barron hires a stone-faced Brynner to protect his embattled survivor group. At the movie's climax, he has to smuggle Barron's pregnant daughter out of the city, leading to a showdown with the local toughs and a gruesome knife-fight in an anonymous subway station. It's a clearly a sound stage, so what makes this one of the greatest post-apocalyptic subway scenes of all time? The obviously domesticated rats released onto the set to crawl all over the dead bodies.
An epidemic spread by cockroaches threatens the city's children. Two entomologists design a larger bug, the "Judas Breed," to wipe out the city's massive infestation and they're lauded as heroes. A few years later, people start disappearing in the subways. Upon investigation, they find their genetically engineered pest-killers have taken up residence in the abandoned, half-finished Armory station. Based on the very real City Hall stop on New York's 6 train, this is a classic del Toro set. The station is like some steampunk relic from a Gilded Age apocalypse.
Waaarrriors! Come out and plaaaay! Is The Warriors set in some post-peak-oil dystopian New York City, or is it just the 1970s? Is there much of a difference? The Warriors, outfitted in snazzy Mad-Max-esque leather vests, travel from Coney Island to the Bronx for a gang summit. They're framed by the similarly outfitted Rogues and must fight their way back home, traveling on a barely functioning subway system that's clearly been abandoned by most of city society. Shots of graffittied trains are plentiful, but the 96th street station is the real winner.
The Tripods Trilogy
John Christopher's Tripods Trilogy depicts an Earth controlled by aliens. Will seems to live in some pre-industrial society, but there are ominous mentions of the "capping" scheduled for his 13th birthday. As it happens, that's actually the technology the invaders use to control humans' minds. One of the most enjoyable parts of these books is seeming the ruins of our world through Will's uncomprehending eyes, as when he sees a subway station in what must be Paris:
It was yet another tunnel, but far bigger than the others. We stood on level stone, and the tunnel curved up over our heads and went on, beyond the limits of our light. What amazed us, though, was the thing that stood there. I thought at first it was a house, a long low narrow house of glass and metal, and wondered who would have chosen to live here, deep in the earth.
The film adaptation is crawling through development hell right now. Note to the producers: It would be a crime to leave this scene out!
Top photo by Wyss-Clair.