Dystopian American films from the 1970s

Will Harlan | January 17, 2017

The film industry has often been called a dream factory; sometimes these are pleasant dreams of wish fulfillment, others are terror filled nightmares.

For example, the 2010s have offered a series of films that share a startlingly dark vision of the future, many adapted from successful Young Adult novels: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 5th Wave and others.

The 1970’s was also period in cinema where optimistic expectations of a futuristic utopia changed and became weighted down by the reality of war, environment degradation, political corruption, economic stagnation and rising violent crime rates. Future dreams turned into nightmares with visions of decay, oppression and anarchy. This wave of dystopian films echoed the gritty crime dramas of that decade’s Neo Noir films (Taxi Driver, Death Wish, The Warriors, Assault on Precinct 13, etc.), with many taking place in the aftermath of world war or other cataclysmic disaster.


  THX-1138 (1971) Director George Lucas

George Lucas expanded his student film into his feature length directorial debut.  THX-1138 depicts a sterile future where the population is controlled through mind altering drugs. Stark, bleak and often plodding, THX-1138 stands in contrast to Lucas’s more dazzling later films. A 2004 Director’s Cut included new modern special effects that blended surprisingly well with the original film

  The Omega Man (1971) Director Boris Segal

Most of the population of the world has been wiped out due to biological warfare in The Omega Man, a loose adaption of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I am Legend. Charlton Heston, a mainstay of the 1970s era of apocalyptic films, plays one of the few healthy survivors who must evade and fight bands of disease ravaged mutants.

   A Clockwork Orange (1971) Director Stanley Kubrick

Based on the controversial novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange centers on young Alex, a Beethoven loving thug who revels in violence for violence sake. Kubrick’s distinctive directorial style combined with Malcom McDowell’s snarky performance as Alex and Wendy Carlos’s haunting synthesizer score combine to deliver’s a dark yet surprisingly funny satiric take on politics and the question of human free will.

  Silent Running (1972) Director Douglas Trumbull

In Silent Running, all plant life on Earth has died out and only a convoy of botanical ships preserves the last surviving specimens. A lone scientist defies orders to destroy the plants and kills his crew mates in the process.  Silent Running helped to inspire the television series Red Dwarf and Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the film WALL-E.

  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Director J. Lee Thompson

One of the lesser known of the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes takes place in a bleak cityscape where apes have become literal slaves to humans. Caesar, an intelligent chimpanzee capable of speech, leads a revolt against his people’s brutal masters. The second half of the film follows a violent and bloody uprising, so eerily similar to the Watts Riots of 1965, that censors demanded enormous cuts before its release. The 2008 Blu-ray release includes the theatrical and the uncut versions of the film.

  Soylent Green (1973) Director Richard Fleischer

Charlton Heston again stars in this film where human overpopulation, industrialization and global warming has reduced the vast majority of the population to a miserable existence, subsisting on a food product called Soylent Green. Featuring Edward G. Robinson in his final role Soylent Green concludes with Heston’s character screaming out the horrifying secret of the miracle food’s manufacturers. The film also features the first cinematic appearance of a coin-operated arcade video game, Computer Space.

  Rollerball (1975) Director Norman Jewison

On the surface, the future of Rollerball may appear ideal: no war, no poverty, no violence.  However, in this world where corporations have replaced nation states, there is no freedom either and the bloody sport of Rollerball is used to pacify the population.  James Cahn plays the top champion of Rollerball who rebels against the corporate masters who want him out of the game.

  Death race 2000 (1975) Director Roger Corman

Cult director Roger Corman hoped to beat Rollerball with his own over-the-top sports action satire dripping with black humor.  Death Race 2000 takes place in a totalitarian war scared United States where an annual violent cross country auto race captivates the nation.

  A Boy and His Dog (1975) Director L. Q. Jones

A dark comedy about life in the post-apocalyptic landscape of the American Southwest, A Boy and his Dog follows young Albert and his telepathic canine companion and their search for food.  Based a series of short stories by celebrated science fiction author Harlan Ellison, this film also features Don Johnson in one of his earliest screen roles.

  Logan’s Run (1976) Director Michael Anderson

In the Twenty Third century, the last vestiges of humanity live out their short lives underground in decadent comfort. The catch is that all will perish on their thirtieth birthday. Michael York plays a “Sandman”, an enforcer who hunts down and executes any who try to avoid this fate through escape. He soon learns he must now be the one to seek escape to the decimated wilderness outside. Logan’s Run received a special Academy Award for its ground breaking miniature effects, only to be completely overshadowed by the revolutionary work by Industrial Lights and Magic barely a year after release with Star Wars.

  Wizards (1977) Director Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi, director of the first X-Rated animated film, Fritz the Cat, imagines a distant future ravaged by nuclear war and peopled with fantastic beings like dwarves, elves and fairies. Like another of his works, animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1978), Bakshi makes use of rotoscoping to give the battle sequences a unique feel.

  Dawn of the Dead (1978) Director George Romero

Less a sequel than a loose follow up to the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead focuses on four virtual strangers who hole themselves up in an abandoned shopping mall as the rest of the world crumbles under a zombie apocalypse.  Filled with pioneering gore effects by special effects wizard Tom Savini, Dawn of the Dead’s surprisingly strong acting and biting social commentary helped make the movie a critical success from its release.

  Escape from New York (1981) Director John Carpenter

Although Escape from New York was released in 1981, its inspiration is rooted firmly in the 1970s dystopian wave. In the year 1997 the United States has turned to a fascistic police state.  In exchange for a full pardon, prisoner Snake Plissken is given twenty-four hours to rescue the President from New York City which is now a maximum security penal zone. Director John Carpenter, with a tiny budget, creates a dark yet very convincing mirror image of New York City. Ironically only a single panning shot was actually filmed on location in New York;  most shooting took place in burned out sections of East St Louis. Just as with his other films like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, Carpenter composed and performed much of the tense synthesizer based musical score.