1. Twinkies, Zombieland (2009)
Apocalypse movies are often dark fantasies about limitless freedom and escape from the madness of civilization, but they come with a price—mainly that lack of civilization, and the loss of millions of people working to churn out convenient, plentiful products. Fictional-apocalypse survivors often lament the things they miss, but as product placement becomes a bigger source of revenue in film and TV, it’s more common to see those survivors getting their consumerist itches scratched, often in ways that make a single item feel like something viewers should treasure as much as the characters do. For instance, Woody Harrelson spends all of the horror-comedy Zombieland loudly jonesing for a Twinkie, and exploring downed Hostess trucks, convenience stores, and a celebrity’s home with laser-intense focus, shouting about his cravings. “Where are ya, you spongy, yellow, delicious bastards, where are ya?” he hollers, just before trashing a store that hasn’t coughed up the suspiciously specific treat he wants. In the end, he gets his Twinkie, which he devours in what’s meant to be a satisfying character payoff. The scene is more satisfying than actually eating a Twinkie, anyway.
2. Coca-Cola, The Road (2006/2009)
In the early pages of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer-winning post-apocalyptic novel, a father and son (identified as “the man” and “the boy”) happen across an abandoned supermarket, and scavenge for supplies. Amid the wreckage, the man finds a single can of Coke lodged inside a vending machine, miraculously still cold. Mentioning the brand by name may seem like hokey product placement—especially in a novel—but it’s also essential to understanding the scene’s poignancy. Now, Coca-Cola is overburdened with nasty connotations, from its globalizing influence to its role in the obesity epidemic. But at the end of the world, such contexts have fallen away, leaving only the guileless appeal of the carbonated sugar water itself. (“It’s bubbly,” the boy comments.) The scene made the transition to John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of The Road, but it’s considerably less affecting. There, it feels like a plug for Coke. (“It’s really good!”) In McCarthy’s novel, it’s more of a paean to Coke, one that emphasizes the basic, bubbly pleasure of sipping a cold soda.
3. Pepsi, The Drawing Of The Three (1987)
Coke’s rival Pepsi got its own moment in the post-apocalyptic sun in the second book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Drawing Of The Three. The series’ protagonist, Roland of Gilead, lives in an exhausted world that’s “moved on,” thanks to the destructive powers of evil men; its institutions, society, and culture have fallen, and he’s the last of his highly trained gunslinger breed. At least until he picks up a couple of apprentices from the readers’ contemporaneous world, thanks to a magical portal. When Roland first reaches out from his fragmented epic-fantasy world and contacts American drug addict Eddie Dean, Roland is injured, feverish, and starving, so Eddie passes some things through the portal to help: a couple of hot dogs, some aspirin, and a large Pepsi. Roland’s reaction to the latter is outsized and immense: “The first swallow amazed him so completely that for a moment he only lay there… Then he drank greedily, holding the cup in both hands, the rotted, pulsing hurt in the stumps of his fingers barely noticed in his total absorption with the drink. Sweet! Gods, such sweetness!” As it turns out, Roland’s world hasn’t had such luxuries as sugar for a long time, let alone corn syrup and caffeine. King likely isn’t recommending Pepsi as the best and only drink for inhabitants of drained and lonely futures, though; he’s just indulging in his usual love of cultural specificity and closely observed detail, and putting a Pepsi in Roland’s hand is just one more way to emphasize the difference between his world and ours, while hammering home the reality of Eddie’s experience.
4. Corona, Warm Bodies (2013)
In the same vein, but much more cynical, is the moment in the zombie love story Warm Bodies when animated corpse Nicholas Hoult offers terrified love interest Teresa Palmer a beer. He and his zombie buddies corner her and her friends, and kill everyone but her, in order to eat their brains. But something in Hoult’s decaying mind attaches to Palmer, so he takes her back to his home in a stranded plane at the airport, where he plies her with food, drink, and a promise of safety. He seals the deal with the first beer she’s had in ages—a Corona with the label clearly displayed, backlit so it’s the brightest thing on the desaturated screen. Lit up and positioned between their hands as he offers it to her, it looks a bit like E.T.’s glowing fingertip being extended to his kid buddy, full of magic and healing power. Also the promise of a fat product-placement contract.
5. Shrek on DVD, I Am Legend (2007)
At its best, the 2007 film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel is about isolation. Will Smith, playing a military scientist left alone in New York after a plague wipes out a large part of humanity (and turns the rest into psychotic monsters), wanders the city during the daylight hours, teeing golf balls off battleships, talking to mannequins, and stocking his apartment with the best luxury items. But in spite of the freedom, it becomes clear early on that he’s punishingly alone, having lost his wife and child early in the crisis; in the three years since the virus hit, Smith hasn’t found a single other human being to talk to. So he watches lots of movies, and when strangers finally do arrive in the city, Smith is forced to use those movies as a way to communicate with others. He’s watched his copy of Shrek so many times, he has every line in the movie memorized, down to the slightest pause, and he recites the dialogue to his potential new friends as the movie plays. The DVD is transformed from a financially successful, moderately engaging children’s film into a powerful symbol of our need to connect. (And apparently to tell a lot of short jokes.)
6. iPod, The Book Of Eli (2010)
The Book Of Eli is all about what is preserved after the apocalypse, and nifty gadgets are no exception. Traveling through a destroyed America on his way to the coast, Denzel Washington (as the eponymous Eli) relies on his knife-fighting skills and an ancient iPod to survive. The iPod, accompanied by some very well maintained Beats By Dre headphones, is Eli’s only companion for most of the film, providing him with comfort and nostalgia about the world long lost. The simple scene where he listens to Al Green while preparing himself for sleep shows just how much the MP3 player has become part of his lonely existence. The Book Of Eli provides a moving testament to how music (and art) can help people survive catastrophe, but it’s also hilarious product placement for Apple. From the movie, the iPod seems to be magical and virtually indestructible. Eli’s is no worse for wear after years of being carried through a desiccated wasteland; it hasn’t succumbed to a cracked screen, broken headphone jack, or the other issues the rest of the world continually deals with.
7. Empire State stuffed monkey, Oblivion (2013)
In the post-apocalyptic action thriller Oblivion, Tom Cruise works as a fancy version of a mechanic and security guard, keeping a flotilla of weapons-heavy drones in repair and watching over a series of harvesters that are busily turning Earth’s oceans into fuel. Having been driven off the ravaged, nuked Earth by an alien invasion, humanity is headed to Saturn’s moon Titan, once the project is complete. But in spite of the memory-wipe Cruise went through for security purposes, vague, disturbing memories keep surfacing, especially when he visits the tiny, shattered bit of the Empire State Building still poking out of the sand, and looks deep into the glass eyes of a very specific stuffed ape: a miniature plush and leather King Kong that keeps cropping up again and again throughout the film. It’s no surprise that modern-day, pre-apocalyptic consumers can buy that same plush toy at the Empire State Building gift shop, in person or online, but it doesn’t come with any guarantee that the real thing will trigger suppressed memories or unravel massive conspiracies.
8. Volkswagen, Sleeper (1973)
Technically, Woody Allen’s dystopian comedy Sleeper is a post-post-apocalypse movie; sometime between 1973 and 2073, the bombs fell and civilization fell apart, but by the time Allen is thawed and awakened from a cryogenic sleep, society has rearranged itself in the form of a decadent, totalitarian police state. One of the movie’s running gags is that, in the future, science will have determined that everything we know now is wrong, but one thing is eternal: The Germans really know how to build a car. On the run from the government in the untamed wooded areas where the rebels are hiding out, Allen stumbles across a dusty Volkswagen sitting in a cave. Not only does it start on the first try, but whoever left it there was considerate enough to gas it up before abandoning it.
9. Wonder Woman comic book, Glen And Randa (1971)
The title characters of Jim McBride’s hippie-era post-apocalypse film Glen And Randa have grown up in the wake of society’s collapse; they aren’t old enough to remember what things were like when life consisted of anything besides frisking through the woods naked, scavenging for food and supplies, and wondering why the few other survivors seem so shell-shocked and depressed. When a traveling “entertainer” visits their camp, Glen checks out his possessions and becomes fixated on a moldering Wonder Woman comic and its images of a great, gleaming city. He’s inspired to embark on a quest so that he can gaze first-hand on the wonders of Metropolis. In the end, he’s disappointed, though perhaps not as badly as if he went out looking for Duckburg,
10. United States Postal Service, The Postman (1985/1997)
It’s unlikely that the U.S. Postal Service paid to be so prominently featured in David Brin’s novel The Postman. And Kevin Costner’s film adaptation would have been over a barrel if it couldn’t have used the novel’s central device of a man in the post-apocalyptic U.S. who discovers a dead mailman and brings joy (and the vestiges of civilization) to a world in need of both. Yet both the book and the film function as inadvertent ads for postal services—particularly the film, which turns the act of delivering the mail into something out of The Natural, all golden-hour lighting and slow-motion letter-carrying action. Just as Cast Away turned into an unintentional ad for the lengths Federal Express will go to to deliver a package, The Postman suggests that the detonation of several nuclear bombs should be added to the list of things that won’t stop the USPS, right along with rain, sleet, snow, and hail.