In the time span between The '60s and The '80s, wealthy and middle-class Americans moved out of urban areas into the suburbs. As a result, poverty, violent crime and gang activity were on the rise in inner cities. An epidemic of crack cocaine made things even worse, partly due to the widespread social panic (due to crack being extremely addictive and harmful), and partly because the crackhouses that formed in these abandoned buildings intensified urban decay in their vicinity. These factors created a bleak outlook on the future of cities; once seen as shimmering beacons and examples of man's progress, they were now depicted as little more than concrete jungles, war zones and fiefs carved out by the various gangs who control the area.
There are a few common traits to this trope:
- Cities are often depicted as decaying or falling into abuse and disrepair, if not destroyed outright. There's typically a lot of trash, boarded-up buildings, and graffiti on the walls. Expect to see a Trashcan Bonfire or two as well.
- The city is infested with criminals, especially gangs who embody the "Punk" style. While some gangs may be sympathetic, or even heroic compared to others, for the most part, they are depicted as ruthless, remorseless and animalistic with few redeeming qualities and little trace of any civility. The aforementioned introduction of crack cocaine is important here, because it gave an excuse for the persecution and demonization of the poor from the perception that they'd been turned "feral" by drug addiction.
- Police are either completely ineffectual at stopping the crime (and what crime it can stop, it literally tosses everything and the figurative kitchen sink at it), have militarized themselves into an army to fight back, or both. If the hero of the story is a cop, they are typically a Cowboy Cop who doesn't like red tape and uses lethal force to get the job done, often to the dismay of Da Chief or a token Obstructive Bureaucrat. Just as often, the protagonist is a Vigilante Man (sometimes an ex-cop and/or ex-soldier) who uses brutal methods.
- The only "pristine" sections of an urban metropolis are those controlled by the local MegaCorps, and even then, it's a Crapsaccharine World. The Mega-Corp is often depicted as the Greater-Scope Villain at least partly responsible for what the city has become, but defeating them is often seen as a secondary goal compared to the immediate threat of the Urban Hellscape.
It tends to overlap with the Wretched Hive. The main difference is that the Wretched Hive is about a place where bad guys are free to do bad guy things with few consequences. This trope is about a city or metropolis that has fallen into a ridiculously-violent and corrupt hell. Even if the criminals aren't in charge here, they are such a constant menace that the only authority figures have to be that much tougher and more violent. The overall message of an Urban Hellscape is that civilized society has gotten too weak and needs to take extreme, unthinkable measures to save itself.
Many aspects of this trope still exist today. The Cowboy Cop, for example, was popularized by this trope but still remains in use in Hollywood. The Vigilante Man trope couldn't have been more popular during The '90s (with the '90s Anti-Hero being a late successor) and nineties nostalgia is bringing this back, especially with superheroes at the height of their popularity. There's also The Apunkalypse, which took this trope to an even further conclusion where civilization has completely collapsed and punk gangs rule the planet (now the standard way we look at post-apocalyptic fiction). Numerous Beat 'em Ups in the '80s also used this trope, as it made for a convenient Excuse Plot for beating up tons of people. In The '90s, however, the genre rapidly declined in favor of films about Virtual Reality (such as Virtuosity, The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix) or Disaster Movies (like Independence Day, Volcano or Dante's Peak).
In addition to this trope's natural decline, society has marched on as well. As those who grew up in the suburbs yearned throughout their lifetime for proximity and single digit mileage in their daily commutes, many young people started moving back to the previously forsaken neighborhoods of the inner city around the Turn of the Millennium. Crime will always happen, poverty will always happen, and enough of it in a modern neighborhood can make it look like one of these on a comparative basis, but the downright Dantesque examples that were once so common in fiction can be said to be all but gone in the First World.
See also the Wild West, for fictional depictions of a similar "lawless" time, Gangster Land which was based on the mob rule of the Prohibition era, and The Big Rotten Apple, which is a precursor from The '70s. Compare Cyberpunk, which essentially combines this trope with 20 Minutes into the Future and focuses on how technology and MegaCorps brought it about.
- Modern versions of Batman often portray Gotham in this light. Filled with incompetent or corrupt cops, gangs controlling the streets, with the neighboring city of Metropolis being the "pristine" Mega-Corp-run sister city. The ultimate example of this in the franchise is the (at the time) future-set Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
- Judge Dredd was built on this trope, as the purpose of the eponymous "Judges" is to bring order to the chaotic urban Hellscape of Mega City One.
- Dirty Harry is the Ur-Example and Trope Maker. The eponymous character is a Cowboy Cop who has become disillusioned with by-the-book policework, and seeing criminals frequently get Off on a Technicality. He thus frequently takes the law into his own hands, and the films either explore the sort of conditions that justify his actions, or what happens when other police go to even more brutal methods from his example.
- The original Mad Max took place in a collapsing civilization, where motorized gangs terrorized the highways. After the loss of his family, Max Rockatansky becomes a ruthless Vigilante Man bent on revenge. The later films in the Mad Max franchise moved the setting to After the End, and became the Trope Maker of The Apunkalypse. If nothing else, this film can be credited with melding the two genres.
- The Death Wish series falls into this trope, particularly the third film, which portrays the criminal gang as brutish and savage to the point that when protagonist Vigilante Man Paul Kersey kills them with military-grade weaponry, residents cheer him on from their windows.
- RoboCop is one of the most famous examples of the trope. In its world, the Mega-Corp OCP completely controls Detroit, and the city itself has fallen into a lawless mess where cops themselves are owned by OCP and die in the line of duty every single night. The gangs which run the city are barbaric, murderous sadists, and even more petty criminals run around the streets completely unopposed. The eponymous hero, RoboCop, is a nigh-unstoppable Cyborg that is created to fight these criminals and (since everything he sees and hears is recorded) has the authority to act with lethal force.
- Predator 2 portrays 1997 Los Angeles as a war zone between two rival gangs which are portrayed as foreign (particularly Jamaican) stereotypes, including constant drug use, barbaric forms of violence, and voodoo. The protagonist Mike Harrigan is, naturally a renegade cop who gets results but is constantly chewed-out by his superior officer.
- The backstory of Escape from New York was that a nerve gas attack on Manhattan had turned so many people violently psychotic that the authorities had little choice except to simply quarantine the island; and that later it was used as a convenient high-security dumping ground for convicts.
- Demolition Man starts in a Los Angeles which fell to this trope. Most of the film, however, takes place in a future where it's been reclaimed and turned into the exact opposite trope, the few remaining criminals and dissidents literally pushed underground and the only traces of the "bad old days" of Los Angeles existing in a museum.
- The Ear, the Eye and the Arm: Toxic slums, borderline-Privately Owned Society, food shortages... an excellent example from the trope's heyday in the mid-90's.
- Renegades: This is what Gatlon City used to look like ten years before the books' plot. The local government had disintegrated, the social services were completely gone, and the entire city was ruled by a swarm of superpowered gangs in constant war over territory, with everyone living there either belonging to a gang or paying protection fees. The only group clearly on top were the Anarchists - who, true to their name, did nothing to rein the rest in - and the Renegades, who did end up bringing order back.
- Final Fight is built on this premise, with crime running so rampant that even the mayor himself has to step out of office and take to the street to beat the thugs with his own two hands. Naturally, the criminals are all punk-styled and have little in the way of characterization (granted, the heroes don't either, but still).
- Double Dragon takes the same premise as Final Fight but also adds in The Apunkalypse. Civilization has collapsed, making martial arts dojos the only law left in the world. Thus the twin brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee fight to clean up the streets of New York. In some version, however, Jimmy is also secretly the Shadow Boss that controls the most powerful gang in the world.
- Streets of Rage is yet another example, and is almost completely a clone of Final Fight.
- LISA: The Pointless: While the rest of Olathe isn't exactly peachy keen either, downtown Olathe is a huge city whose inhabitants are in a constant turf war with each other.
- The endgame of Spider-Man (PS4) turns New York into a warzone with people dying from the Devil's Breath outbreak, violent convicts running loose in the streets, Sable International turning what parts of the city they can into a fascist police state, the actual police effectively helpless and Mayor Osborn blaming Spider-Man for most of it and declaring him a fugitive to be taken in.