Those who grew up during just about any phase of the Cold War know exactly how it feels to have the ever-present possibility of total extinction hovering over our heads like the Sword of Damocles. That metaphorical blade, of course, is the very real concept of global nuclear war — a conflict that, regardless of how or why it begins, will most likely end with the destruction of the human species as we know it.
Arguably, the closest we’ve previously come to that tipping point was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and thankfully, that conundrum never escalated beyond the point of no return. Humankind heaved another sigh of relief when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, presumably laying to rest the prospect of two global superpowers engaging in the deadliest pissing contest in history. But if you’ve been paying attention to the news, it seems we may have put those fears to bed a bit too early.
In case you missed it, North Korea’s military is now testing nuclear-capable missiles with the goal of targeting US cities like Los Angeles; all the while, terrorist groups continue itching to get their hands on radioactive material; and it doesn’t help matters that the current US president has the temperament of Veruca from WILLY WONKA, throwing tantrums until the generals let him play with the biggest war toys that taxpayers’ money can buy.
Okay, now that I’ve got that mess out of the way… how, you may ask, does this relate to movies? Quite directly, as a matter of fact.
Even in the early ‘50s, popular culture was becoming obsessed with the military and technological foot-race between the US and the USSR, and countless films, books, TV and radio shows channeled this zeitgeist on a constant basis. The dangers of nuclear warfare were well-known in the wake of the devastation wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nuclear power was seen as the wave of the future, and its dangers were downplayed by the government — most likely to avoid mass panic when people suddenly realized basement fallout shelters and the now-infamous “Duck and Cover” public safety campaign was a pile of naïve horseshit.
By the late ‘50s to early ‘60s, the tide of public opinion was turning against nukes, and entertainment media started to take notice. Nuclear war — and its aftermath — became less a subject of far-out science fiction and more of a grim “it could happen tomorrow” scenario, with studios releasing acclaimed dramas like FAIL-SAFE and ON THE BEACH. Only Stanley Kubrick opted to sidestep the scare factor, choosing to highlight the total absurdity of mutually assured nuclear destruction in 1964’s DR. STRANGELOVE.
By the 1980s, when US and Soviet leaders were tossing threats back and forth like schoolboys on a playground and both sides amassing stockpiles of planet-killing weaponry, the culture responded with even darker fantasies; it’s no coincidence the MAD MAX cinematic universe upped the ante by setting its first sequel in a post-apocalyptic Outback, where a handful of half-mad survivors fight over vanishing resources. But by far the most chilling cinematic depictions of nuclear conflict drop most pretense of entertainment and go straight for the gut with more realistic concepts of what could happen once the missiles start flying. Without a doubt, the most notorious of these was ABC’s THE DAY AFTER — which so terrified TV viewers that crisis hotlines and discussion forums were set up to help people deal with the trauma.
But while that film occupies a key position on this list, it’s just one of many to tackle the same topic — and in my opinion, it’s not even the scariest. Here are some prime examples of nuclear horror that will cast an ominous, ashen cloud over your sanity…
THE WAR GAME (1965)
Intended for British television but pulled by the BBC due to concerns over its frightening content, this highly controversial and pioneering mockumentary employs a realistic real-time news format to package a grim and horrifying scenario in which Cold War tensions finally ignite into a thermonuclear exchange over Europe.
While not as brutally graphic as THREADS or as slickly-produced as THE DAY AFTER, it dared to tackle a previously untouchable topic, and despite the initial ban on any airings of the program (the BBC finally relented in 1985), its theatrical release drew major international acclaim. It even won an Academy Award in 1966 for Best Documentary Feature — despite being entirely fictional. Even when seen as a time capsule of a bygone era, it still brings major chills today, and is now considered one of the most significant anti-war films ever made.
THE ATOMIC CAFÉ (1982)
Don’t be misled by the darkly comic approach of filmmakers Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty to their subject matter; this award-winning documentary — assembled entirely from newsreels, atomic “safety” films, instructional programs and news coverage into an atomic-age pop culture collage — can also be interpreted as a scathing critique of US government propaganda regarding atomic technology and nuclear warfare.
It begins with sly charm and a tongue-in-cheek retro perspective (there’s no narration whatsoever, letting the film clips set the tone), but eventually reaches a point where the joke isn’t so funny anymore… and in our current age of so-called “Alternative Facts,” it’s not too hard to see how even the smartest and most skeptical of us can be willingly deceived — especially when our greatest fears are on the verge of becoming reality.
THE DAY AFTER (1983)
While it’s not the best-made film listed here, this TV movie is unquestionably the most infamous — and it’s often cited for its long-lasting traumatic impact on viewers of all ages. Anyone old enough to watch the original ABC broadcast was likely plagued by nightmares, and the film sparked countless classroom discussions (some even involving information packets distributed by the network prior to the program’s airing) in an attempt to ease the public’s anxiety and open some kind of discourse about the grim possibilities of atomic war.
The initial ABC broadcast on November 20, 1983 was followed by a live panel of experts — including legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, who first coined the term “Nuclear Winter” to describe a hypothetical post-war scenario in which the Earth is blanketed by a dense dust cloud, lowering global temperatures and triggering the next Ice Age.
SPECIAL BULLETIN (1983)
Essentially a volatile blend of THE WAR GAME and Orson Welles’ notorious WAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast, this made-for-TV movie explores the chilling and eerily prescient scenario of a terrorist group besieging a major American city. Although the threat presented here is a stolen nuclear device harbored in Charleston, North Carolina, it contains creepy future echoes of events which would transpire in New York City on September 11, 2001.
Adopting the mockumentary angle, the story is told as a series of news broadcasts which appear to be happening in real time. Despite disclaimers throughout the airing (including the caption “DRAMATIZATION” during some scenes) and full-page newspaper ads proclaiming “Thank God It’s Only a Movie,” there were still reports of panicked viewers, particularly in the Charleston area, who weren’t 100% convinced the events were fictional.
If you’re deathly afraid of a nuclear holocaust, 1983 would not have been your favorite year at the movies. TESTAMENT, based on a short story by Carol Amen and directed by award-winning documentarian Lynne Littman, approaches its topic with far more subtlety and intimacy than the others on this list; this tone could be partially credited to a low budget (the attack itself is never shown, apart from a blinding light outside the window). But the characters’ evolving realization of their slowly-creeping fate creates the screen’s most emotionally agonizing depiction of how the world might end — not with a bang, but in quiet despair.
Originally planned for broadcast on PBS’s American Playhouse, the film was instead picked up by Paramount for theatrical distribution, and subsequently garnered well-deserved Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Jane Alexander, whose portrayal of a mother desperately struggling against impossible odds to save her dying family is one of the most heartbreaking performances ever filmed.
Remember when I said THE DAY AFTER is not the scariest title on this list? Well, this one’s the winner of that dubious distinction. A co-production between British and Australian television studios, THREADS is one of the most nihilistic, gruesome, gut-wrenchingly painful films ever released. It opens as a kitchen-sink drama about working-class families in Sheffield, England… but in the background, newscasts reveal quickly-rising tensions between NATO and Soviet forces. Inside of just two weeks, the bombs are falling across the UK… and the unthinkable becomes real.
The remainder of the story switches between local government officials’ attempts to deal with the resulting chaos despite a complete lack of resources [spoiler: they fail horribly], and the effects of multiple bombings, radiation sickness, and starvation on the families we’ve come to know up to this point. In an especially surreal turn, the story continues many years after the fall of civilization — depicting scattered, sickly survivors fighting like rats over whatever crumbs are left.
MIRACLE MILE (1988)
I imagine writer-director Steve De Jarnatt’s one-sentence pitch for this film could have struck studio executives as either pure genius, or utterly insane: it’s a quirky romantic comedy, filled with eccentric characters, that suddenly whiplashes into a frantic, nail-biting thriller, playing out in real time during one pre-dawn hour before nuclear missiles are alleged to descend on Los Angeles. Oddly enough, the script was a hot property in Hollywood for many years, but reportedly kept stalling in negotiations because studio suits were horrified by the incredibly bleak finale.
Thankfully, De Jarnatt got to make the film he wanted — driven by the conviction that when the bombs start dropping, there can be no happy endings, ever. Even so, we still hold out hope against all odds for our two dorky, star-crossed lovers — played with sensitivity and pathos by Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham — and the pulsing score by Tangerine Dream is an ‘80s synth masterpiece.