Five of the Best Nuclear Apocalypse Movies

By John Lister
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

There are very few generalizations which I hold true in life, but one of them is that if you aren’t slightly obsessed with the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, we probably won’t be friends. Whether it’s the result of inborn geekiness or the era in which I grew up, the atomic bomb has always been among my ultimate fears… and compulsions.

While there are several films which deal with the situations leading to a nuclear strike, most notably the black comedy Dr Strangelove and the more serious Fail Safe (plus, of course, War Games), these are the five movies — ranked by a combination of sheer terror and patriotic prejudice — which I consider the best dramas about what happens after the bomb drops.

Testament (1983)

This PBS drama focuses more on the effects of a nuclear holocaust on human behavior and emotion than on the physical effects of the event itself. Indeed, it’s a slightly odd premise as although the main characters see the flash of the nuclear explosion, only some die of radiation sickness over the coming days while others apparently survive unharmed.

The lesson of the movie appears to be that even in a society without resources and communications, the human spirit will prevail. If that warms your heart, this is the movie for you; if it sounds like unrealistic sentimentality, move on.

When The Wind Blows (1986)

This is an animated movie by Raymond Briggs based on a graphic novel of the same name. (Briggs is perhaps better known for the more uplifting The Snowman.) It features an elderly couple who mistakenly believe that nuclear war will be similar to their own memories of air raids during the Second World War and that a combination of government aid and the “Blitz spirit” will see them through.

They are, of course, tragically wrong and the result is a slow decline as the effects of radiation take effect. While far from explicit, seeing such a morose situation portrayed in a style more associated with comforting family fare is supremely powerful.

The Day After (1983)

This movie stars Steve Guttenberg.

That said, it’s not all bad. Having been created for and aired on ABC, it’s arguably the most graphic depiction of the true results of a nuclear war upon US soil. It covers a variety of aspects of the fallout (literal and metaphorical), including the battle for resources, the destruction caused by the electromagnetic pulse, and the diverse medical effects, most strikingly a young girl losing her hair as she develops terminal radiation sickness.

Still though, Steve Guttenberg.

The War Game (1965)

While the shortest of these films at 48 minutes, and undoubtedly the lowest-budget, this is perhaps the most notorious having been banned from broadcast for 18 years. Having been made by the British Broadcasting Corporation for national broadcast, it was first aired in a private viewing to senior government and military officials.

BBC management then decided against airing it, a move which director Peter Watkins has claimed was down to government interference. Another factor contributing to the decision was a forecast that its broadcast would cause such depression that it would spark 20,000 suicides.

The film is shot in documentary style and shows both the immediate effects of nuclear bombs and the long-term devastation to society, most chillingly an orphaned child speaking on a now meaningless Christmas Day who, asked what he wants to be when he grows up, replies “nothing”.

American writer Dwight MacDonald gave perhaps the best view of The War Game:

“Were I a congressman, God Forbid, I’d introduce a bill making it compulsory for all Senators and Representatives… to attend a special screening of The War Game. Absence would be punishable by one year in jail or $1,0000 fine or both.”

Threads (1984)

This certainly had to be number one on my list, if only because I discussed it with a woman on a first date three years ago and amazingly, not only did she not walk out on the spot, but she was a fellow obsessive and we remain happily married today.

But don’t in any way mistake Threads for a romantic comedy. It’s a docudrama more terrifying than any horror film, combining a highly effective building tension as the military conflict leading to nuclear war escalates in the background via news reports as a backdrop to domestic scene-setting, a brutally realistic depiction of the devastation wreaked by the bomb itself, and the ultra-depressing reality of the following fifteen years as Britain returns to a medieval state.

Trying to choose the most memorable image from Threads is a futile exercise, but just off the top of my head, the list includes:

  • A woman wetting herself as she sees the mushroom cloud.
  • Glass milk bottles melting in the heat of the blast.
  • A catatonic woman cradling her dead baby.
  • A man biting down on a rag as his leg is amputated with a saw without anesthetic.
  • A couple gnawing at the raw flesh of a dead sheep.
  • A woman reduced to selling her body in return for three dead rats.
  • The same woman desperately smashing a tin of evaporated milk against a rock in the hope of getting it open and avoiding starvation.
  • The education system 10 years after the bomb consisting of no more than a grainy VHS tape of a schools program.
  • A generation of children with no hope who’ve never been taught to speak English properly and communicate at a level barely above grunting.
  • A child born to a survivor of the nuclear bomb later giving birth herself to a hideously deformed stillborn baby.

So yes, it’s not a date movie. But you owe it to yourself to see Threads, and it’s no hyperbole to say you will never forget doing so.


13 Responses to Five of the Best Nuclear Apocalypse Movies

  1. I've heard that "the day after" effected the US nuclear policies:

    "Reagan wrote in his diary that the film "left me greatly depressed," and that it changed his mind on the prevailing policy on a "nuclear war".[2] In 1987 during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms, the film was shown on Soviet television. During the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at Reykjavik, Meyer received a telegram from President Reagan that said, 'Don't think your movie didn't have any part of this, because it did.'"

  2. I was at Whitman AFB MO (the mushroom cloud on the right) on duty when the movie aired. it was an unusual feeling to see the base nuked. oddly enough, the movie portrayed a best case. most of us believed that at least three (large)nukes would target each control center and silo. so, the nuke on KC would not be needed. think of 300+ in the West MO area, not 2. but it would have made for a short movie.

  3. Neither version of “On the Beach”? The more recent Showtime versions was pretty depressing though if I remember correctly it happened purely after the war and never showed any actual nukes just the end of the world after.

  4. I didn’t know they made an animated version of When the Wind Blows! I happened across that book at a library, and it has really stuck with me. Mostly because it was simultaneously ludicrous and completely believable. I do think that people die in disasters all the time by totally misunderstanding or dismissing instructions the way this couple does. I’d be curious to see how it worked in an animated form.

  5. I know *exactly* what you mean about this generational fear and compulsiveness. One of the overwhelming themes of my childhood was a real, visceral terror every time I heard Concorde booming overhead, thinking it was The Bomb. I had the misfortune of being one of those children with a talent for lurking in in the living room doorway late at night, witnessing programs for adults, and several documentary snippets (that I should never have seen at that age) inspired by the anniversary of Hiroshima have scarred me for life.

    No wonder I write post-apocalyptic fiction.

    Anyhoo, would you believe that even though I am a fan of post-apocalyptic films and books, I have only seen When the Wind Blows on this list? I am ashamed to admit it, but after spending so much of my early years utterly terrified of nuclear war, I avoided them. WTWB is so powerful.

    I have heard so many people say that Threads is one of the most harrowing films they’ve ever seen. Maybe I need to take a deep breath and face this fear. I am in my thirties now for heaven’s sake!

    Thanks for the ace post!

  6. I saw Threads on TV when I was a tween and never forgot it. I found it again years later and found it even more terrifying. Fantastic film.

  7. I have not seen any of these movies, so I may be jumping ahead of myself, but you didn’t mention Stanley Kubrick’s film “Dr Strangelove”? It is a funny, sarcastic, and poignant look at the whole nuclear arms race in the 60’s. Absolute classic film.

  8. hi, im looking for a specific movie.

    Im 28 y/o now,

    I remember when I was a kid in the early 80s , i watched a movie, I dont remember about the names of the heroes, i was like 4 years old, the only things i remember is that the "hero" at the end had to empich bunch of nuclear missiles to be launched and couldnt make it to press the button, he then was enclosed in a "sas" and just he just watch the missile being launched in the sky!!!

    any idea of this movie?

    im willing to get my vhs player ready to play again lol!!!

  9. I would definitely consider "Miracle Mile" as one of the best nuclear apocalypse movies. It's not precisely a nuclear apocalypse movie, but… naaah, don't want to spoil it for you, just see it. BTW, the music is absolutely awesome (by Tangerine Dream).

  10. I agree. Threads is hands down, the scariest, most real, most haunting, most unforgettable TEOTWAWKI movie I have ever seen. I watched it one time, and probably will never do so again. It was amazingly well done, and a great movie…. but… I just don't think I could watch it again. It just felt too real.

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