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.

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