Nearly 73 years after the first atomic bomb was detonated in Hiroshima to unspeakable results, the fear of nuclear war has hung over the human race like a massive guillotine blade, always ready to instantly end civilization and possibly the planet Earth as we know it. While those fears receded over the course of the last 28 years — as the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended, and the world's superpowers eased back on their furious pace of building and arming bigger and more destructive weapons — the specter of such a conflict has reared its ugly head again in just the last year, as the White House and North Korea have exchanged taunts, threats, and warnings.
We'll skip the politics of the current situation, but the truth is that there are no politics when it comes to nuclear conflict, just as there really are no "winnable" scenarios no matter how many times military strategists may game it out. Nuclear war is a lose-lose situation every time, and a possibility simply too awful and terrifying to contemplate. But of course, it's been pondered over and over again these past eight decades, not just by governments and generals but filmmakers and writers and everyday citizens.
This week marks the Blu-ray debut of what may be the single most horrific film about nuclear war and its aftermath ever made, and with things the way they are these days it might be a good time to revisit that movie (you'll find it below) and keep the horror of it fresh in our minds. While atomic cataclysm has been a cornerstone of sci-fi, the theatrical and TV movies below took it more seriously than most, establishing largely realistic scenarios for the sole purpose of scaring the daylights out of viewers. Starting with films that took us to the brink, and counting down to those that passed the point of no return, here are 14 films meant to terrify us about the threat of nuclear apocalypse ... and hopefully we'll never know how close to the truth any of them came.
Not a whole lot of people saw this low-budget indie film directed and written by former film critic Rod Lurie (The Contender) but it remains an effective and scary little thriller. Kevin Pollak plays President Walter Emerson — appointed as Vice President and then promoted by the death of the previous chief executive — who finds himself snowbound in a Colorado diner while on the campaign trail and forced to deal with an international crisis that escalates to the brink of nuclear war.
The film may be wildly implausible in some ways, but it's suspenseful and scary, especially as bombs begin to fall offscreen in other parts of the world. A twist ending pulls the planet out of a full nuclear apocalypse, but the psychological damage is done.
Matthew Broderick plays one of the first screen computer hackers in this entertaining but still tense thriller in which his David Lightman begins playing an online game with an enigmatic system — unaware that he is communicating with a NORAD supercomputer and may inadvertently be preparing to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R.
The film has a light touch but still generates a considerable amount of suspense, especially when the computer begins running simulations that are a literal keystroke away from bringing the curtain down on civilization. Make sure you know who you're talking to, kids!
By Dawn's Early Light (1990)
Back in the days before The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, HBO aired this made-for-TV production that was one of the last before the end of the Cold War to depict all-out conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The film, with its emphasis on military procedure and ideas like the possibility of the president being replaced by an impostor, is reminiscent in some ways of the next one on this list, Fail-Safe — except that the casualties among the two superpowers in this one reach even more horrifying levels.
Sidney Lumet's Cold War thriller gets off to a somewhat sluggish start but about 45 minutes in, when a computer error accidentally sends a squadron of U.S. bombers into Russian airspace to destroy Moscow, the movie grabs the viewer in its icy grip and doesn't let go until the horrifying but logical conclusion. After one lone bomber gets through every line of defense and drops an atomic bomb on the Soviet capital, the U.S. president (Henry Fonda) must make an agonizing decision to avoid all-out global catastrophe. You don't see the destruction in Fail-Safe, but you feel the sheer magnitude of it, and realize how much worse it could be.
Special Bulletin (1983)
1983 was a hell of a year for TV movies about nuclear annihilation. It kicked off in March with this skin-freezing tale — done in the style of an actual newscast — about terrorists threatening to destroy Charleston, South Carolina with a nuclear device. It turns out that they are led by American scientists who want the U.S. and Soviet governments to stand down from their arms race. A botched raid on the boat that the terrorists have taken over ends with the detonation of the device as the horrific aftermath is broadcast live to the nation. The movie was deemed so realistic in its newscast format that NBC aired disclaimers at the beginning and end of every commercial break to let viewers know it was only a dramatization.
Miracle Mile (1988)
A young man picks up a pay phone and hears that the U.S. is going to be devastated by a full-scale nuclear attack in 70 minutes. Terrified by the warning but unsure if it's real, the man goes to get the girl he met just earlier that day as chaos erupts all around the city. A bit haphazard and dated in that special '80s way, Miracle Mile nevertheless is gripping and genuinely scary, and it's likely that you won't see the bleak ending coming. Stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham somehow make the film seem all the more human by focusing on two average people instead of generals and reporters and world leaders.
Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
Directed by and starring Ray Milland (The Man with the X-Ray Eyes), Panic in Year Zero! is an unsettling film for many reasons. Not only is it about the alarmingly fast way in which society and law break down in the wake of nuclear catastrophe, but the manner in which Milland's character instantly uses the most ruthless means at his disposable to protect his family — even pre-emptively breaking the law at several points — is equally unnerving. One can make the argument that his character has no choice in the situation, but Milland as both director and actor never even stops to ponder his actions; he is unflinching in his brutal resolve. How much you enjoy this harsh yet compelling movie depends on your worldview.
On The Beach (1960)
Based on a book by Nevil Shute, Stanley Kramer's On the Beach is a problematic film. On one hand, it was the first A-list mainstream Hollywood movie to tackle the subject of nuclear war, with stars like Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner heading up the cast; on the other hand, it plays more like a soap opera than a movie about the imminent end of the human race, focusing on people living more or less normal lives down in Australia as they wait for the fallout from the rest of the world to come their way and end it all. The viewer never sees so much as a single burned corpse or blasted city. But the film still has an undeniable power, particularly in its later scenes as the characters prepare for the inevitable and literally choose the manner in which to end their lives. The last images of empty Melbourne streets are overwhelmingly sad as well — so in the end, On the Beach accomplishes what it sets out to do.
When the Wind Blows (1986)
This might well be the bleakest animated film you'll ever see — and it's based on a book by a children's author! British writer Raymond Briggs adapted his own book for this film from director Jimmy Murakami (Battle Beyond the Stars). The story follows an elderly couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, as they manage to survive a nuclear strike in their homemade fallout shelter but emerge only to slowly realize that the world as they knew it is gone forever. They try valiantly to carry on even as they begin to succumb to radiation sickness. The fact that this is all presented in a mix of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation makes it somehow even more unbearable, but it's a sobering and poignant must-watch nonetheless.
Originally conceived and produced as a TV movie for PBS, Testament was instead released into theaters just weeks before the more heavily promoted The Day After premiered on ABC. The story follows a mother and her three children who live in a small community about 90 minutes away from San Francisco; on the day of a massive nuclear strike, their town is left undamaged but it's soon apparent that their society is breaking down anyway, especially as fallout begins to poison everyone with radiation sickness.
Jane Alexander was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the mother, Carol, and watching her bury her children one by one is almost more brutal than any scene of a mushroom cloud or burning city (which we never see). A pre-stardom Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay both have small roles as well.
The Road (2009)
It's never truly revealed what destroyed all of civilization in either Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel or this harrowing adaptation of it, but it certainly seems as if the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son, the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering through a countryside that has been decimated by both all-out war and the resultant nuclear winter.
The story shows humankind at or near a level of total savagery, with what few people left resorting to murder and cannibalism just to stay alive in the ash-covered ruins of what was once the United States. Even with a smidgen of hope at the end, any idea that we might pick ourselves up somehow and rebuild after a calamity of these proportions is firmly put to rest by this bleak and unrelenting tale.
The Day After (1983)
Eight months after Special Bulletin, ABC broadcast this nightmarish film by director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) — the first mainstream American production to show the aftermath of a full nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Unrelentingly bleak, The Day After followed everyday citizens in and around Lawrence, Kansas before, during and after the attack. Network executives were afraid it would be too much for viewers, but Meyer refused to pull his punches and the movie's last hour is an inexorable descent into massive death and despair as the remnants of society rapidly break down.
Some 100 million viewers watched the film, including then-President Ronald Reagan, who wrote that it left him depressed; it also reportedly helped change his mind about the viability of nuclear deterrence.
The War Game (1965)
Many of the most chilling films on this list seem to emanate from England, including this pseudo-documentary from brilliant British filmmaker Peter Watkins, whose movies predicted everything from reality TV to the more sinister implications of the Patriot Act.
In this case, Watkins was commisssioned by the BBC to make a film about nuclear war; the network was so horrified by what he created that they refused to air it for 20 years (Watkins got them to allow him to release it theatrically). The War Game pretends to be a documentary on how the U.K. government and Civil Defense authorities are prepared for atomic conflict, but when it actually happens, the film shows in hideous fashion just how unprepared they and the populace really are.
This unsparing 48-minute walk through hell delivers one body blow after another, assaulting the viewer with images of burning piles of corpses, executions of looters on the spot, the shooting of burn victims to stop hospital overcrowding and the collection of buckets full of wedding rings in futile hopes of identifying victims. Watkins does not spare the viewer for a second, and in light of the subject matter, perhaps he shouldn't.
If you aren't feeling horrible enough after watching The War Game, then please "enjoy" Threads, which makes its debut on Blu-ray this week via Severin Films. Produced by the BBC and Australia's Nine Network as a direct response to The Day After, Threads is set in the English city of Sheffield and chronicles the immediate impact and — for the first time — the long-range aftermath of a nuclear strike.
Like The War Game 19 years earlier, director Mick Jackson's film does not pull any punches in its graphic depiction of the death and destruction wrought by an atomic attack. But then the film follows the survivors for years afterwards, as the population of England dwindles to "medieval levels" due to nuclear winter, starvation, radiation sickness and cancer, with people losing even basic language skills and technology reverting to barely 19th-century levels. Threads doesn't just show us the horror of nuclear war, but the nightmare future that could be its legacy... and if there was ever a time for this movie to re-enter the public conversation, it's now.