Few may recall today, but in the early 1980s, the world was fatalistic and paranoid about the prospects of nuclear war. Filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic used this theme to create movies about the leadup to nuclear war, what the civilian population would experience, and the gruesome aftermath faced by the survivors. Many of these films were disturbing in their raw realism. They brought the horror of this kind of holocaust to viewers, reminding us that the doomsday scenario wasn’t as unlikely as we might like to believe.
You can now see many of these films on the web. Five of the most famous from the era are posted below, both linked to and embedded in this browser so you can watch them right here.
Nuclear War – A Guide To Armageddon (1982, UK): A speculative documentary of what would happen if Britain suffered a nuclear attack. The futility of preparation and the gruesome effect of invisible fallout are so clear that the film ends by explicitly asking if the survivors would envy the dead.
Special Bulletin (1983, US): This film is exclusively told through news broadcasts; the movie opens with no credits and launches right into the story. There is no cutaway from the television footage throughout the film, which enhances the realism. Furthermore, the film was shot on videotape, rather than film, to enhance the “live,” realtime situation that unfolds before our eyes.
The Day After (1983, US): Unlike most other films, this one was set in a rural town, in eastern Kansas where the effects of the nuclear war still destroyed society.
Countdown to Looking Glass (1984, Canada): Like Special Bulletin, much of this film was shown through news broadcasts, although it also had some close and personal acting. It was shown in the US on HBO.
Threads (1984, UK): This television docudrama depicted both the leadup to, and the aftermath of, a nuclear war in Great Britain.