Early 1980s Nuclear Armageddon Films

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.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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28 Responses to Early 1980s Nuclear Armageddon Films

  1. The Day After terrified me as a kid. I’d add The Miracle Mile to the list as well as When the Wind Blows .

  2. tdaxp says:

    Very cool that two of the videos are available for download to iPhone!

  3. I remember The Day After very well. It was outrageous propaganda. I was angry when I saw it. It was so obviously a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda. Good thing Reagan ignored it.

  4. “It was so obviously a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda.”

    Are we talking about the same film here?

  5. Carl says:

    Yes, Lexington, you are going to need to explain yourself there.

  6. Curzon says:

    Actually, Reagan saw the film and said that it contributed to his feelings of hopelessness about a nuclear confrontation.

  7. ElamBend says:

    Funny story. Way back in 1999 I was between jobs and I took a temp job at a company called reel.com that basically rented videos over the internet (how they did not turn into netflix, I’m not sure). Anyway this is right around the time that Pakistan detonated a nuke and announced themselves to the world as a nuclear power. One day at the office, I say “The Day After Tomorrow” sitting on a shelf, awaiting shipping, with a post-it that said “US Embassy, Pakistan.”

    That being said, it takes place in a part of the country I grew up in. I remember when it came out. I didn’t think it was pro-Soviet propaganda, but I definitely remember feeling conflicted about it’s message. It was just the movie itself, but the hoopla around it. In as much as I could as a little kid, I felt the movie missed the point of the cold war. At that point, remember the Soviet Union had recently shot down a Korean Airliner. For some reason, that was a particularly searing moment for me; after that I considered the Soviet Union as evil.
    Clearly nuclear war and it’s possibility is terrible and you can’t explain it to younger folks the feeling that some point in your life it would happen. However, at the time the movie came out, I remember feeling that it glossed over the character of the other side.

    Also of note:
    (1) “Red Dawn” which also came out in 1984 was big in my small home town.
    (2) Apparently, the Russians at one point in 1984 thought that Nato military maneuvers were the set-up for an invasion and that year we came really close to a real shooting (nuclear) war.
    (3) Final irony: I married a woman born in Russia in the 1980s.

  8. Curzon says:

    The Day After in some ways is similar to the two English films, the BBC Nuclear War documentary and Threads. Both of those play out people living through the explosion, and the prospects for survival afterwards.

  9. tdaxp says:

    Not quite as realistic, but New Zealand’s “The Quiet Earth” is also quite good.

  10. feeblemind says:

    I tend to agree with Lexington Green and here is why: This was made in an era of anti-nuke demonstrations and the declarations of ‘nuclear free zones’ by various gov’t entities. The subliminal message was that this would not happen if there were no nuclear weapons in the world. Ergo nuclear disarmament would be a good thing. It was a subtle attempt to sway public opinion against the maintaining of a nuclear force. That would have put us at a strategic disadvantage to the USSR. In that light it could be viewed as pro-Soviet propaganda.

  11. Sejo says:

    Wow. A quarter of a century has passed. Thank you, Curzon, for giving to me the chance to watch The Day After again, after a so long, long time. I totally removed it from my memory – while I remember Survivors, BBC 1975-77 – possibly as a bad nightmare.
    I almost cried like twentyfive years ago. Thank you. It’s always healthy to clean one’s soul.

  12. Like Sejo, I gave it a watch (was going to skim through but got roped in) last night for the first time as an adult. I’d expected it to be a bit hokey but for the most part it’s held up quite well and still resonates. The only glaring hitch for me was Steve Guttenberg, not so much his acting but that I do and likely always will associate him w/ Police Academy.

    Feeblemind, that sounds more anti-nukes than pro-Soviet. In watching it again, the news chatter you hear the characters listening to prior to the films climax seems to me to paint the Soviets as the antagonists. Military build up, tanks rolling into east germany, low yield nukes used on NATO forces, etc. and then the US launches a hapless pre-emptive strike.
    Tonight I’ll give Countdown to Looking Glass a watch as I’ve not yet seen it.

  13. The movie came out at roughly the same time as the Soviet sponsored anti-nuclear movements in Western Europe, directed at removal of theatre nuclear weapons. As it turned out, the Western European movements were in part organized and financed by the KGB, which was not surprising. The movie was pretty clearly part of a pattern of either active or sympathetic cooperation with the Soviet propaganda program of trying to get the West to disarm itself. Hollywood hated Reagan and hated the public outcry for military strength in the wake of Afghanistan and our humiliation in Iran. I was a teenager in Massachusetts at the time. The public mood even in that very liberal state was remarkably angry and militant. The Soviet Union made a last gasp effort to win the Cold War by trying to get the West to disarm, and western Leftists responded avidly to that campaign. The public, thank God, wasn’t buying it. Fortunately, we had Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl.

    I remember watching the day after with a bunch of other college kids. A bunch of them were pouting and saying how upsetting it was. I said that it would never happen because the Soviets were afraid to die, and we would never start it, but if they started it, they would fucking well die for it. Deterrence held and it was going to hold and there was never any reason to think otherwise. The Cold War was not about two people fumbling in the dark and about to make a terrible mistake. It was about a communist empire that could not win by a direct offensive, and so was trying every means of propaganda and subversion available to it to try to get its enemy to give up. As Machiavelli put it, don’t tell a man, “put down your knife so I can kill you. Get him to put down his knife and you can do whatever you want.” The USSR wanted us to put down our knife. Their active allies, and their objective allies in the media and entertainment industries, wanted the same thing. They failed.

    Henry Kissinger, I remember was on some very earnest panel discussion after the movie was over, and he said, all this movie did was take statistics that everyone has known about for decades and turn them into images, for the purpose of preventing people from thinking rationally, and to get them to act emotionally, and mistakenly, instead. I said, “right on, Henry”.

  14. feeblemind says:

    Thanks for the reply Munro. I think where we disagree is on what constitutes ‘pro-Soviet’ propaganda. Webster’s definition of propaganda: “systematic widespread promotion of a certain set of ideas esp to further one’s own cause.” The USSR wanted western public opinion turned against nuclear weapons and towards unilateral disarmament as it would have ‘furthered their cause’. Furthermore, I don’t recall the anti-nuke people demanding the USSR disarm. Just our side. So at the end of the day I am calling it pro-Soviet propaganda because it advanced their cause. I guess we have to agree to disagree here.

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  16. cloggydog says:

    Threads… shared the shit out of me when I saw it in the 80s (we were shown it at school as part of Humanites IIRC… quite what the teacher was thinking I’ve no idea, but about a quarter of the class had to leave the room to be sick and the rest of us were just scarred for life)

    I recently discovered that Threads was available on DVD, so re-watched it 30 years on and it still has the same effect.

    Forget any horror movie, Threads is the scariest, most disturbing movie I think I’ll ever see.

  17. mundens says:

    The BBC has a long history of this sort of thing. Peter Watkins’ earlier “The War Game” from 1965 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059894/) is much better than the two attempts to copy it you’ve listed above.

    Even now, the star black & white presentations of British policemen putting seriously wounded survivors out of their misery, and the presentation of radiation burns, etc. is far more effective than the later US productions or “Threads.”

    This is probably because by the 1980s, most of us no longer believed nuclear armageddon was likely, the threat felt far more real in the sixties and early seventies than it did in the 1980s.

  18. It is ‘good’ in a reflective way to see this films put up. The documentary, “Nuclear War – A Guide to Armageddon’ was particularly influential to me as a young man. It contrasted quite well with “The Day After” which struck me as wildly optimistic.

    I do find the attempts by some to rewrite history rather unfortunate. Contrary to the claims that the anti-nuclear movement in western democracies was controlled by the Soviets, it was both independent and critical of the Warsaw Pact nuclear arsenal, the Chinese, NATO, India and Pakistan and so on and so forth.

    The arguments of the “Mutually Assured Destruction” lobby were never particularly successful, and in reality it was the hard work from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in the 1950s to the CND, Die Grünen, Bündnis 90, Charta 77, etc in the 1980s that ultimately led to real steps towards disarmament and the end of the cold war.

  19. andrew says:

    ElamBend: reel.com was bought out by Blockbuster (it was how my friend became a millionaire). That’s why it disappeared.

    Lexington Green: Westerners protesting in Europe and the US had zero influence over the Soviet Union. Not much chance of them affecting Soviet behavior while they would potentially have a chance to affect NATO policy. FWIW, I remember several groups opposed to nukes, not just NATO nukes.

  20. james says:

    Reagan and Thatcher and all of the neo-conservatives in the world didn’t end the soviet empire: the soviet empire ended itself. The fact that the cold war hysteria (we don’t even KNOW that we don’t know!) went on for as long as it did is embarrassing to anybody capable of reason and integrity.

    Much thanks for the video uploads. I love feeding my bloodlust for the “Armapocalypse” as much as the next sapien (Homo or otherwise).

  21. Michael says:

    Don’t need to watch the films to know that–just need to listen to ’80s-era heavy metal. Throw in 99 Luft Balloons and Blow The House Down (from Siouxsie and The Banshees’ Tinderbox album), and you have plenty of evidence.

  22. ladyjax says:

    I’ve seen a number of these movies and remember being scared witless given the tenor of of times. One thing that stuck with me was getting clear idea of what constituted a first strike target in regards to where I lived at the time (the NY/NJ area); the basic upshot was that we were screwed.

  23. Deckard says:

    Testament (1983) – I don’t even think that this movie is as good as Threads, but I’m sure that’s better than The Day After.

    Moreover I’m still looking for two titles: A boy and his dog (yup, that’s the adaptation of one of Ellison’s novel, and yes – i keep in mind that was released in seventies) and One night stand (1984).

  24. “Lexington Green: Westerners protesting in Europe and the US had zero influence over the Soviet Union. ”

    They had some > zero influence on their own governments.

    That was who they were trying to influence.

    “Cold War hysteria”. Where to begin?

    Maybe with this:


    Or this:


    The Cold War was a real war. The West almost lost circa the Mid-1970s.

    Neither Thatcher nor Reagan were neocons. They were conservatives.

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  27. tdaxp says:

    While the beginning is hoaky, the last 30 seconds or so of “Special Bulletin” is the best depiction of what the aftermath of a terrorist nuclear detonation on US soil would look like that has ever been included on a film.