Decades have elapsed since Americans trembled at the prospect of nuclear war, which once hung over our heads like a sword of Damocles. But with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and attempted conquest of Ukraine, and the attendant nuclear saber-rattling, we’ve all been reminded that, oh yeah, the world could still blow itself up many times over! Though the possibility never disappeared, we forgot about it, or more accurately, preferred not to think about it in the post-Cold War world.
Not that long ago, however, we were constantly reminded not only by our news media and politicians but by our entertainment. The early to mid-1980s — the last decade of the Cold War before Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on his democratic-leaning principles of perestroika and glasnost — was an especially chilly moment in our country’s relations. And at that moment, the prospect of an instant nuclear holocaust and its aftermath was dramatized in scores of ’80s movies.
Hollywood began making movies about nuclear just a few years after the United States used nuclear weapons against Japan. The Beginning or the End (1947), about the Manhattan Project, is considered the first American film to take on the issue. Following that, ’50s horror and science fiction cinema often allegorized the threat of atomic war and radiation in movies about mutation, such as Them! and Godzilla (both 1954), and alien invasion in films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds (both 1953).
The 1960s was the first “golden age” of nuclear war-themed movies, which dramatized the threat literally, rather than allegorically. The introduction of the hydrogen bomb in 1956 — which was many times more powerful than the atomic bomb — and the escalation of the Cold War and the U.S. arms race with the Soviet Union, presented an existential threat to all of the civilizations that Hollywood captured in features like Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965), Fail Safe (1964), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Best Man (1964). Movies that chronicled post-apocalyptic survival included On the Beach (1959), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), The Time Machine (1960), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), and Panic in Year Zero (1962).
Hollywood still occasionally made films about the threat of nuclear war and nuclear holocaust in the mid-late 1960s and 1970s, such as Glen and Randa (1971), A Boy and his Dog (1975), and Damnation Alley (1977), but it was a fallow period for the genre. Although nuclear war remained a serious threat, it was not as pronounced in the public imagination as other issues of the time, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the emergence of counterculture, Nixon’s presidency, and urban crime problems, which informed Hollywood of the late 1960s and 1970s.
This dormant period came to a dramatic end in the early 1980s, when American movies and television ramped up production of nuclear war films to reflect the Reagan administration’s prominent expansion of the arms race and the president’s demonizing rhetoric against the Soviet Union. These developments generated tremendous national fear, which led to a politically influential peace movement and a clutch of anti-war films.
’80s nuclear war-themed movies dramatized both the danger and the imminence of a nuclear holocaust, exploiting our collective national fear that it could kick off at any second. Dramas from the era include The China Syndrome (1979), Testament (1983), Silkwood (1983), Radioactive Dreams (1985), The Manhattan Project (1986), Miracle Mile (1988), Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), and The Hunt for Red October (1990). Both James Bond films from 1983, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again, posed the threat of nuclear detonations (of course, though, many Bond films do).
Perhaps the most well-remembered of the era’s nuclear war-themed dramas, and one of the biggest hits of 1983, was Wargames, directed by John Badham. While trying to steal software, the movie’s teenage hero, David (Matthew Broderick), accidentally hacks into the main computer at NORAD, which controls the U.S. nuclear missile stockpile launch capability. The computer, nicknamed “Joshua,” has been programmed to play military strategy games, but has also been programmed to trick the powers-that-be into thinking a real nuclear war is occurring. As Joshua counts down, the U.S. brass ready what they think is a counter-strike to a Soviet first strike (the Soviets aren’t really launching, but of course, they will launch if the U.S. fires first).
While generals and eggheads squabble over the best course of action, David pushes aside the experts and tames Joshua like a wild mustang. He is the one person who not only understands how to communicate with and use the technology, but how to get the computer system to “learn” that global thermonuclear war is a game that can’t be won. If it seems unlikely that the U.S. would cede command and control of its nuclear arsenal to one computer, or that the computer would be easily hacked by a teenager, the innate fallibility of the system is the frightening point of the movie.
The Manhattan Project (1986) directed by Marshall Brickman, is a thematic retread of Wargames, with a white male teen hero/genius, Paul Stephens (Christopher Collette), showing the adults the error of their militaristic ways. Paul is a physics and chemistry expert who builds an atomic bomb from plutonium he steals from a local lab near Cornell University. His supposed goal is to reveal that dangerous radioactive material is being made without the knowledge of the local community. But as with Wargames, his real aim seems to be to impress the girl (Cynthia Nixon) that follows him everywhere and unquestioningly supports his schemes. Ahhh, the ’80s.
Not surprisingly, given that Hollywood movies of the era were aimed at teens, many of the nuclear war/WWIII movies represented teenagers as the last hope for civilization — technological savants who could intercede on behalf of adults who had lost their way. This is also seen in Red Dawn (1984), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Real Genius (both 1985), among others. A late but important entry in the teen saves the world from nukes sub-genre is Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) with its indelible dream sequence of Los Angeles incinerated by nuclear fire.
James Cameron’s T2 can be considered the culmination of the era — not only of Cold War nuke movies but of the ’80s golden age of sci-fi in general. Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) was one of the most terrifying of the sci-fi nuke movies, a hard-edged, violent vision of where we were potentially headed if we didn’t change our ways fast. The franchise is so inundated in our culture now, it seems like it’s always been around, but the bleak vision of the original Terminator, and its message that nuclear war is inevitable felt shocking during one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War.
George Miller’s Mad Max movies, made in Australia, were also among the most popular sci-fi visions of the apocalypse. The first Mad Max (1979) suggested an ambiguous dystopian future, but with their bigger budgets, the sequels The Road Warrior (1982) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome elaborated and specified a post-nuclear holocaust. Alluding to the OPEC crisis of the 1970s, the early Mad Max films depict oil scarcity as contributing to the fall of civilization, whereas Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) updates the scarcity crisis to water, reflecting contemporary global shortages.
Other nuke-themed ’80s sci-fi films include Dreamscape (1984); Robocop (1987), in which nuclear bombs are an existential threat and toxic waste is a more immediate one; and even Back to the Future (1985) with its Libyan terrorists and nuclear-powered time machine. As I write elsewhere, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) “is all about existential dread. Like the threat of nuclear war, the alien entity in the movie is unseen, could strike at any moment, and leads to the rearranging of human beings at the cellular level.” In a similar allegorical fashion, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), though set in outer space in the 23rd century, concerns a planet-destroying doomsday device, while one of the major characters dies of radiation poisoning.
Finally, hard-R zombie and radioactive mutant movies were the ’80s equivalent of ’50s sci-fi horror. Movies like The Aftermath (1982), Night of the Comet (1984), The Toxic Avenger (1984), Re-Animator (1985), George Romero’s Living Dead movies, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies struck a major chord, especially in the new home video market.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, director Nicholas Meyer had the end of civilization on his brain. In 1976, he wrote the TV movie The Night that Panicked America, about Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” when Welles got some Americans to believe that aliens were attacking the East Coast. Meyer then followed up his Star Trek II nuclear war allegory with The Day After (1983), watched on ABC by 100 million Americans (almost impossible to imagine in the boutique streaming era) and which remains among the most terrifying and effective films ever made.
Unlike the broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” Americans didn’t think that The Day After was a realistic live depiction of a nuclear war, but it did worsen the fear that a civilization-ending war was not only possible, but maybe even likely. Kim Newman suggests that Meyer connected the two broadcasts by inserting, in the last scene of The Day After, a quote from the very Welles show about which he had written: “Is there anybody out there . . . anybody at all?” intones a character played by John Lithgow. The movie even had a profound effect on President Reagan, who wrote in his diary, “It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed. … My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war.”
The Day After was far from the only TV movie made about the threat and aftermath of nuclear war. Others included Testament (1983); World War III (1982); Amerika (1983); Special Bulletin (1983); Countdown to Looking Glass (1984); and the BBC film Threads (1984), which remains equally as terrifying in its realistic depiction of nuclear war and its relentlessly hopeless aftermath as its counterparts across the Atlantic.
These TV productions stressed realism to impart the danger and the imminence of nuclear holocaust. Discussing his approach to The Day After, Meyer said, “I never viewed this as a movie per se, more like a big public service announcement. I wanted it to be as crude and in your face as possible.” The idea of the public service announcement — TV as a disseminator of information — is consistent with the way that the networks traditionally represented the threat and consequences of nuclear war beginning in the mid-1960s. It’s also probably why the TV films, both in the US and the UK, were typically scarier and more realistic than their Hollywood counterparts.
Finally, a few ’80s comedies took on the nuclear threat, including Stripes (1981) with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis as U.S. Army privates who rescue their platoon from Soviet captivity, and Real Genius, starring Val Kilmer as yet another teen savant who tries to keep his laser project out of the hands of military personnel who want to use it for an SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) project.
The SDI, or “Star Wars” project, also makes a prominent appearance in Spies Like Us (1985), starring Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase as two bumbling decoy spies who manage to both start and stop a nuclear holocaust. Spies Like Us may be the only major studio comedy from the era that can be said to be not just anti-war, but anti-Reagan, embodying the buffoonery of America’s Cold War tactics in the figure of a U.S. general hell-bent on starting WWIII who happens to bear a resemblance to the 40th president.
Now that nuclear war is once again a threat in the public consciousness, perhaps another golden age of anti-nuke cautionary movies is to come. As with previous eras, let’s hope any such movies remain firmly in the realm of fiction.