“In nuclear war, all men are cremated equal.” – Dexter Gordon
In this day and age of gore porn, where hack ‘em, slash ‘em pics can rule the roost at the top of the box office, where movies like Martyrs can make critics’ lists and when Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò can find its way to a Criterion Collection release, it’s difficult to find a film that can still shock.
Today’s audience needs more than the usual stabbing to even register an eyebrow raise. The bar has been raised for contemporary audiences, and it takes more than the average machete slicer to get the heart racing anymore.
With that in mind, it still easy to say without exaggeration that 1984’s Threads is perhaps one of the most devastating films ever made.
Note: As a tried and true fan of horror, I noticed that Threads was a title that has often come up on many types “Most” lists, (ex: “Most Gruesome,” “Most Devastating”) made by fans and critics alike, albeit mostly British. Virtually unheard of in the US, it was difficult to find a Region 1 DVD for curious American viewers like myself. But after seeing the title mentioned enough times with the likes of Audition and Irreversible, I knew I needed to see this for myself. It can be found it here.
Written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson (yes, of The Bodyguard and Volcano fame), the BBC aired this made-for-television-docudrama in 1984, thus emotionally scarring an entire generation with its tale of nuclear woe.
To be clear: This wasn’t a theatrical title. This was a TV movie that anyone could watch. And everyone did.
Families, kids and teens alike all sat down in front of the telly to witness the horror of nuclear fallout as the story of Threads showed the true-to-live devastation of a nuclear war.
No adorable characters. No happy endings. No humor. No music. Just death, destruction, devastation and the ultimate demise of humanity as a whole.
Imagine The Day After with zero chill.
The story follows Ruth and Jimmy, a youngish couple from Sheffield forced to get married when Ruth finds herself in a family way. As they work out the particulars of where to live and what color to paint the new flat, the threat of nuclear war lingers in the background on the radio, the television and all newspapers.
The drama is slow to unfold in the beginning. The typescript that appears throughout the drama acts as a countdown clock to confusion, as well as the bearer of bad news.
When the bomb does hit Sheffield, it hits the viewer as well. Everything is destroyed. And in great, agonizing detail.
Children and their parents seeking protection in their homes are eradicated by the nuclear blast. Charred bodies litter the streets. Audiences watch in horror as pets slowly die of heat and radiation poisoning while their owners die in the streets and under makeshift shelters. People roam the streets in shock as their carry their dead children while others look for their missing family members or limbs.
Nothing is sacred in Threads. Nothing is safe. There is no escape.
As the program continues, it becomes obvious that those who died early were the lucky ones.
The viewer follows Ruth, who miraculously survives the nuclear blast with her parents and grannie by hiding in the basement. But when Gran dies of radiation poisoning (as do most of the survivors of the former city of Sheffield) and the family take her upstairs to dispose of the body, Ruth makes a run for it, a final mad dash to find Jimmy in hopes that he might still be alive (Spoiler: He’s not).
Sadly, that’s just the beginning of Ruth’s horribly decade-long descent into terror. Other highlights include:
- Roaming hospitals filled with debris that use no anesthetic or medicine. Only hand saws and cotton.
- Returning to her home to find her parents were killed by looters.
- Giving birth on a pile of rubble and having to bite the umbilical cord herself.
- Ripping apart a dead sheep and eating the raw, infected meat.
- Selling herself for dead rats to make supper.
- Going blind because of the fallout
Threads does an admirable job of introducing characters just long enough for the audience to later recognize their corpse or the diseased husk at a further point in the story. Every player is a victim. Every person will eventually die. Some will die fast. Some will die slow. Others will be killed for food or for shelter or for fear of the unknown. Those who survive will live out their days in horrible conditions, fending off attackers and risking their lives for crusts of bread or a bed.
In the end, no one gets out unscathed from Threads. Not the main characters and not the viewers.
Now in modern times, when threat of nuclear war lingers on the fringes of news telecasts between Oscar fuck-ups and celebrities squabbles on Twitter, perhaps it is time for Threads to re-emerge to utterly destroy a new generation of viewers.