Sometimes, the best way to allay a fear is to confront it. In the early 1980s, in the midst of a Cold War that seemed to be heating up after the election of a tough-talking Ronald Reagan, the biggest fear among Americans – and their NATO allies – was a nuclear strike from the USSR.
To confront our fears, we wanted – and we got – some straightforward and serious sci-fi dramas that bluntly depicted the aftermath of a nuclear attack.
A generation later, these pictures still pack a big emotional punch for even the most jaded and desensitized viewers. You think you can watch them with clinical distance, but, really, if you can watch even one of these films without being moved to tears, well, then you are made of sterner stuff than the rest of us.
The films can be viewed as “message movies” with a thesis that those in power must do everything possible to avoid the violence of war.
But they should be viewed for other reasons as well. These sad and serious films help us link ourselves with people from the past whose specific circumstances and specific worries may be different from our own but whose loves, whose sorrows, whose vulnerabilities are just the same.
I’d like to describe and compare the three prime nuclear horror pictures of the 80s: The Day After, Threads, and Testament.
First I’ll describe similarities shared by all three films. Then I’ll make a few comments about each film in particular.
Here are the prominent similarities:
1. ORDINARY CITIZENS
War movies have traditionally focused on soldiers – those we expect to face the horrors of war. But nuclear aftermath pictures focus on regular middle class people, usually families dealing with domestic issues, school, love, money, and sometimes pets or dependent elders.
2. COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN
In all three pictures, the characters are quickly cut off from conventional sources of news (TV or radio). Often, they are cut off from each other, with children not knowing whether their parents have survived – and vice versa.
Even in the pre-internet 80s, people were used to being informed up to the minute; thus, getting cut off was extra frightening.
3. NO HELP FROM AUTHORITY
To some degree, each picture depicts authority figures to whom we would traditionally turn in a crisis: politicians, policemen, teachers, priests, or doctors.
In each film, the authorities are generally well meaning… but inadequate and ineffective in the face of the unprecedented crisis.
In each film, no supplies arrive from a central government in Washington or London. The implication is that we’ll have to save ourselves.
As you’d expect, each film depicts food shortages, energy shortages, and general deprivation.
Each also depicts looting and theft, yet (perhaps surprisingly) each film suggests that bad guys will be relatively rare. It’s not a total breakdown into chaos or fiefdoms. Most characters want to help rather than exploit their fellows.
5. EFFECTS, NOT CAUSES
All three films focus on the effects of war, not the causes. While The Day After and Threads show a buildup of international tensions, they join Testament in generally avoiding placing blame.
Causes seem almost impersonal, though we can be sure that the filmmakers were hoping for greater dialogue and compromise between the two superpowers in real life.
6. NEUTRAL POLITICS
This might seem strange for movies that are clearly intended to deliver a message. But all three pictures are good at avoiding obvious Left Wing or Right Wing politics.
Threads sympathetically depicts anti-nuke demonstrators, but it’s also sympathetic to those who blame the demonstrators for stifling economic progress.
This is the only prominent flaw in each of the films: they all overdo it by delivering too obvious a message via voice-over or words on screen.
But surely we can forgive this flaw. The filmmakers felt they were doing something very important, and they wanted to be sure their message was clear.
Now here is a brief description of each film:
THE DAY AFTER (1983)
This is the best and most famous nuclear horror film of the 80s. It was made for ABC TV, and nearly half the US population at the time (100 million people) tuned in to watch it.
We follow several characters in Missouri and Kansas trying to go about their lives, but we keep hearing snippets of radio and TV broadcasts warning of rising international tensions. Before we know it, nuclear war has begun.
As Kansas City is destroyed, there are mushroom cloud and vaporization effects, but it’s not like Terminator 2 where you can get some cheap thrills from watching the nuclear attack effects. Here, you feel very bad.
Then comes the main point of the picture: a slow-paced depiction of nuclear aftermath, from EMP to radiation sickness, burns, sores, anger, pillaging, murder, and more.
I was a high school sophomore in 1983 and I remember several teachers initiating discussions about the film during class sessions.
Director Nicholas Meyer (most famous for his Star Trek projects) wanted to show more gore, but the film is very graphic as is.
Unlike The Day After and Testament which take pains not to blame either the US or USSR for a nuclear war, the BBC-produced Threads actually places a slight amount of blame (if only a slight amount) on the USSR.
Threads also differs from the others in depicting preparations for the aftermath, with television or radio instructions for how to protect oneself, how to keep orderly, where to go, even how to treat dead bodies alongside you in a fallout shelter. Ironically, these preparatory messages make everyone even more worried than before.
Finally, Threads differs from the others in taking us far into the future: not just the day after, but months and even years after the initial attack. Most of it is miserable.
Threads is directed with a deadpan and documentary style, less of a drama and more of a statement. But the impact of Threads cannot be denied. Several specific details still remain relevant as I write this in 2017 (e.g. Iran is still a US-Russia flashpoint).
This is the least known of the three, so I’m placing it last on the list, but it was actually broadcast a couple of weeks before The Day After (in November 1983, on PBS).
Unlike The Day After, Testament has no special effects: no mushroom clouds or skeletons, no gore, nothing more than a few flashes of light to suggest a distant explosion. It’s much smaller in scope than The Day After, focusing on just one family in a Bay Area suburb.
Unlike Threads and The Day After, you hear no ominous warnings on radios or televisions about rising international tensions. When the attack comes, it’s a shock, and the mood of the movie snaps from ease into panic.
For the rest of the movie, we watch the townspeople doing their best to survive. The town seems relatively unscathed, though we know that radiation will sicken – perhaps kill – most of the people we’ve met.
We glimpse some ash, some fallout, garbage piling up on neglected streets. But mostly we watch the characters dealing as best they can with the depressing situation.
Young Kevin Costner has a small role as a grieving father. The rest of the cast is less well known but no less effective.
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