The Most Terrifying Nuclear Holocaust Movies

The Movie Sleuth looks at ten of the most terrifying nuclear holocaust movies!

When I first saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I was scared to death.  Not because of the idea of a remorseless and murderous liquid metal machine relentlessly pursuing the film's heroes, but because of a key nightmare sequence in which one of them imagines Los Angeles, California incinerating underneath the Hell, fire and brimstone of a nuclear bomb.  Years later I learned this dreadful weapon was in fact used not once but twice in populated areas during the Second World War.  The threat of thermonuclear obliteration, nuclear attack on our homeland or in another country, remains inarguably the most terrifying threat the human race has ever encountered.  After the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only times nuclear weaponry have ever been used to destroy an entire populous of human beings, postwar nuclear fears around the world were imprinted on everyone's minds.  The idea of life as you know it ending instantly in a bright flash with a mushroom cloud is terrifying enough, but those who survive such a devastating attack are the unlucky ones facing nuclear fallout including but not limited to radiation poisoning, cancer, physical deterioration and eventually death.  In the wake of the WWII followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and ongoing fears about the threat of nuclear attack, the film world couldn't help but respond to such a terrible notion time and time again over the course of the century.  With this, the Movie Sleuth explores a list of some of the most chilling, deeply disturbing and profoundly emotionally affecting films to address the concept of nuclear holocaust ever conceived.  

The Divide

Hitman director Xavier Gans' post-apocalyptic transgressor about a band of survivors of a nuclear attack on New York City is one of the most repulsive and upsetting films ever made on the subject.  While not exactly an original piece of storytelling with a questionable opening shot of the film's protagonist regarding a nuclear blast from her high rise skyscraper window before running for cover, it does manage to shock and appall in a way few films on the subject have ever dared to do before.  Taking the framework of Lord of the Flies by displacing the survivors from the safety net of law and order, the film is a gradual foray into radioactive dust, paranoia, broken trust, physical and psychological deterioration and ultimately wading through sewage.  At first it seems like a cut and dried SyFy Channel B movie with Michael Biehn as the film's momentary voice of reason.  But then it grows nasty and includes everything from gang rape, sodomy and mutilation.  After you've recycled your lunch and popped just enough Sertraline to get through the awful bleakness, The Divide defiantly dives deeper into feces and urine so your gag reflexes can start regurgitating your internal organs as well.  Of all the nuclear holocaust films I've seen, this is the one to be approached with extreme caution, if at all.  Unpleasant and ugly, The Divide presupposes how a band of survivors under duress would or wouldn't prevail in the wake of a nuclear attack.  According to Xavier Gans', a loss of morality, psychosis, sexual assault and murder are just a few of the things the human race would likely stoop to.

Threads is the UK's answer to The Day After (which takes place in the United States) but unlike the latter movie, Threads does not pull any punches.  This film is unique in the nuclear war genre because it depicts the full scale of what would happen if a full out nuclear exchange happened between two countries.  Mick Jackson, the director, consulted many science experts and did a lot of research in order to be as accurate as possible.  Not only does it show the initial attack, it continues far into the future to show the effects of a nuclear winter on the populous.  Threads was considered so frightening and disturbing that it wasn't shown on British television again until almost thirty years after its original broadcast.  Though it was a TV miniseries, it received a pretty large budget so that the special effects are outstanding.  The scenes of the nuclear detonation are absolutely terrifying and the magnitude of human suffering portrayed has not been matched by too many other nuclear disaster movies.  I saw this film several years ago and it stuck in my mind for weeks after I finished it.  I think what was most important about this production is the idea that nuclear war is a zero sum game where everyone loses.  The enemy is destroyed but at what cost?

The Day After
Originally broadcast as a major network television event before garnering a European theatrical release shortly thereafter, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer's horror show about the devastation of a nuclear attack remains as difficult to view and comprehend as it was when it was first unleashed.  A star studded ensemble teleplay featuring Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow and Steve Guttenberg, The Day After imagines the separate lives of multiple characters and the impending apocalypse proceeding to rip apart all within reach of the blast wave.  Remaining with adjusted inflation the highest rated television film in U.S. history, The Day After proved to be a lightning rod of controversy for the extremely graphic depiction of the effects of both a nuclear bomb and the toll the aftermath of nuclear fallout takes on the human body.  Working with the U.S. Department of Defense to achieve authenticity, director Meyer experienced clinical depression after intensive research on charred and disfigured bodies before ultimately locking horns with censors determined to soften the edges of what was meant to be a realistic and pulverizing look at nuclear holocaust.  The behind the scenes drama which ensued over what ABC Television audiences would or wouldn't be allowed to see spilled over into the public eye well before the finished product hit the screens.  After months and months of back and forth editing, The Day After was finally pared down from three hours to two and finally aired on November 20th, 1983 with disclaimers forewarning viewers of the extreme content.  Standing by to address consumer reactions was a 1-800 hotline with counselors as well as a live debate immediately following the film including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara offering their thoughts on the film's significance.  Garnering twelve Emmy nominations with two wins, The Day After quickly escalated from being a television film to a major media event with the poster donning the front cover of virtually every news media periodical at the time.  As a direct result of the film, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Ronald Reagan and even managed to influence Russian political standing on the nuclear war issue.  That said, the film wasn't without detractors who were quick to dub Meyer "unpatriotic" while others claimed it was little more than sensationalist disaster porn.  As it stands today, it is a soul crushing watch which is impossible to come away from unaffected and for a moment tries to imagine mankind's final moments as it lays dying in a ravaged and barren nuclear Hellscape.

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Barefoot Gen
While anime is certainly no stranger to post-apocalyptic universes (Fist of the North Star being a popular one), most of them are more on the fantastical side of things.  Barefoot Gen is a realistic representation of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima in Japan.  It is well-known that most of the films and literature in Japan has at least been affected slightly by this event with the Godzilla films being one of the most direct parallels to the tragedy.  Barefoot Gen is based on the manga of the same name and keeps the simplistic character designs (that are quite reminiscent of Disney).  The story follows a young boy named Gen Nakaoka as he goes about his normal routine on the fateful day of the bombing.  While the look of the film is cutesy, once the bomb hits it turns into a disturbing horror show.  The sequence that occurs right after the atomic bomb hits is one of the most disturbing pieces of animation I have ever seen.  Watching people burst into flame while their eyeballs melt out of their skulls is not pleasant viewing.  The film goes on to show the trials and tribulations that Gen encounters as he tries to live in the aftermath of the destruction.  Overall, it's a good primer to what happened to the regular folk who got caught in the crossfire of war.

Originally based on a three page short story and produced for television before ultimately being bumped up to a theatrical release and garnering an Academy Award nomination for Jane Alexander's searing and heartbreaking performance, Testament was the superior polar opposite of the much larger and more bombastic The Day After.  Refraining from terrifying visual effects sequences of mushroom clouds and the instant deaths of many people, Testament instead takes a quiet and restrained look at nuclear holocaust from the point of view of a mother, Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander), struggling to protect her three children from forces beyond her control.  Far more intimate with fully developed characters, it realistically portrays the unforgiving and systematic effects nuclear fallout and the terror of the situation has on her family.  With the perspective of a simple small town American family woman trying to shield her kids from the world closing in on them, it is a profoundly moving and terribly sad emotional journey which runs the audience through the gamut by traversing every emotion from fear, shock, anger, grief and finally closure.  The power of Testament stems from the film's refusal to leave the bubble of this family, taking us through every step of Carol's ordeal as she tries to press on against insurmountable odds and one by one watches her children succumb to radiation poisoning.  Sporting a mournful score by James Horner and featuring early performances by Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay, Testament is at once the most reserved and conservatively rendered treatment of nuclear holocaust on this list and yet it remains the most galvanizing of them all.  Where The Day After scarred your eyes and ears with screams and charred bodies, Testament comes closer to imagining what it might be like to lose your friends, family and loved ones to the elements of nuclear fallout one tragic death at a time than any other  nuclear holocaust film.

The War Game
So shocking and horrifying was soon to be politically charged British provocateur Peter Watkins' 1965 nuclear holocaust documentary The War Game that it was banned outright by the BBC from being broadcast on television.  Luckily it was screened theatrically overseas and managed to garner the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.  Running under an hour and shot in gritty handheld black-and-white, The War Game is a mockumentary presupposing the physical devastation a nuclear attack would inflict on British society.  With omniscient voiceover narration intercut with interviews of citizens before and after the attack, it is among the most realistic depictions of nuclear holocaust ever conceived for a film and to think it came in 1965 still amazes me.  Designed as both a faux newsreel and a social commentary, part of the film's effect is achieved through the juxtaposition of quotations from an Anglican Bishop and a nuclear strategist championing the use of nuclear weaponry contrasted with scenes of children's eyes being burned out, charred bodies and people shaking violently with radiation sickness.  The carefully constructed editing works to drive home the filmmaker's points about the hypocrisy of such pro-nuclear sentiments with the ferocity of a hammer.  Technically speaking, the scale of Watkins' production is immense and despite only being an hour in length it manages to pack an even heftier punch than some of the aforementioned full length feature films on this list.  One particular image which stands out is that of a child shaking with fear as the camera pans down to regard his horrifically charred and disfigured arm, an extremely graphic (if not the most graphic) presentation of the effects of nuclear fire on human beings.  In addition to winning the Academy Award, it marked the beginning of a distinguished filmmaking career that would later encompass The Gladiators, Punishment Park and Edvard Munch.  The cinema of Peter Watkins remains as relevant, prescient and formidable today as it was then and The War Game is most certainly among his angriest and most powerful expressions.

Protect and Survive
Originally devised as a series of civil defense public information films by the British government intended for release in the event a nuclear attack should occur, the Protect and Survive informercials instead leaked out and were immediately broadcast on public television by the BBC and CND where they became the subject of intense public debate and scrutiny.  An hour in length when comprised together, Protect and Survive consists of twenty episodes of short animated cartoons with a voiceover narration explaining what to do in response to survive a nuclear attack.  Aided by voiceover narration by Patrick Allen that feels right at home with HAL-9000's bloodlessness, simplistic and trivial animations akin to the pamphlets handed out to the general public and truly unsettling snippets of early electronic music by Roger Limb, Protect and Survive is a creepy bit of nostalgia and cool bureaucratic indifference at its most chilling.  The simplistic construction paper animation seemed to pave the way for Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park and intentional or not Protect and Survive inspired many parodies including in the animated feature When the Wind Blows.  What's scary about these never-meant-to-be-seen films is the narration with unfeeling regard for explaining the ways to avoid nuclear fallout.  There's more than a bit of Duck and Cover naivete in these public information films including a suggestion that the best way to survive a blast out in the open is to simply drop to the ground with your hands behind your head.  Creepiest of all though is that damn electronic music which concludes every episode, sounding very like a nightmarish version of an Atari arcade game.  For scenes depicting nuclear fallout, seen as a barely visible snow falling over a house, a bizarre sprinkling sound dominates the soundtrack, evoking palpable dread that would make John Carpenter blush.  I can see myself waking up screaming at night at the ending theme to Protect and Survive, coming back to haunt me when I least expect it.

Duck and Cover
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis with fears of an attack by the Soviet Union and North Korea weighing heavy in public consciousness, an eerie and now terrifying public service announcement in the form of a children's short film named Duck and Cover emerged from the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration.  Running approximately nine minutes in length, the public domain piece is a combination of animation involving Bert the Turtle hiding in his shell at the sight of a nuclear flash followed by live action footage of children in schools and public areas following Bert's example.  Punctuated by a catch song with lyrics along the lines of 'When danger threatened him he never got hurt, he knew just what to do...He'd duck! And Cover!' as well as reminders to children how to respond 'when you see the flash' aided by strobe flashes simulating a nuclear blast, this is among the most chilling pieces of propaganda ever to be shown to millions of unsuspecting schoolchildren in the 1950s.  Intended as a training manual instructing minors how to protect themselves from an atomic bomb, the film goes as far as showing children in a public park dropping to the ground to take shelter beneath a rickety park bench or hiding beneath their desks in a classroom.  Seen years later since inception, the film is about as accurate as Reefer Madness was about the effects of marijuana abuse.  Unlike the camp classic chunk of propaganda on the dangers of pot smoking, Duck and Cover seems even more frightening with time for encapsulating a rare moment in American history where fears of worldwide thermonuclear war were indeed very real.  Beyond misinforming the public on what to do in the event of such a devastating attack, this is the epitome of fear mongering, amplifying fears as opposed to assuaging them.  Years later the brilliant and timeless Stanley Kubrick masterpiece Dr. Strangelove proved to be the most successful response by treating the whole thing as a morbid joke and reminding viewers there's little one can do about nuclear holocaust God forbid it should happen.

Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie
In the 1950s, documentary footage of nuclear testing and the impact blast wave and extreme heat caused to buildings, trees and vehicles became commonplace in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Initially the popular belief was that nuclear testing was gradually phased out over the end of the 50s.  But as revealed in the terrifying and spectacular documentary Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, it turns out the testing continued well into the 1960s as it unveils a wealth of recently declassified government footage of firsthand nuclear detonations.  Among the most unsettling documentaries on the subject of nuclear testing, Trinity and Beyond shows us more bombs were exploded and photographed in remote areas for testing purposes than previously imagined.  Narrated by William Shatner with an original score by William Stromberg performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, through and through it is a film that will absolutely induce cutis anserine in all who see it.  From bombs exploded miles beneath the Earth's surface, underwater testing, mid-air testing an even in outer space, you can't believe as it unfolds just how many tests were actually conducted.  Worse still, the fallout left behind from the region debatably hasn't completely gone away yet.  Among the most chilling images in the documentary is that of an island before and after a test, now resembling a miniature desert wiped clean of any vegetation or signs of life whatsoever.  Most frightening of all is that after all the magnificent destructive powers we've seen, Trinity and Beyond closes on an unresolved note that the threat of worldwide nuclear war is far from over.

A Boy and His Dog
More of a science fiction post-apocalpytic precursor to The Road Warrior than necessarily a nuclear holocaust movie, A Boy and His Dog was infamously advertised as 'a R rated, rather kinky tale of survival'.  As it stands today, this is arguably the weirdest film on our list!  Opening on a surreal and psychedelic montage of mushroom clouds, it tells the story of a young drifter named Vic (Don Johnson) whose only companion is his genetically engineered telepathic and cantankerous dog named Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) as the two scavenge the WWIV torn wasteland in search of food and fornication with women.  Informing George Miller to a certain degree before taking a swan dive into The Stepford Wives territory, A Boy and His Dog is a gleefully insane nuclear thriller which is less about how the physical effects the aftermath has on people than how debased and mad society can become in the act of picking up the pieces.  Our lead hero Vic is a particularly detestable reprobate whose moral compass is defined either by his sexual urges or boyish loyalty to his dog.  Much like Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, A Boy and His Dog is a film where women are commodified and the men are either sex crazed rapists or ineffectual nebbishes.  Touching on everything from cyborgs, clowns and artificial insemination, the film is a berserk exercise depicting a world gone awry.  That the only voice of reason emerges from a crusty canine, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey style, seems to be the cherry on top of this bleak and troubling foresight into a world irrevocably transformed by the atom bomb.

-Andrew Kotwicki
-Michelle Kisner