When you mention “nuclear war movies,” the first thing anyone thinks about are The Day After, Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe and Threads. But very few people are even aware that there a whopping fifteen other films in this genre, ranging from dark comedy and anime to hard hitting drama and mockumentary.
Because I feel it’s high time these lesser known films got their due, I’ve compiled a list of every major nuclear war-themed movie that came out between 1959 and 1991. While there are some on this list you might recognize or have heard of, there are others that you might be surprised to learn fall under this genre.
1. On The Beach (1959)
Based on a novel of the same name, On The Beach (1959) follows the lives of several Australians in the aftermath of WW3. Even though they survived the war intact, they only have a few weeks to live because of oncoming fallout. Knowing this, they spend their last days on earth coping with the inevitable the best way they can. On The Beach is not really a favorite of mine but it’s worth a look if you’re a nuclear war film completionist.
2. Panic in the Year Zero (1961)
Most nuclear war paranoia films were concerned about the physical horrors of nuclear war. Panic in the Year Zero (1961) concerned itself with the breakdown in civilization that would result in the aftermath. In it, Ray Milland stars as Harry Baldwin, a typical All American, 1950s-style no nonsense dad who takes charge when a bomb drops in a nearby town while he and his family are on vacation. Kind of hokey in parts, the movie is nevertheless interesting for its unique take on nuclear war and for also being one of the first depictions of a survivalist ever put onscreen.
3. This is Not a Test (1962)
Never heard of This is Not a Test (1962)? Don’t worry. You’re not the only one. This forgotten low budget film didn’t really become discovered until it started showing up in bargain bins and the internet. Starring Seamon Glass, it’s about a group of motorists in California who are suddenly stopped in the middle of the night by a state trooper when he learns that nuclear war is about to start. His intentions seem good enough, until they realize that he’s as nutty as a fruitcake.
4. Ladybug Ladybug (1963)
While most nuclear war films focused exclusively on adults, Ladybug Ladybug (1963) was one of the rare movies to focus on the children who lived with the threat of nuclear war. In it, students in a rural community are sent home from school when the alarm signaling nuclear war goes off. No one knows for sure whether it’s the real deal, a false alarm or glitch, but regardless, the fear that ensues results in devastating consequences for the children involved.
5. Fail Safe (1964)
I’m not really a fan of Fail Safe (1964) (see my comments here), but it’s such a well directed film starring an impressive roster of actors that it bears mentioning. Based on the novel of the same name, it’s about a group of bombers who are accidentally sent an order to nuke Moscow after a technical glitch.
6. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
A classic by legendary director Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove (1964) is a black comedy about a group of bombers who are given the erroneous order to nuke the USSR. However, instead of a technical glitch causing the order like in Fail Safe, it’s sent by a crazed member of military high command who has a mental breakdown. As far as I’m concerned, probably the best nuclear war scenario film next to By Dawn’s Early Light, and filled with classic scenes and dialogue such as, “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”
7. The War Game (1965)
A mockumentary, The War Game (1965) was banned from British television, and no wonder! It was shot at a time when both the US and the UK had brainwashed the public into believing that a nuclear war was survivable if it only practiced “Civil Defense.” Because the movie dared to show just how hopeless a situation whitewashing and bricking in your windows would’ve been in defending yourself against a nuclear attack, the UK government couldn’t afford to send the public into a panic by allowing the truth to get out.
8. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Unfortunately, because the franchise devolved into a heavy-handed screed against slavery, very few people today realize that the first Planet of the Apes (1968) was an anti-nuclear war film. A shame, because it was its original message that made the first movie such a beloved, iconic classic and its ending one of the greatest movie twists of all time.
9. The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Unlike the other films mentioned in this list, The Atomic Cafe (1982) isn’t fiction but a collection of stock footage that both explains the history of nuclear weapons and mocks Civil Defense, the government program that taught American civilians how to protect themselves against a nuclear blast. This movie did such a good job of mocking the program that Duck and Cover–the Civil Defense film that was shown to kids throughout the 1950s–has become an object of ridicule to this day.
10. Barefoot Gen/Hadashi no Gen (1983)
While many atomic and nuclear war dramas projected what could happen in a nuclear war, the anime, Barefoot Gen, showed what actually happened to people who experienced atomic warfare. Based on the manga by Keiji Nakazawa, it is a personal account of his experiences of the Hiroshima bombing as a young child. Don’t let the fact that it’s an anime fool you. It starts out looking exactly like a typical cute anime but then gets very dark very quickly in a horrifying sequence that is only rivaled by the nuclear bomb scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
11. Special Bulletin (1983)
Following in the tradition of the infamous Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Special Bulletin (1983) was a TV special that was shot in the exact style of a news broadcast on a fictional network called NBS. The “broadcast” follows the exploits of a group of anti-nuke scientists who hold the city of Charleston, South Carolina hostage with a nuclear device unless their demands are met. Before anyone knows it, the situation begins to spin out of control and now Charleston is faced with the horrifying possibility that a nuke might go off.
12. The Day After (1983)
A major television event for its time, ABC’s The Day After (1983) was a sobering look at life in a Midwestern town after nuclear war hits. The movie was considered so important that a discussion panel featuring the most preeminent figures in science and politics followed its airing. President Ronald Reagan, who saw the movie, cited it as rethinking his position on nuclear weapons. In spite of its effectiveness, The Day After earned criticism from both sides of the fence–from those who felt it was too sanitized and those who felt it was merely alarmist propaganda.
13. Testament (1983)
Completely overshadowed by both Threads (1984) and the Day After (1983), Testament (1983) was a TV drama starring Jane Alexander as a suburban housewife who has it all–the perfect husband, three adorable children and a beautiful home with the classic white picket fence. Just as things couldn’t get any better, nuclear war breaks out. She and her town escape without a scratch, but as she soon finds out, the worst is yet to come for her and the other survivors who were “lucky” enough to survive the blast but now face certain death.
14. Threads (1984)
Threads (1984), a UK TV movie that takes place in Sheffield, England, is often compared to The Day After (1983) and with good reason. Just like its American counterpart, it showed the devastating effects of a nuclear war on a small city. Whereas The Day After was restrained in what it could show due to budget problems and network censorship, Threads’ went full throttle, showing the effects of a nuclear detonation in full blown, grisly, harrowing detail, right down to the blowing up of beloved English monuments and a landscape strewn with charred corpses.
15. Countdown to Looking Glass (1984)
Taking a page out of Special Bulletin (1983), Countdown to Looking Glass (1984) is a mock news broadcast covering growing tensions in the Middle East. At first the newscasters and behind-the-scenes people think it’ll be a simple crisis that will blow over but as the situation unfolds, it begins to look more and more like the nuclear war flash point that everyone’s been dreading for decades.
16. When the Wind Blows (1986)
Barefoot Gen (1983) was not the only animated film in the 1980s to tackle nuclear war. In 1986 came When the Wind Blows (1986), a depressing movie based on a book of the same name about an out of touch elderly couple who naively underestimate the horrors they will face when WW3 is about to strike. While the wife thinks that the conflict will be just a minor inconvenience, the husband has faith that Civil Defense will protect them both. As you can imagine, they’re completely unprepared when the bomb finally drops, and they spend their last days no less confused about what’s happening to them than before.
17. Miracle Mile (1989)
Starring Anthony Edwards, Miracle Mile is a dark romantic comedy about a nerdy musician who meets the girl of his dreams one day (Mare Winningham). Unfortunately, if a mystery phone call he answered hours later is any indication, he might’ve met her on the last day of Earth. A large part of the humor involves whether Edwards’ character might have accidentally set off a widespread panic over a prank phone call. Whether he did or didn’t is immaterial; like This is Not a Test and Ladybug, Ladybug, Miracle Mile was about capturing the hopelessness, fear and mayhem that would ensue if everyone thought they were hours away from nuclear war.
18. By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)
Because it’s basically one part Dr. Strangelove and one part Fail Safe, you could hardly be blamed in thinking that By Dawn’s Early Light (1990) was a pale imitation of both films. But the movie, in my opinion, not only holds its own as a nuclear war thriller, it surpasses Fail Safe by leaps and bounds. It’s more gripping, intelligent, realistic and doesn’t insult the audience in the way the 1964 movie did. Many people will tell you that Fail Safe is the perfect companion to Dr. Strangelove but if it were up to me, I would encourage people to choose By Dawn’s Early Light instead.
19. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Many people would be shocked to learn that the original Terminator franchise wasn’t just a sci-fi film about time travelers and killer cyborgs; it was a clarion call about the increasingly dangerous Cold War, which felt increasingly imminent by the end of the 1980s. By the early 90s, there was such a feeling of inevitability about WW3 that people gave up all hope of doing anything to stop it from happening. Director James Cameron jolted Americans out of their fatalism and apathy with a balls to the wall nightmarish nuclear war sequence designed to shake them up, as well as gave them a hopeful message that nuclear war wasn’t inevitable, as stated in the famous line Sarah Connor, “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”