You can keep your zombie apocalypse films…

I’ll stick to Cold War nuclear apocalypse ones. We’re talking about something which came very close to happening at times (either through accident or brinksmanship), and which would have been more devastating than the vast majority of hypothetical hordes of shambling undead.

Here’s a few of my favourites after the break. Depending on how your mind works you’ll either find these crushingly depressing, or you’ll suddenly find that nothing is quite as bad as you thought it was after watching them. One way to really impose scale on day to day struggles.


This early half hour programme is a government feature (I believe) about the UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation. The UKWMO used Royal Observer Corps reports to map fallout predictions and issue warning to the public (“TOPSPIN! Papa One!”). The entire tone is very much that it’s all going to be survivable and okay. World Status: It’ll be alright in a bit.


The War Game was filmed in 1965 by Peter Watkins for the BBC, but they weren’t necessarily that happy with what they got. To quote “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. At the time there was a degree of naivety about nuclear war, including the idea that it was a war that one side could win. The War Game completely destroys any possibility of continuing to believe that. Looters are shot, the worst injured are shot, towns and cities (Rochester) are destroyed, bodies are burnt en masse, people are shown starving and suffering from extreme post-traumatic shock. It was finally shown in full on TV in 1985. World Status: Utterly doomed.


British government public information films about how to survive after a nuclear exchange. Things like building a sofa fort, putting tape on the windows, hiding in a ditch. Things like that. Oh, and how long to leave a dead body before risking fallout and burying it. Normal things. World Status: Perfectly Survivable. Honest.


This is another half hour short on the WKWMO, produced nearly a decade after The Hole In The Ground. In the nine years between the two even the government films have taken on a darker tone. It still contains the slightly chipper tone at times, but overall it’s a lot grimmer. World Status: Some songbirds will die, and people will look unkempt.


Often talked about in the same sentence as Threads, when The Day After was broadcast in the US it was watched by nearly half of the population at the time. Ronald Reagan’s response on seeing it was that it was “very effective and left me greatly depressed”, and was credited with helping to destroy the concept of a ‘winnable’ nuclear war among the higher levels of the US Government.


This one’s a bit of an oddity. The protagonists aren’t the Soviets, but a group of domestic American terrorists. Not religious extremists or anything we’d expect to see nowadays, but a group of peace activist nuclear scientists who want to blackmail the government into unilateral disarmament with a self-built nuclear device. World Status: Tense.


Joint American/Canadian production which has news style segments in it. This War Of The Worlds style docu-drama is repeated quite often in the North American nuclear apocalypse films (Special Bulletin above for example). There’s tension in the Middle East which leads to a nuclear exchange. World Status: Dubious at the end.

THREADS (1984)

Follows two families and civil infrastructure around Sheffield from just before the nuclear exchange through to ten years later. Society collapses back to close to medieval levels after the exchange, and we see the children grow up nearly unable to speak. World Status: Doomed.


You’ll probably recognise the animation in When The Wind Blows – it’s by Raymond Briggs, who’s work The Snowman was adapted in 1982. The Snowman – whimsical Christmas standby. When The Wind Blows – slightly different in tone… An elderly couple follow the government advice around nuclear war (building a shelter, filling the bath, etc, etc). Their take’s very much influenced by their experience in the Second World War, and may be a bit too optimistic. It doesn’t go well. World Status: Doomed.

FAIL SAFE (2000)

Very recent in comparison to the rest, but well worth a watch. This was a live action TV play in the US, starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, and Noah Wyle. Lot of plot similarities to Dr Strangelove, but without the comedy elements. World Status: Hopeful, bit doomed.

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