Film, especially science fiction, has always loved to explore the future we are most afraid of. That’s why nukes have been lighting up the screen for decades, with recent events have made the theme more timely and scarier than ever. Here are the nine most nightmare-inducing movies about nuclear attacks.
Note: Dr. Strangelove, Miracle Mile, and other comedies aren’t included on the list, even though they may have stomach-turning scenes of mass destruction (which movies about nuclear war generally do). We’re focusing on movies that don’t temper their scares. We are, however, counting made-for-TV movies.
1. By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)
Long before HBO became the programming powerhouse that it is today, it produced this made-for-TV military disaster movie with a surprisingly robust cast, including Powers Boothe, James Earl Jones, Martin Landau, Rebecca De Mornay, and Rip Torn. It imagines an incident in which Soviet dissidents launch a missile at their own country, aiming to jump-start a nuclear war with the United States. Things get way more complicated from there, as various government and military leaders frantically try to figure out what to do next, with the President believed to be dead and a far more jingoistic successor sworn in to replace him. By Dawn’s Early Light tips its hat to Fail-Safe quite a bit, especially with a climax about trying to turn back a devastating attack before it’s too late. But it’s a tense, terrifying look at how one act of destruction can set off a chain-reaction response that could mean an imminent apocalypse.
2. The Day After (1983)
The Day After traumatized an entire generation, in part because practically everyone in the country watched it when it aired on ABC, but also because it presented a reasonably believable recreation of what a nuclear war would be like, as experienced by regular Americans. (This movie influenced presidents.) Most of the movie takes place in Kansas and Missouri, and it focuses on what happens before, during, and after the US and the Soviet Union start lobbing missiles at each other. Though it has a large ensemble cast (Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow, Steve Guttenberg), it’s at its most effective when it focuses on individual stories, scaling down the disaster to make it urgent and personal. The characters deal with injuries and radiation sickness, as well as the desperate need to connect with loved ones and survive. That’s what really why The Day After made such an impact—but of course, what everyone immediately thinks of is the sequence where the bomb hits, which happens about an hour into the two-hour film. As you can see in the video above, it shows person after person (and a few animals, too) being ruthlessly zapped into oblivion. The special effects don’t look as cutting-edge as they did back in 1983, but they create a memorably searing sight nonetheless.
3. Day the World Ended (1955)
You could actually make an entire separate list of “movies that begin with a mushroom cloud,” and they wouldn’t all be totally scary (like, say, 1975's affably weird A Boy and His Dog). This one’s plenty unnerving, though. Low-budget B-movie master Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended quite obviously takes place in the wake of the day in question, when a ragtag group of survivors must battle the environmental effects of the bomb, as well as the fact that the apocalypse tends to bring out the worst in people. Plus, there’s a hideous monster that looks suspiciously like a guy in a costume roaming around—which makes sense when it’s revealed the creature was once a normal human who’s been transformed by the effects of the bomb. Somehow, despite everything, the movie has a hopeful ending, but it sure is a hell of a downbeat ride through “the atomic haze of death” to get there.
4. Fail-Safe (1964)
Sidney Lumet’s talky thriller begins with the ultimate, terrible “oops,” as a drifting civilian airliner triggers a military alert which must be called off by a certain point, or else nukes will rain down on Moscow. A series of gut-punching dominoes fall. First, a computer error fails to notify all the bombers of the mistake. Then, Soviet radio-jamming interferes with attempts to call them back. It goes on like that in white-knuckle fashion, until finally the bombs have flown past the invisible line where anything can be done to stop them. The ticking clock amps up the suspense to near-unbearable levels, and there’s no happy ending for anyone, as President of the United States Henry Fonda is forced to make a grim decision to prevent the Soviet Union from all-out retaliation. Fail-Safe came out the same year as the more successful Dr. Strangelove, obviously using a far different tone to approach the build-up to World War III. But while Dr. Strangelove has since gone down in history as one of the greatest satirical comedies ever, Fail-Safe remains one of the most chilling relics of the Cold War.
5. Godzilla (1954)
Just nine years after the end of World War II, Japan—the only country that’s actually known the terror of having atomic bombs dropped on its cities—gifted Godzilla unto the world. While the series now contains dozens of entries showcasing a variety of giant monsters, including a handful of American versions of wildly varying quality, Ishiro Honda’s kaiju classic is still the gold standard. There’s no mistaking that the destructive, highly radioactive Godzilla was created as direct response to a real-life nuclear holocaust that was still, at the time, a recent memory. If you’ve only seen the 1956 version, re-edited to shoehorn Raymond Burr into the action for stateside audiences, you may have missed the original film’s surprisingly poignant subtext, which casts the creature in a a sympathetic light. That said, Godzilla’s nature-strikes-back powers are not to be underestimated; in addition to his penchant for stomping anything in his path, he can take out an entire city block with one fiery exhale. He’s still the most powerful “monster created by the bomb,” in both literal and metaphorical ways.
6. On the Beach (1959)
In this film directed by Stanley Kramer (High Noon, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg) and based on the best-seller by Nevil Shute, World War III has ruined the world, with only Australia still habitable—for now. In the precious time before radiation overtakes the entire planet, the crew of a lone submarine looks for a miracle as it chases a mysterious distress call up and down America’s West Coast. An all-star cast (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins) brings additional heft to what’s already a weighty story about the perils of survival; a theme in the film is how everyone is going to kill themselves (via poison pills, driving recklessly in an auto race, etc.) so they don’t have to waste away slowly from radiation poisoning. “Slowly” is the key to the horror here; instead of wiping out all its characters in a big blast, On the Beach shows us what happens to those left behind. They may have made it through the war, but they’re also the ones who have to grapple with the fact that there’s no future.
7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Yes, of course, this is mostly a movie about time-traveling assassin robots, Linda Hamilton’s boss biceps, and “Hasta la vista, baby.” But James Cameron’s excellent scifi sequel also contains one of the scariest nuclear-strike scenes ever, as imagined by Hamilton’s character, Sarah Connor. After drifting off in exhaustion, she sees herself as a young mom at a playground, surrounded by her son, John, and other happy children. Suddenly, a blast hits in the background and everyone—including Sarah as she’s looking on—is graphically incinerated. It’s a nightmare/prophecy so awful that it inspires Sarah to change her plans and directly confront the man whose present-day actions will enable this terrible Judgment Day to unfold in the future. And by the way, if Sarah’s original vision isn’t quite unsettling enough, you can see it in 3D starting next week, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day has its shiny, reformatted rerelease.
8. Threads (1984)
A year after The Day After, British TV made its own realistically terrifying depiction of nuclear war, though it was more directly inspired by 1965's The War Game, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary (despite being the fictional tale of a Soviet attack on Britain) and was initially banned from the airwaves for being too distressing. Enter Threads. Styled as a straightforward docudrama, Threads explores what would happen if the city of Sheffield, north of London, was hit with a warhead amid a conflict between the Soviet Union and America. The blast is intensely frightening, but what happens after is even worse: looting, disease, government-sanctioned executions, rape, famine, infertility (but also hideous birth defects), economic devastation, and a hell of a nuclear winter. Only watch Threads if you think the rest of this list has too rosy an outlook on nuclear war.
9. WarGames (1983)
One of Matthew Broderick’s earliest starring roles was as David Lightman, a Seattle teen whose talents include hacking into his high school’s computer grid to change his grades. He thinks he’s merely playing a game when he connects with a strange system that “speaks” with a droll affect as it agrees to play David in Global Thermonuclear War. Except, he’s actually linked up with a military supercomputer that doesn’t know the different between a game and reality—and is fully capable of causing a real nuclear war. Though disaster is eventually averted—unlike the similarly major blunder in Fail-Safe—the film gets a lot of mileage out of the idea that a regular kid (albeit one with above-average computer smarts) could potentially blunder into a place he should not be, and accidentally cause the end of the world. Is there anything scarier than that?
BONUS ROUND: Twin Peaks: The Return, episode eight (2017)
This isn’t a movie, nor is it an attack—it’s a nuclear bomb test in White Sands, New Mexico, dated July 16, 1945, just weeks before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were dropped. But it’s weirdly timely that David Lynch made a nuclear bomb such a prominent part of Twin Peaks’ most standout episode so far—and downright eerie how he points to the awesomely destructive weapon as the source of all the evil that’s invaded the universe of the show. (We think that’s what he was trying to tell us, anyway.)