10 stories that may have averted nuclear war in the 1980s. Maybe.

In the early Nineteen-Eighties, international tensions were at a historical high. The Soviet Union waged a brutal and pointless war in Afghanistan, and the US boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. The USSR returned the favor – together with all their allies – in 1984 in Los Angeles. The newly elected US President Ronald Reagan started his all-in crusade against the rival “Evil Empire” and, while announcing a “Star Wars” initiative (which was quite possibly fake news), very factually deployed NATO medium-range ballistic missiles in the UK and Western Europe.

We were all really scared. A feeling of paranoia crushed us, the threat of an all-out nuclear conflict ever so imminent. We actually went close, really close to annihilation, due to a malfunction that didn’t escalate thanks to a cold-minded Russian lieutenant colonel. Thanks, Petrov.

I remember having talks at school about “what to do in case of a nuclear attack” (spoiler: nothing. You do nothing, you die. And if you don’t, you’ll wish you did). I grew up near Napoli, in Italy, very close to a NATO base. A high-risk area. Add to the mix the Chernobyl disaster, just a couple years later, and you have a picture of that collective, generational trauma.

Rationally, I believe now that no 7-8 years old should live through all that. And yet, weirdly, maybe I am grateful I did. The indescribable terror that permeated every day maybe made us appreciate life more. And we celebrated so much when tensions eased out. For a while.

And also, the emotions that were impossible for me to describe, turned into precious artistic guidance for the artists of the time. It seemed as there was a constant, visionary production of ideas – stories that comforted us, gave us hope or at least a unified purpose, helped us to keep it together.

I can’t help but think that maybe something similar is needed now. Media keep us informed and alarmed about everything, all of the time – while maybe we should be completely informed and alarmed about one thing at a time?

Maybe we need to be shocked out of our hyperstimulated brain fog. Where are our rock stars? All of the superhero movies – consolatory, harmless, with their mild political and social commentary – don’t pack one-tenth of the punch of the 10 stories I am going to describe below.

And if you don’t believe me, you are welcome to try.

10 – 2 minutes to Midnight

“The body bags and little rags
Of children torn in two
And the jellied brains of those who remain
To put the finger right on you
As the mad men play on words
And make us all dance to their song
To the tune of starving millions
To make a better kind of gun”

Iron Maiden released their “2 minutes to Midnight” as part of their Powerslave album (1984) – a clear reference to the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists project made to warn about the danger of a man-made global catastrophe.

By the way, in 1984 the Clock signed “only” 3 minutes to midnight. But it didn’t sound as cool.

9 – Watchmen

The Doomsday project was also among the inspirations for Watchmen, the comic book masterpiece by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, published in 1986-87 (and set in 1985). It deconstructed the superhero concept and put a needle so deep in the social tensions of the time, it hurt. The American society was exposed as corrupt, authoritarian and materialistic, with barely anything worth saving (and spoiler, it won’t).

The 2009 movie by Zack Snyder does a perfect job in recreating its atmosphere and leaves most of its messages intact.

And there is also a notable tv mini series from 2019, more controversial (it took many liberties from the source material), but still worth a watch.

8 – Russians

“In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria”

In 1985, Sting published “Russians” as part of his first solo album. The evocative instrumental sections, with fateful bells ringing in the distance, and its powerful lyrics are still etched in some dark and deep place in my memory.

“There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the president?
There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore
Mister Reagan says, “We will protect you”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too
“.

I guess Sting was right, and evidence shows that Russians did love their children. This is as relevant, today.

Japan, the only country that historically experienced the destruction of the A-bomb, was of course not a stranger to all this. In the 1980s they were still elaborating the collective nuclear trauma, perhaps symbolized by Godzilla. But the giant sea lizard does not cut the list, because it’s from a different generation. So let’s move on.

7 – Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (manga, 1982 and film, 1984) was Hayao Miyazaki’s first breakthrough success, which led to the foundation of Studio Ghibli. The story is set thousands of years in the future, with the Earth ravaged by toxic pollution and overgrown, aggressive mutants, and the few people surviving are still divided and stuck in a neverending conflict. Will we ever learn?

The clear anti-military stance remained an aspect throughout all Miyazaki’s work (Howl’s Moving Castle, Porco Rosso).

6 – Hokuto No Ken

Another immensely popular manga with a definitely different tone but essentially the same theme, “Fist of the North Star” (Hokuto No Ken) by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara was published between 1983 and 1988. It also spawned an anime tv series (1984 and 1988), and a series of films, videogames and spin-offs. It is set in a barren post-nuclear wasteland, where humans struggle to survive divided under brutal warlords. Enter Kenshiro, a Bruce Lee – meet – Clint Eastwood reluctant hero, champion of a secret martial art that can kill baddies in one blow. The show was brutal – think Dragonball, but with exploding heads and set in a dystopian radioactive hellscape. I was 10 years old when it aired in Italy. We all watched it. We all loved it.

5 – Wasteland

Being the 1980s, videogames were of course also affected by such a feverish creative wave. “Wasteland” (Electronic Arts, 1988 – you can buy it remastered, here) founded the post-apocalyptic nuclear RPG genre. The game revolved around an ill-assorted party of adventurers, each with different abilities and personalities. It may or may not have inspired the later, Dungeons & Dragonsesque Eye of the Beholder series, but the classic episodes, as well as the modern ones (2014 and 2020) make for rewarding experiences if you like role-playing games with a deep and detailed setting.

4 – Fallout (and franchise)

There is no doubt anyway that Wasteland led to Tim Cain’s “Fallout” (1997), which was not released in the 1980s and so, technically, shouldn’t even be on this list. But here it is, because it’s so thematically relevant.

The game series started as a dark, very grim first-person exploration of a post-nuclear high tech hell populated by mutants, ghouls, and gangs constantly fighting for power – buy it here and play the entire series, you will not regret it.

My favorite episode is New Vegas (and I am not alone in this). These are survival games at their finest, where every single ammunition, piece of food or water bottle counts. Players can literally get lost in these vast worlds, and if they take the time to explore the lore, the stories are rewarding. The message seems to be, if the bombs fall, humans may survive thanks to technology and resilience, but say goodbye to humanity.

The latest episodes take full advantage of modern hardware, tell fantastic stories, are still nightmarishly creepy, but manage to keep a somewhat cheerful tone. Which is why hardcore fans of the original ones tend to dislike them. Ah, fans. Fans never change.

3 – Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (and franchise)

Cinema cannot be, of course, left out of the conversation. “Mad Max” was already a popular post-apocalyptic franchise since the late 1970s, but its third movie “Beyond Thunderdome” (1985), was the first to openly reference nuclear war as the reason for the apocalypse itself. It somehow cemented the idea that that wild, off-the-wall series of ultraviolent movies, could also be a pacifist manifesto. Like a ret-con, back when people didn’t get so upset about this kind of thing.

And then there is that incredible, majestic piece of cinematography called Fury Road. That deserves a post on its own. I will have to write a Fury Road analysis, at some point.

I want to finish this list with two TV movies, which, in particular, made a difference.

2 – The Day After

The Day After (1983) makes an open reference to “War Games” (from the same year) except that this time, the game is for real. Produced for television by ABC, written by Edward Hume and directed by Nicholas Meyer, it’s a very American story following a few ordinary people in Kansas. On the backdrop, a political crisis in Europe (sounds familiar?) escalates into a military one (again, familiar?) and finally it all escalates to hell and beyond (not familiar… yet).

The novelty was given by the fact that this was not a 1980s action movie, with soldiers flexing their muscles and shooting baddies. These were ordinary people, war was far and hard to understand, but the explosions happened near and they were huge, terrifying. The sequence with missiles launching from the local bases – with the chilling, untold, inescapable consequence that similarly devastating missiles were heading home, within 30 minutes – is still incredibly effective. This was not going to be a “business as usual” day, and the people watching the smoke trails in the sky know it.

The devastation shown on screen – combining documentary and archive footage – was crude and delivered the message that this was NOT a scenario we wanted to see with our eyes. In particular, the story followed survivors a few weeks after the bombs, into their miserable future.

I remember watching it at home with my family, and talking about it at school the next day. Watched by some 100 million Americans, this thing dominated the public discourse for some time. People flooded politicians with letters, and it is reported that President Reagan was so directly influenced by it, he decided to take steps to reduce the armaments race with the USSR. Talk about the impact of pop culture, right?

People my age still use the expression “The Day After” when they want to express barely surviving a catastrophic event. It’s still a very American movie (protagonists look nice and make it to the end: in a pretty bad shape, but they are there) and its visual effects didn’t age so well, but it’s still definitely worth watching, if nothing else for its historical and cultural relevance.

1 – Threads

I will finish the list with what I think is the scariest of all. I only recently watched BBC’s Threads (1984) and I am honestly still shocked by it. It’s the British counterpart to “The Day After” and as such, it is grittier, more cynical, and without make-up (or dental care).

The story by Barry Hines is a fine exploration of everyday life in England from the 1980s, with the economic recession and people worried about their lives. Again, on the backdrop (this time in Iran), a political crisis escalates into a nuclear exchange. What follows are a few frantic days with confused news reports, hopes, panic buying in shops, useless statements by the authorities, and everybody just trying to carry on with their lives.

And then – around minute 46 – the sirens start to blare. Then the movie completely changes, from kitchen sink realist novel to a full-blown survival horror. And that’s when you realize there is still one hour to watch.

The following sequence may be one of the most terrifying things I have watched, like ever. Period. Handle it with care.

This excellent article by Helen Wood provides all the context you may need. The film’s TV premiere is remembered in Britain as “the night the country didn’t sleep“.

Its director Mick Jackson (who interestingly enough, went on to much more mainstream projects like The bodyguard) “was haunted” back then by the need to tell a story like people had never seen before.

He consulted military and political analysts, scientists (like my beloved Carl Sagan) and philosophers to create a story as grounded as possible. And the final result weighs like a ton of bricks. Plus, the footage includes documentary, archive shots, and excerpts from Protect and Survive, a real-world “public information series” meant to help the general public survive a nuclear attack. Advice includes “how to build a home fallout shelter” and “what to do if somebody dies in your home”. It is all as useless as it is spine-chilling.

The result is harrowing. I had to research this word because it’s exactly what I wanted to say: acutely distressing or painful because connected with suffering. Harrowing.

The story doesn’t spare any emotional (and visual) punch as you follow a bunch of desperate survivors weeks, months and years after the catastrophe. Everybody suffers, adults, children (born and unborn), pets. They suffer a lot.

Oh, the subtle irony.

The second part of the film falls apart with a non-linear and inconsistent narration but that simply reflects that civilization as we know it collapses, and life reverts to a new Dark Age. Except it’s a lot darker than the actual Middle Ages because the kingdoms of England, Sweden and Spain didn’t have to deal with poisoned water sources, nuclear winters that lasted a decade, zero operating infrastructure, dead or dying people, animals and plants everywhere, and a chronic lack of manpower due to radioactive fallout and winds.

When the screentime runs mercifully over, the watcher can only wonder if all this will stop, if things will get better at some point. The story hints that they probably won’t. The generation born after the disaster will probably face worse challenges for which they will be even less prepared. In the 13 years of narrated time, humans manage to go back to a primitive state, and their long-term survival (and all life on Earth, if we are being honest) seems flimsy at best. When the story was over and I could finally sigh in relief, the message remained: there can be no winner in a nuclear war. This cannot happen.

And then I went and hugged my wife and kids.

Charlie Brooker, born in 1971 and Black Mirror creator, cited the film as a formative moment for him. Both, in Brooker’s words, are “about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy”. Isn’t that true.

I forgot to say: it’s a very good movie. Well crafted and executed. It aged well. It was inspired by The War Game, a 1965 BBC docu-drama that was filmed, but never aired because considered too shocking for television at the time (it finally did, in 1985).

So, take precautions. It’s tough, it wants to be remembered, and it makes sure you will.

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