I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Nuke Porn: It’s Always Nuclear Winter Somewhere


by Tom Keiser
Aug. 7, 2011

Nuke porn has always fascinated me.

Ron Rosenbaum coined the term “nuke porn” in an article he wrote for Harper’s  in 1978, and re-iterated his point in a review of The Road for Slate in 2009.  “Nuke porn” describes the near-sexual feeling one gets when watching a nuclear apocalypse film.  The tension which builds up in a nuclear war film, such as Fail-Safe or Dr. Strangelove, “climaxes” with the end of the world as we know it (the hour and a half of taut drama or high farce, of course, being the foreplay).  

I remember in my senior year of high school (the autumn of 2001), my history teacher showed us Testament, the Academy Award nominated film starring Jane Alexander and William Devane.  It was not the first nuclear holocaust film I had ever seen, but it was the first to give me a real sense of worry; the scene where Rebecca De Mornay and a young Kevin Costner have to bury their newborn makes me tear up just thinking about it.  Needless to say it gets less cheerful from there.

Over the last ten years (thanks largely to YouTube and Google Video) I have seen a large number of nuclear melodramas, and because of the Internet Archive, civil defense films beyond the normal “Duck And Cover” rhetoric linger in my mind.

Even watching a nuclear war play out through the safety of fiction is dangerous.  Peter George, whose novel Red Alert was reworked by himself, Terry Southern, and Stanley Kubrick into Dr. Strangelove, became distraught after writing several books on the subject of nuclear war.  He would shoot himself in the mouth at the age of 42.

The sheer depressing nature of nuclear fiction is one roadblock to embracing the genre; the fall of the Soviet Union is another.  Nuclear terrorism does not have the foreplay one desires in an attack.  In addition to the catastrophic loss of life, what scares us most about terrorism is how it can come when we least expect it.  Even when the cause of a Defcon 1 situation is accidental (or Defcon 5; people are always getting those two confused), such as in Fail-Safe or WarGames, there is a chain of events that allow us to still hope for either peace or war to break out.  There is a paradox in that the bigger the boogey man is, the less scary he seems.  Sure, the Soviets could have crushed us all, but at least, as Tom Lehrer put it, “We’ll All Go Together When We Go”.

When The Day After first premiered on ABC in 1983, it sparked a legitimate national debate over Mutually Assured Destruction.  It was not the first TV drama to address nuclear war; in the fifties, news programs, anthology series like The Twilight Zone, and dramas such as Medic dramatized what they thought the beginning of the end would look like.  In 1965, Peter Watkins filmed The War Game for the British Broadcasting Corporation, which shelved it from broadcast until 1985 but not before it won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.  NBC showed World War III in 1982, and earlier in 1983, also aired Special Bulletin, which showed how network news would cover nuclear blackmail in Charleston, SC.  

However, The Day After did what none of these previous shows could do, in ingratiating itself into the renewed debate about nuclear war.  And it did it with such hype that it became not only a ratings blockbuster but a genuine cultural event.  

Academy Award winner Jason Robards stars as Dr. Russell Oakes, a doctor and med school teacher in late middle age.  He watches along with the rest of the ensemble cast (including but not limited to John Lithgow, Amy Madigan, Steve Guttenberg, John Cullum and Bibi Besch) as Kansas is hit by a nuclear attack.   Footage from the 1979 Air Force docudrama First Strike is incorporated, as a cheap and effective way of showing what would happen when nuclear weapons are deployed.  Some of the very same people who would have to push the button in response to Russia are shown readying themselves for atomic war.

There are many plot lines in The Day After, and its truncated run time (as written and originally filmed, it would’ve run for four hours, including commercials) leaves a lot of them hanging.  Even if they ran it in its entirety, there are a lot of cardboard corpses in the landscape.  For instance, Oakes’ son is only seen in one scene, in full football gear, catching a pass.  We can assume he doesn’t survive to play the big game.

For all its faults, however, The Day After came at the right time, to suggest that nuclear attrition is a zero sum game.  Ronald Reagan is said to have been “greatly depressed” after watching The Day After, and eventually his administration’s line moved towards a policy of disarmament.  We hope to never know what a nuclear attack on America’s heartland would really be like, but for many The Day After was close enough.

A year later, in 1984, the British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast their own contemporary vision of a nuclear holocaust, Threads.  Threads is a leaner, meaner take on the nuclear holocaust story. It is only seventeen minutes shorter than The Day After, but Threads is a race for your life compared to The Day After’s stroll through the bucolic forbidden zone.  A young woman is pregnant and about to marry her boyfriend when the Russians and the Americans use Iran as their own private Meggido.  She and her fiance plan to keep the baby, as her young brother Michael asks their parents what an abortion is.  Little does she know the hell which is about to break loose.

Threads is certainly more intense than The Day After.  We get a smaller core of characters we care more about, and because we don’t get a Jason Robards or a Steve Guttenberg in the mix, we see them more as real people than as actors playing characters.  And because Threads was shown without commercial interruption (at least in England in Australia; it was first shown in America on TBS in early 1985), one had little or no time to step back and gird themselves for the next act.  The Day After was followed by an ABC News special debating nuclear war; when Threads premiered a documentary on nuclear winter came after, and on its second British showing, in August 1985, it aired with one of the few nuclear war films to equal and surpass its intensity, The War Game.

The most infamous scene in Threads does not involve rotting flesh or the devolution of humanity, although each appear soon after.  Somewhere in the United Kingdom there is a woman by the name of Anne Sellors, and for the rest of her life she is going to be remembered as the person who wet herself when World War III broke out in this movie.  This is her only credit on IMDB, and her listing became a minor internet meme some time ago.  But that moment speaks to the audience in ways no stock footage of buildings blowing up or mushroom clouds exploding can.  As the rest of Sheffield is running in panic, she is the first to truly know that they are screwed.

But what makes me keep coming back to these movies?  I have not seen Beverly Hills Cop or Caddyshack from beginning to end, but I’d watched each of these movies at least twice before seeing them again in the process of researching this article.  My parents were married and I was born around the time these films were made.  I could have been one of the babies born into a world of chaos and fallout.  And it’s shocking to realize that we were fairly close to blowing ourselves up such a relatively short time ago.

A world similar to ours in every way (save for 80's sensibilities) is sacrificed so that we can both enjoy the vicarious destruction of that world and prevent the senseless destruction of this one.  We see what could have been to remind ourselves just how lucky we are to be alive.  And we watch movies such as The Day After, Threads, and others like them to scare ourselves into appreciating the world we live in today and to help guarantee that there will indeed be a tomorrow.

References And Further Reading

“The New Nuke Porn”.  Ron Rosenbaum, Slate.  May 8, 2009.  The man who first coined the term “nuke porn” in 1978 revisits the term in the wake of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and other recent fiction.

“Nuclear Landscape: A Look Back At The Day After”.  conelrad.blogspot.com  August 16, 2010.  A definitive look at the making of and response to The Day After.

Defcon 5 - TV Tropes.  DEFCON 5 good, DEFCON 1 bad.

The Day After. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Threads. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Protect and Survive. Network Awesome.
Tom Keiser has written for Network Awesome Magazine, The Awl, and the United Football League website.  He lives in New Jersey, and has a Twitter and a Tumblr.