The Top Seven Nuclear War Movies

The films that follow are some of the most frightening (and disturbing) movies you'll ever see.  They are far more chilling than any gory battle or horror movie, because they show a world which was all too possible.  While the threat of nuclear annihilation may have somewhat subsided with the fall of the Soviet Union, if you watch the movies on this list, you'll instantly recall the paranoia and nascent fear of the Cold War.  Each of these films are truly excellent war movies, but - be warned - some of them might leave you sleepless.  Ranked in order from the least disturbing to the absolutely most harrowing fear-inducing, here are seven films of nuclear apocalypse... 

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Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Dr. Strangelove.

Stanley Kubrick considered the idea of all out war between the Soviet Union and the United States, he assumed the eventual nuclear exchange, and the global destruction which would follow and he thought to himself, "That is very amusing!"  Or, at least, one surmises he must have because he made Dr. Strangelove: Or How, I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which is one of the best war satires of all time.  (And laugh out loud funny!)  The film asks the question:  What would happen if a rogue U.S. general launched a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, what would those final hours look like in the War Room under the Pentagon where the President and other important men try to manage the situation?  The answer is hilarious insanity.

My favorite line, Peter Sellers calling the Russian President to explain about the accidental nuclear attack, "Dimitri, well, it seems we went and did a silly thing..."

Click here for the Best and Worst War Comedies.

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The Miracle Mile (1988)


A "gimmick" film that's a lot of fun.  In Los Angeles, a man receives a call at a pay phone where someone has misdialed and frantically explains that they "did it" that they pushed the nuclear exchange button.  Armed with what could be advance knowledge of a catastrophe, he has to decide what to do with this information.  Soon, his lead on the information evaporates as word leaks out and the entire city deteriorates into chaos as he struggles to get out of the city before the attack happens.  A fun film, firmly rooted in a strong 1980s vibe.  Oh and it's only "fun" if by "fun" you mean a thermo-nuclear explosion leveling the Los Angeles basin.

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Testament (1983)


This film, starring a young Kevin Costner, follows one San Francisco based family as they struggle to survive in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.  A made for television movie, it's got it's disturbing moments, but it's still a bit too much at a level of "sitcom television."  Personally, I think the post-war portrait presented is a bit too rosy and optimistic and that a real world scenario would be exceedingly more awful than that portrayed in the film.

Click here for the Best and Worst War Movies about the Cold War.

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The Day After (1983)

The Day After.

The same year that Testament was released, The Day After aired on television in the United States, and to this date, still remains the most watched TV movie of all time, with some one hundred million people tuning in to watch the film about two Kansas families that attempt to survive a nuclear attack.  More frightening than the attack itself, is what happens after, when a shell-shocked population turns to a government that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.  Radiation sickness, food and fuel shortages, starvation, looting, raping and rampaging all to follow.  This is the more intense version of Testament.

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The Road (2009)


This film, based on the award winning Cormac McCarthy novel, follows a man and his son wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  But this is no "normal" post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's not Mad Max where there are functioning cities where you can barter goods; instead, it's the most gruesome, deprived, and horrible apocalypse you can imagine.  

There are no functioning communities, there are only individuals wandering in various stages of starvation.  You don't meet fellow travelers on the road, you simply hide and wait for them to pass.  Most depressing is that the very planet itself seems to have been permanently ruined by nuclear winter, the sky is perpetually dark, and most of the plant life and trees are slowly dying.  It's no longer possible to grow crops and there doesn't seem to be many animals left, which means humans fight to the death over the few remaining canned foods.  Cannibalism is, of course, routinely practiced.

It's within this bleak world that the man and his son move slowly toward the coast.  Why the coast?  They don't know either.  It's a goal, something to try for.  Their love for each other, is the only thing which keeps them going.  It's a brutal but powerful story.

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When the Wind Blows (1986)


This British film follows an elderly retiree couple before and after a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.  The couple try to survive by referencing real-life pamphlets that were distributed by the UK government on how to survive an attack - it shouldn't be any surprise to the audience that they do not fare well, as they slowly succumb to radiation poisoning.  Essentially this is a full-length feature film that watches two sweet old people slowly die, while they struggle with asinine instructions such as to make a fort out of the couch and blankets in order to survive a thermo-nuclear attack.  What makes this film all the more disturbing is that it's a cartoon!  Certainly, the most disturbing cartoon I've ever seen!

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Threads (1984)


This is the most disturbing film on the entire list.  (Actually, this is just one of the most disturbing films ever made of any list!)  A made for TV movie in the UK, it was produced by the BBC and upon its release, shocked audiences whom had never seen anything like it.  I re-watched this film recently and was stunned into silence and slept uneasily that night, and I've got a strong tolerance for cinematic suffering and discomfort.

The film follows a few families living their lives in Sheffield, United Kingdom (Sheffield being an unremarkable mid-sized city that's also home to several military bases) when quite suddenly, nuclear war breaks out.  A third sub-plot involves a local government official who tries to maintain government, but, of course, is quickly overcome by the speed of events.  The film deals with the nuclear exchange in the most graphic, realistic way you can imagine - which is to say the images are horrible.  Of course, there are mass deaths, but it's the people on the edges of the nuclear strike that suffer the most.  

There is much death, destruction, and suffering.  And, of course, it should be said, that all the characters in the film die.

Interestingly, the nuclear exchange is just part of the film, which continues for many years afterwards, being the first film in history to deal with the idea of "nuclear winter," in which a ruined planet makes farming impossible, a depleted ozone layer sends cancer rates soaring, and the population of the planet drops to the same level that existed during the Dark Ages.

One of the most depressing films ever made; sadly, perhaps also one of the most realistic accounts of what an all out nuclear exchange would look like.