The Offbeat Marquee #5: “The Radiation Wave of Cinema”

The Offbeat Marquee is the theater that will show just about anything. Columnist Jacob Calta unearths everything from forgotten Hollywood dramas to underground animation to the many oddball genre films from around the world.

This time around, Calta digs into a subject that has long fascinated him. The 1980s, for all its neon-lit, synth-heavy glory, was a time for serious reflection on the state of the world in terms of nuclear power and warfare. Filmmakers had the power to illustrate the serious effects of things going wrong. Here, he tries to explain the under-sung explosion nuke-centric ground level motion pictures in the final decade of the Cold War.

The 1980s, for all intents and purposes, have become a nostalgia cornerstone for many people. The popularity of the music, movies, television, culture at large has influenced everything from synthwave to modern cinema. You may have noticed the influx of neon colors and old-school sounding electronica in films and TV shows in the mid-to-late 2010s, what with shows like Stranger Things and pop culture overloads like Ready Player One. However, one side of the decade that has not been talked about enough in terms of media these days is the Cold War component.


This was the final decade of truly massive geopolitical tensions between the United States-led Western Bloc and the Soviet Union-led Eastern bloc, before the lumbering Russian Bear’s collapse in 1991. At the beginning of his presidency, Ronald Reagan went away from the détente approach of his predecessors, and instead went all in on winning the Cold War via bolstering the American military, anti-communist groups around the globe, and the notorious “Star Wars” proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense system that would have acted as a “mutually-assured-destruction” focused shield, with an emphasis on developing advanced weaponry including (among other ideas) lasers. Such a state of tensions brought a fascinating, refreshing, and sobering array of films from around the globe that dealt with the issues of nuclear weaponry and energy in ways that had rarely been done before.

I like to dub these films the “Radiation Wave of Cinema,” not just for their central focus on nuclear armament and energy, but for their seemingly sudden explosion in the 1980s. That’s not to say that this is an issue that has escaped filmmakers. However, the films I’ll be shedding light on are not the government-centric fare like Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, or Seven Days in May. Nor are they the atomic monsters the Bomb made of Godzilla or the ants in Them. These are pictures that grapple with the effects of the Bomb on the common man. Scientists and politicians are either talking heads on the television, voices on the radio, or are in a position rendered powerless by the global state of affairs. The average citizen or lower-level figure (a journalist, a regional politician, etc.) is the focus, and the way they deal with the events that unfold are what provide the plot for the films. The results are some of the roughest watches in the medium’s history. 

Films like these have existed in the past. The first film that comes to mind is I Live in Fear, a 1955 Akira Kurosawa drama following a paranoid industrialist as he tries to prepare for what he believes is an inevitable atomic explosion. Another is Frank and Eleanor Perry’s 1963  independent picture, Ladybug Ladybug, following the psychological torment the prospect of impending disaster has on elementary school children in a rural area. Both exhibit the hallmarks of pictures to come. A quiet drama that deals with the potential for devastation, and how such potential wracks the mind. The national government and the scientists are all distant entities to these people. For the documentarian efforts to come, Peter Watkins’s seminal 1965 production The War Game, one that rocked the BBC and the British government for its powerful depiction of a possible nuclear conflict with the USSR, proves a most likely predecessor.

Ground Zero

The beginnings of this cycle of cinema is found in a 1979 conspiracy thriller by the name of The China Syndrome. It stars Jane Fonda as a reporter who witnesses an accident at a nuclear power plant, and her attempts to publicize the incident are mysteriously undermined. Costarring Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, the film, in a decade full of beloved conspiracy pictures like All the President’s Men and The Conversation, proved a critical and commercial hit.

It also proved prophetic.

Twelve days after its theatrical release on March 16, the second reactor of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, located in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown around 4 AM EST. This meltdown, and the leaking of radiation afterwards, was dubbed The Three Mile island incident, and it became the most notable accident in the history of commercial nuclear energy operations in the United States to that point.

It is safe to say such a coincidence has resonated with many; though I don’t believe this is necessarily the catalyst to launch filmmakers into collective action. What the Radiation Wave of Cinema is, at its core, is the amassing of various filmmakers’ approach to the topics at hand in a similar way. The idea of a sort of universality. Whether you are in Japan, Britain, America, or Australia, the comprehension of what such devastation can do to the citizenry is fundamental to addressing the issue. However, The China Syndrome’s approach is but one of many found across the decade, and the film itself did influence at least a handful of filmmakers.

A hazmat team on the move in Ian Barry’s The Chain Reaction (1980)

In the Aftermath

It should be noted that conspiracy thrillers were one way of dealing with the matter, providing a semi-pulpy exterior to encase a cold truth. Australia produced two pictures of note in this regard. The first was 1980’s The Chain Reaction. My favorite tagline being “Mad Max meets The China Syndrome.” Apt as that is basically the film in a nutshell. Steve Bisley, “Goose” from Mad Max, crosses paths with a whistleblower from a nuclear waste facility. High-octane chases (orchestrated by George Miller himself) and catchy synth music abound as tensions ratchet up. A slightly more serious affair, featuring the great Donald Pleasance, dropped in 1987. Ground Zero grappled with the real-life horrors of the British nuclear test sites in Maralinga, which were shown to have adversely affected aborigines and military personnel present. Ground Zero asks the question of whether the adverse effects were known to the British officials, and if there was a deliberate effort to expose indigenous Australians to radiation. The film’s protagonist, a cameraman, seeks to get to the bottom of this after learning that his father had filmed at least one of the nuclear tests.

One of the most chilling special effects sequence on television, as seen in Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983)

However, the route more often taken was a less action-oriented, oft times quieter approach. Television provided a most peculiar outlet for such stories. Events were made of films like 1983’s The Day After. Helmed by Star Trek writer and director Nicholas Meyer, this film explored a possible scenario of nuclear conflict between the USA and the USSR. It took the shape of an Irwin Allen-type disaster film, but with a moment of sudden brutality found in its bombing sequence, and a dread-laden progression thereafter. Full of great character actors like Jason Robards and John Lithgow, and home to one of the most haunting depictions of a bombing in the history of the Big and Small Screen, the film rocked almost 40 million households upon its first broadcast on ABC. Hotlines were opened for counselling, a debate afterwards featuring a legendary analogy from celebrated scientist Carl Sagan, describing the nuclear arms race as “a room awash in gasoline,” housing “two implacable enemies” armed to the teeth with matches. All for a two-hour feat of harrowing speculative fiction. A year later, and across the pond, the BBC would broadcast Mick Jackson’s quasi-documentary about the effects of a nuclear strike on Sheffield. The equally (if not more) horrifying counterpart, Threads, proves how powerful the medium of television can be for disseminating such possibilities. I had never felt so shaken by a film like it; the grim realism, the potent depictions of the aftermath, and unnerving mood that hung over it all. 

Top Left: Special Bulletin (1983): Dir: Edward Zwick
Top Right: Miracle Mile (1988): Dir: Steve De Jarnatt
Bottom Left: When the Wind Blows (1986): Dir: Jimmy T. Murakami
Bottom Right: Black Rain (1989): Dir: Shôhei Imamura

There are so many different threads (no pun intended) to this cycle. You have your distant future, post-apocalyptic efforts like 1981’s Memoirs of a Survivor and 1987’s Letters from a Dead Man, your faux news broadcasts like the masterful Special Bulletin and the less masterful Countdown to Looking Glass. More visually colorful fare like Miracle Mile and the animated film When the Wind Blows, and simultaneously grimmer works like Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain. The quantity of films that came out in the 80s that grappled with issues ranging from nuclear energy, waste, terrorism, and warfare. Some couched things in a slightly more fantastical scenario. Take John Badham’s WarGames for example. It is literally Matthew Broderick hacking into the Department of Defense’s war computer. 



Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in John Badham’s WarGames (1983)

And yet, there is still a tremendous gravity to the situation.

But What Does It All Mean?

What caught my interest as a teen in the middle of nowhere is the global element. Wherever you are, nuclear power and the potential for nuclear warfare impacts everyone, and the serious consequences can be expertly illustrated by narrative fiction. Mick Jackson conceived Threads as being a depiction of “the unthinkable,” as a way of illustrating to policymakers the facts of the matter of what happens when the big red button is pressed. President Reagan, a veteran of film and television himself, was shaken after having watched The Day After at Camp David prior to its broadcast. He wrote the following in his diary:

“I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air Nov. 20. It’s called “The Day After.” It has Lawrence Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done—all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why.”

Many, Reagan himself and members of his administration, noted that the film had a profound impact on how they approached foreign policy, with a gradual de-escalation manifesting over the years of his administration. And in a world where nuclear armaments are still popping up around the globe, perhaps revisiting these films might prove a reminder of their devastating power.

For Your Further Elucidation…

Here are five episodes of Tim Westmyer’s brilliant Super Critical Podcast, that deal with some of the films mentioned here.

Have a read through of fellow Fistful of Film writer Amos Lamb’s review of a 1983 entry, Mori Masaki’s adaptation of the turbulent Barefoot Gen.


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