Science Fiction Studies

#61 = Volume 20, Part 3 = November 1993

Mick Broderick

Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster

1. Subtexts.

We accept the lure of annihilation, only to discover that it is a temporary condition, a gateway to renewal and rebirth. This is perhaps the most pervasive theme in all the world’s religious myth and ritual. It may also be the most pervasive theme in the symbolism of nuclear weapons. (Chernus 85)

A quarter century ago in her seminal essay "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag outlined prevailing thematics and subtexts in the cinema of science fiction from 1950 through 1965. Among these Sontag recognized the dominance of an aesthetic of disaster (with monsters as metaphors of nuclear energy) and a fear of global atomic death which could occur universally and at any moment.1

This survey will demonstrate, however, that the sub-genre of SF cinema which has entertained visions of nuclear Armageddon concerns itself primarily with survival as its dominant discursive mode. From the early post-Hiroshima films of the ‘40s which anticipated global atomic conflict and the cautionary tales of short and long-term effects in the ‘50s through to the hero myths of apocalypse in the ‘80s, a discernable shift away from an imagination of disaster toward one of survival is evident. These films, and in particular those of category 4 (see Figure 1), have drawn upon preexisting mythologies of cataclysm and survival in their renderings of post-holocaust life. The most potent of these myths is the recasting of the Judeo-Christian messianic hero who battles an antichrist and his followers, liberating an oppressed community and thereby enabling social rebirth.

While some films have explored (albeit fleetingly) post-holocaust life as a site for ideological contestation, the cinematic renderings of long-term post-nuclear survival appear highly reactionary, and seemingly advocate reinforcing the symbolic order of the status quo via the maintenance of conservative social regimes of patriarchal law (and lore). In so doing, they articulate a desire for (if not celebrate) the fantasy of nuclear Armageddon as the anticipated war which will annihilate the oppressive burdens of (post)modern life and usher in the nostalgically yearned-for less complex existence of agrarian toil and social harmony through ascetic spiritual endeavors.

Unlike the potential complacency afforded audiences by vicariously experiencing cosmic or natural filmic catastrophes (such as tidal waves, cometary impacts, or earthquakes), the imaginary projections of life in a distant post-holocaust future bypass graphic scenes of planetary destruction, thus enabling the spectator to evade or dismiss the human causal chain in nuclear warfare and to replace it with an archaic mythology steeped in heroic acts, inspired and propelled by some inscrutable and predetermined divine cosmic plan.

In this way the post-nuclear survivalist cycle of the ‘80s has signified another mode by which a generation has learned to stop worrying and love—if not the bomb—a (post-holocaust) future, which after some initial hardship will provide the compelling utopian fantasy of a biblical Eden reborn in an apocalyptic millennium of peace on Earth.

2. Contexts.

Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of this day there is nothing like the thrill of watching all those expensive sets come tumbling down. (Sontag 25-26)

In order to explore the prevailing ideologies and direction of this genre in the ‘90s and so contextualize current trends, the pre-existing generic field must first be touched on.

Prior to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, science- fiction cinema had been less overtly concerned with eschatological scenarios. Yet there remains a substantial body of film which in some form did entertain notions of secular apocalypse, often employing a mode of disaster spectacle as the significant nodal point in its narratives. Essentially these can be delineated as representing either man-made or cosmic catastrophes.

2.1. Man-Made. Promethean and Frankensteinian myth-warnings of unrestrained alchemical and technological advance found early cinematic expression just as Europe was about to enter into the First World War. The speculative journalism and science fiction of H.G. Wells et al. provided fertile ground for motion-picture terror tales of chemical and mechanical warfare.2 In The War o’Dreams (1915), for instance, a poor chemist who discovers a powerful explosive destroys his formula after a prophetic dream alerts him to its awesome destructiveness, even though he is offered a lucrative deal by the US Government. Less sympathetic is the scientist in The Branded Four (1920) who creates for villains an energy "ray" that is capable of destroying the human race.3 In Jean Renoir’s Sur un Air de Charleston (1927) the last woman remaining on Earth is discovered by a scientist long after a catastrophic war. The contradictory images of science are apparent in the contrast between an early serial talkie, Voice from the Sky (1930), in which a crazed scientist threatens world destruction, and H.G. Wells’s Things to Come (1936), which forecasts a devastating 30-year global war eventually halted by a society of noble scientists.

2.2. Cosmic. Prior to the Second World War the most arresting film imagery depicting planetary disaster was either cosmic or natural in origin. As a traditional harbinger of doom, the arrival of Halley’s Comet in 1910 was depicted ominously that same year in The Comet. Structurally, this early narrative resembles many of the contemporary nuclear holocaust scenarios in which cataclysm and survival are depicted by panicking populaces, cities and countryside ablaze, survivors fleeing underground, the looting of precious resources, and summary justice. It was followed it 1916 by a comedy, The Comet’s Comeback, in which an approaching comet causes all earthly momentum to slow to a halt until only a handful of survivors remain. Humor and disaster again merge successfully when Mary Pickford portrays a latterday "Chicken Little" who foresees a cometary impact in Waking Up the Town (1925).

Preceding Metropolis by a decade, August Blom’s sobering production, End of the World (1916), critiques the inherent (sexual) corruption of the bourgeoisie with an apocalyptic undercurrent of class conflict as a far more potent threat to civilization than the overt theme of planetary destruction from yet another comet. Like Blom, Abel Gance employs the comet motif to bring about La Fin du Monde (1930) as a means of depicting religious mania and aristocratic corruption (decadent orgies in the face of disaster). Terminal sexual fantasies also emerge in films such as The Last Man on Earth (1924) and It’s Great to be Alive (1933) after mysterious plagues leave only one male alive capable of perpetuating the species, a theme reanimated with much vigor in many post-Hiroshima films concerned with the sterilizing effects of radiation.4

The city and towering metropolis as a site for natural disaster dates back to the very origins of cinema in films such as the British Last Days of Pompeii (1898), a title reused and story retold dozens of times over the years, Intolerance (1915) and Noah’s Ark (1928), each featuring the biblical destruction of Babylon.5 Cosmic interventions also brought down modern monoliths, perhaps most convincingly via the earthquake and subsequent tidal-wave special effects which level New York City in Deluge (1933), footage later used repeatedly by other studios in films like S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939) and When Worlds Collide (1951).

Examining the historical clusters of these films prior to 1945, it appears that many reflect popular fears of devastating calamities in times of perceived global crisis, such as the approach of the World Wars, the 1917 communist revolution, and the Great Depression.

Within these fecund antecedents to the post-nuclear holocaust movie a variety of thematic, iconic, and narrative repetitions are apparent which, alongside earlier literary/artistic influences, have helped atomic-survival tales evolve into a more complex hybrid form.

3. Texts.

There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films. No criticism, for example, of the conditions of our society which create the impersonality and dehumanization which science fiction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien It. (Sontag 34)

The following discussion will demonstrate that Sontag’s dismissal of SF cinema is far from justified in relation to nuclear movies. Before proceeding with a fuller exploration of this sub-genre it is necessary to demark structurally the parameters of this group into four temporal milieus: films concerned with (1) Preparation for Nuclear War and its Survival, (2) Encounters with Extraterrestrial Post-Holocaust Societies, (3) Experiencing Nuclear War and its Immediate Effects, and (4) Survival Long After Nuclear War.


Lost City of the Jungle (46)

When Worlds Collide (51)

The Damned (61)

Dr. Strangelove (63)

Demon from Devil’s Lake (64)

The War Game (65)

2+5: Mission Hydra (66)

Silent Running (71)

Chosen Survivors (74)

Full Moon High (81)

The Old Men at the Zoo (82)

Static (82)

War Games (83)

Countdown to Looking Glass (84)

Massive Retaliation (84)

Bootleg (85)

One Night Stand (85)

Control (86)

Survival Quest (86)

Terrorvision (86)

Journeys Inland (88)

Bunker Palace Hotel (89)

Miracle Mile (89)

Spontaneous Combustion (89)






















Rocketship XM (50)

Not of This Earth (56)

Forbidden Planet (56)

The Mysterians (57)

Queen of Outer Space (58)

Battle of the Worlds (60)

First Spaceship on Venus (60)

Ikarie XB-1 (63)

Dr. Who and the Daleks (65)

The Love War (70)

Superman: The Movie (78)

2010 (84)

Light Years (88)

Friendship’s Death (87)

Not of This Earth (88)






























Five (51)

The Day the World Ended (56)

On the Beach (59)

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (59)

The Last Woman on Earth (60)

Rat (60)

The Final War (60)

The Time Machine (60)

The Last War (62)

Panic in the Year Zero (62)

The Doomsday Machine (67)

The Last Man (68)

Damnation Alley (74)

Where Have All the People Gone (74)

Martian Chronicles (80)

Virus (81)

Malevil (81)

Parasite (82)

The State of Things (82)

The Day After (83)

Def Con 4 (83)

Testament (83)

War and Peace (83)

The Quiet Earth (85)

Threads (85)

When the Wind Blows (87)

Smoke ‘em if You’ve Got ‘em (89)

Population One (86)



















Captive Women (51)

World Without End (56)

Teenage Caveman (58)

Terror of the Year 5,000 (58)

Beyond the Time Barrier (60)

Creation of the Humanoids (62)

Lord of the Flies (63)

The Time Travelers (64)

Sins of the Fleshapoids (65)

End of August at the Ozone Hotel (65)

In the Year 2889 (66)

Brasil Anno 2,000 (68)

Planet of the Apes (68)

The Bed Sitting Room (69)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (69)

I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (70)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (71)

Glen and Randa (71)

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (73)

The Final Program (73)

Genesis II (73)

Zardoz (73)

Planet Earth (74)

A Boy and His Dog (75)

Logan’s Run (76)

Wizards (77)

Deathsport (78)

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (79)

The Golem (79)

Things to Come (79)

Quintet (79)

The Ravagers (79)

Aftermath (80)

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (81)

Heavy Metal (81)

Cafe Flesh (82)

Parasite (82)









Survival Zone (82)

End Game (83)

Exterminators of the Year 3,000 (83)

Le Dernier Combat (83)

Human Animals (83)

Metalstorm (83)

The New Barbarians (83)

Rock & Rule (83)

She (83)

Stryker (83)

Yor: Hunter from the Future (83)

2019: After the Fall of New York (83)

Warriors of the Lost World (83)

Last Exterminators (84)

O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (84)

Dark Enemy (84)

The Load Warrior (84)

Sex Mission (84)

The Terminator (84)

Warriors of the Wind (84)

Z for Zachariah (84)

America 3,000 (85)

Breastament (85)

Desert Warrior (85)

Future Hunters (85)

Land of Doom (85)

Letters from a Dead Man (85)

The Load Warrior II (85)

Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome (85)

2020: Texas Gladiators (85)

Warriors of the Apocalypse (85)

Wheels of Fire (85)

The Afterman (86)

Equalizer 2000 (86)

In the Aftermath (86)

The Final Executioner (86)

The Killing Edge (86)

Lunar Madness (86)

Radioactive Dreams (86)

Rats: Night of Terror (86)






Robot Holocaust (86)

Roller Blade (86)

Warlords (86)

Akira (87)

Angel of Vengeance (87)

Cherry 2000 (87)

Creepzoids (87)

Desert Warrior (87)

Hell Comes to Frogtown (87)

Land of Doom (87)

Le Big Bang (87)

A Man Called Rage (87)

Mutant Hunt (87)

The Survivalist (87)

The Time Guardian (87)

Treasure Island (87)

Urban Warriors (87)

After Shock (88)

Badlands 2000 (88)

Crime Zone (88)

Inferno of Safehaven (88)

Lawless Land (88)

Quest Beyond Time (88)

Steel Dawn (88)

The Survivor (88)

World Gone Wild (88)

Cyborg (89)

Deadly Reactor (89)

Desert Warrior (89)

Escape from Safehaven (89)

Masseba (89)

Rising Storm (89)

Robot Jox (89)

Salute of the Jugger (89)

Tin Star Void (89)

Delicatessen (90)

Dreams (90)

Future Zone (90)

Hardware (90)

Shredder Orpheus (90)

The Terror Within II (90)

Fist of the North Star (91)

Neo City (91)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (91)

Mindwarp (92)



As the chart indicates, the majority of texts belong in the explicitly post-holocaust Category 4, frequently situated after a lengthy period of time. Significantly, there have been more films made on this topic during the past decade than the total of all the other categories in the preceding forty years; the bulk of my analysis will therefore address this category.

3.1. Category 1. Preparation For Nuclear War and Its Survival. The atom bombings which closed the Second World War were soon widely perceived as the opening salvos of an anticipated Third World War, one which would spare few cities (particularly in the continental USA, previously untouched by modern warfare) from a Hiroshima-like fate. Within a year Hollywood entertained scenarios of spies, warmongers, and terrified citizens preparing for atomic conflict, such as Notorious, Rendezvous 24, and The Lady From Shanghai (all 1946). However, it was the Universal serial Lost City of the Jungle (1946) which foregrounded the most pervasive (and desired) response to the threat of nuclear war—survival—in the form of an "atomic antidote," Meteorium 245, discovered by a gun-runner who expediently plans for his own victorious future in a post-holocaust 

Hence, from the outset popular film depicted three distinct ways in which people might respond to threatened atomic war: prevention by heightened surveillance and counterespionage, resignation and so escaping from targeted areas to assumed havens, and immunization from attack by using a comparable or superior defensive technology.

Although a few early films articulated a capacity to anticipate and thereby survive the unthinkable (Unknown World, 1951), as the genre evolved nuclear movies openly questioned not only the desirability of such strategic posturing (Dr. Strangelove, 1963; Fail Safe, 1964; Seven Days in May, 1964), but also its intrinsic fallacy (The Damned, 1961; Ladybug, Ladybug, 1963; The War Game, 1965). The prevailing sentiment opposed both the mindset and the act of planning for such (inevitable) events and proposed that such legitimization would actually precipitate the occurrence of nuclear war (Chosen Survivors, 1974; Wargames, 1983; Control, 1986). While these films may concur with Sontag’s assertions about the preoccupation of SF cinema with "the perennial human anxiety about death," they contradict her claim that their purpose is to "accommodate and negate" this anxiety (36), for they portray civil-defense posturing and fallout shelters as extremely dubious solutions.

3.2. Category 2. Encounters with Extraterrestrial Post-Nuclear Societies.

When you stop to think that we’re all God’s children, wherever we may live in the world, I couldn’t help but say to [Gorbachev], just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from another planet outside in the universe.—Ronald Reagan addressing Fallston High School. (Smith 25)

Rocketship X-M (1950), one of the earliest of post-war SF films, reintroduced the mythic theme of encountering cosmic forces which overwhelm contemporary technology, now modified toward a decidedly cold-war, nuclear-age perspective. Pre-Hiroshima SF cinema had forecast global disaster in the bipolar form outlined above, but increasingly films of the ‘50s adopted scenarios of both cosmic and man-made holocausts, most often in the guise of humans encountering extraterrestrial civilizations well in advance of ours which have paid a terrible price for abusing nuclear power (This Island Earth, 1956; Not of This Earth, 1956, 1988; The Mysterians, 1957; Queen of Outer Space, 1958; Dr. Who and the Daleks, 1965; The Love War, 1970).

More damning are the films concerning extraterrestrial species as totally annihilated and devoid of survivors such as the phantom societies in Forbidden Planet (1956), The First Spaceship on Venus (1960), and Ikarie XB-1 (1963).6 Most recently the theme has continued under the guise of the Superman series where the Man of Steel, having alone escaped the apocalyptic explosion of his native Krypton, brings with him superior alien capabilities of intellect and strength (powered by the Sun’s fusion reaction) that ultimately leads to his unilateral eradication of Earth’s nuclear missiles in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).

All of these texts to varying degrees rely upon discursive strategies which combine rhetoric and imagery to warn explicitly the human protagonists (and by extension, the audience) of the dangers of nuclear conflict. As such, they should be recognized as important sites for ideological contestation, advocating in this specific realm opposition to the status quo and Sontag’s thesis.7 They also make for interesting comparison with another key SF sub-genre, alien emissaries from advanced civilizations that have avoided nuclear warfare who visit Earth to warn or threaten us away from aggressive use of such technologies, usually by demonstrating superior force (e.g., The Day the Earth Stood Still, Warning From Space, The 27th Day, The Stranger from Venus, The Cosmic Man, The Space Children, and more recently 2010).8

3.3. Category 3. Experiencing Nuclear War and its Immediate Effects. This category is comprised of movies which devote the majority of their narrative to the depiction of nuclear war and its short-term consequences. Unlike the two preceding categories, the remaining films under discussion explicitly approach the nuclear holocaust as a lived (i.e., not imagined) event.

What differentiates this group from Category 4, Survival Long After Nuclear War, is that the characters have all personally lived through the war and symbolize the "old world" struggling to exist in a new post-nuclear environment. Within the narrative there has been some depiction of the social "normalcy" of the status quo prior to its material destruction. This may only be brief, but the function of the plot is to engender a sense of familiarity by locating protagonists (and spectators) within the pre-conflict equilibrium of the known before the predominant narrative discourse relocates them into the disorientating post-holocaust realm.

There are at least three distinct discursive modes in this group—renewal films, which posit the war as promoting socio-cultural rebirth usually in the form of the heterosexual couple, the family, or the small community; catharsis films, which graphically depict the destructive impact of nuclear war and the problematics of survival; and terminal films which portray the end of the human species by showing long-term survival as impossible.

3.3.1. Renewal. The first feature film drama to depict life in the immediate aftermath of atomic war was Arch Oboler’s Five (1951).9 In this prototypical text one can observe a number of key generic constructs which continue to inform cinematic depictions of the post-holocaust world and a number of familiar generic motifs and tropes which have acquired new impetus under a post-nuclear scenario. The opening and closing biblical references, for instance, provide the narrative of Five with an apocalyptic frame, and the finale carefully posits a symbolic Adam and Eve inheriting the Earth.10 Key thematics foregrounded by Five include radiation and fallout as the major killer, pathological denial and projection by survivors, and the (ir)relevance of pre-holocaust social mores and institutions in the post-nuclear world. Major iconic devices include the deserted city, the discovery of incongruous human skeletal remains, newspapers as testimonials to events immediately preceding the war, and the scarring effects of radiation. Films of renewal that place particular emphasis on post-holocaust sexual mores include The Day the World Ended (1956), which introduced the popular generic theme of mutation; The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), whose finale countered prior generic conventions by anticipating the demise of two powerful Western social taboos, interracial sexual liaison and polygamy; Rat (1960); The Last Woman on Earth (1960); The Last Man (1968); Human Animals (1983); and more conventionally, Panic in the Year Zero (1963) and Damnation Alley (1975).

3.3.2. Catharsis. Of all the films discussed in this survey, it is only this small group which closely approximates Sontag’s "imagination of disaster," but even so, the vast majority of their narratives are devoted not to repetitive imagery of disaster, but survival after a single catastrophe.11 Nor do they correspond to Sontag’s view that SF films are "wishful thinking...the hunger for a ‘good war’ which poses no moral problems, admits no moral qualifications. The imagery of science fiction films will satisfy the most bellicose addict of war films, for a lot of the satisfaction of war films passes, untransformed, into science fiction films" (31).

Although some attention is paid to depicting—via spectacular pyrotechnic explosions, firestorms and the leveling of model cityscapes to simulate nuclear attack (e.g. Japanese productions The Last War, 1960, and The Final War, 1962)—what an atomic war might be like to witness and survive, in the main most films opt for less costly and often technically shoddy effects and process work to represent a Third World War.12 SF films of the ‘50s utilized topical fear imagery in the form of invisible radioactive fallout to render economically their future end-of-the-world scenarios without employing catastrophic images of blast and heat razing entire cities, which helped to combine existing conventions and an iconography crucial to the genre. The familiar menacing tick of Geiger-counters and stock footage of fission and (less frequently) fusion detonations in ‘60s films then merged with (official government) imagery of the sophisticated technological means for delivering this megadeath (ICBM launches, Polaris submarines, B-52s, Fail-safe blackboxes and computerized War Room gameboards). In the ‘70s and early ‘80s SF films returned to closer mimetic renderings of thermonuclear war (stock hydrogen bomb explosions), emphasizing in greater detail the devastating impact upon urban landscapes and the horrors confronting (predominantly underground) survivors in the immediate aftermath.

3.3.3. Terminal. The first truly pessimistic depiction of the short-term effects of nuclear war came with Stanley Kramer’s polemical version of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1959), which introduced to the genre a disturbingly new narrative departure. Whereas earlier post-nuclear scenarios employed biblical or classical motifs of social rebirth (often in the form of the lone surviving couple), On the Beach evoked a moving eulogy for the human race in its depiction of total ecocide from a future (1964) thermonuclear war which blankets the globe with lethal fallout. This type of radioactive shroud, conceived by strategists such as Herman Khan, was utilized as the Soviet Doomsday Machine deterrent in Stanley Kubrick’s sublime Dr. Strangelove (1963). If one interprets, as many commentators do, the blackly comic ending of nuclear detonations rhythmically accompanying Vera Lynn’s song "We’ll Meet Again" as ironic apocalypse, then the cloud of Cobalt-Thorium G also makes Strangelove one of the few early films to actually envisage the complete extinction of the human race through a nuclear exchange.

After more than twenty years, the occasional cinematic rendering of total human annihilation from nuclear war was given added impetus in the early ‘80s when scientists studying planetary impacts and the correlation of flora- and-fauna extinction cycles arrived at a Nuclear Winter theory, forecasting that smoke and dust from even a limited Superpower exchange would plunge the entire globe into a long (potentially terminal) winter.13 Not surprisingly, nuclear war films again began adopting doomsday premises of gradual and irrevocable genocide (The Day After, 1983; Testament, 1983; Threads, 1985; Population One, 1986; When the Wind Blows, 1987; Miracle Mile, 1988).

However, as the discursive weight of the majority of these movies suggests, the ultimate prevailing theme has been humanity’s resilient survival after a global ordeal by fire. The final category (4) implies by its fecundity and intrinsic defining characteristics that movie portrayals of long-term survival in a post-nuclear environment are more appealing than the other cinematic approaches to atomic war. The last decade in particular has demonstrated this category’s increasing popularity and penetration into the international market.

3.4. Category 4. Survival Long After Nuclear War.

I understand that filmmakers, attempting to depict the future, are forced to include people—without them the stories would be considerably duller. Maybe that’s the truly unacceptable price of nuclear devastation: Eternal nothingness equals eternal boredom for today’s audiences, hence a dramatic requirement of films appears to dictate a philosophical conclusion in all science fiction films, namely that in some form (however diminished and mutilated) we’ll survive.—Nicholas Meyer, director of The Day After. (Meyer 33)

As Meyer’s quote implies, the very act of conceptualizing and then realizing cinematically the effect of nuclear war forces the viewer into imagining beyond disaster into survival. In this manner post-nuclear holocaust films are therefore predicated upon an imagination of survival, for without such there can be no exposition, no narrative, no perspective, no point of view.14 In order to represent the unthinkable, scenarists have returned to familiar mythological and iconographic terrains depicting long-term human survival.

Apart from the devastating (though limited) atomic warfare inflicted upon Japan, science-fiction filmmakers have predominantly chosen to construct and locate their post-holocaust scenarios in a far distant future. The catastrophe is usually related via a brief introductory title, a narrator who describes the events, a montage of nuclear explosions (often only one suffices, so apocalyptic an icon is the broiling mushroom cloud—a true totem of the atomic age), or a combination of such. This generic strategy requires the audience to acknowledge that nuclear war is not only possible but also probable. The feared conflict has become a fait accompli, signified by this now stereotyped mode of narrative introduction.

The category also perpetuates and attenuates a number of thematic considerations outlined earlier, principally the dichotomies of city/ wilderness, underground/surface, mutant/normal, marauders/community-family.

3.4.1. Homo nuclearus. One recurring genre ploy associated with the long-term effects of nuclear war questions not only how the human species will survive but also in what form. A number of films (e.g., The Werewolf, 1956; I Was a Teenage Werewolf, 1957; The Twilight People, 1972) have explored the theme of radiation mutation on human and animal life over the years—some suggesting that deliberate experimentation would make it possible to breed a race capable of survival in the hostile post-holocaust environment. They employ established imagery from pre-Hiroshima antecedents, such as The Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Dr. Cyclops (1939), to recast their familiar generic tales of horror into stories of genetic transformation caused by exposure to radioactive materials.

Other films adopt similar themes from within a distinctly post-holocaust milieu. After a montage of nuclear detonations, a narrator in Creation of the Humanoids (1962) states that after an atomic war destroyed 92 per cent of humankind, androids of increasing simulacra were built to do most tasks, eventually becoming sentient, and in a twist ending, the xenophobic, robot-hating hero discovers his own synthetic structure. In Zardoz (1973), The Final Program (1973), and Rats: Night of Terror (1986), the post-holocaust future is transcended in hybrid evolutionary terms. However, survival (at least in human form) is not always ensured, as the Tolkienesque fairies and dwarves of Wizards (1977) or the anthropomorphized mutant intellects of domestic animals in Rock & Rule (1983) portray, albeit both in the less disturbing heightened-fantasy representation of screen animation.

3.4.2. The Future as Past. A new narrative device, similar to the encountering of non-terrestrial postholocaust societies, is that of temporal dislocation, either by technological means or via ironic juxtapositioning. In the latter strategy, the post-nuclear scenario is withheld from the audience, who are led to believe the events take place in a distant stone-age past.

Like the blind Martian atomic survivors in Rocketship X-M, the key protagonists of Roger Corman’s production, Teenage Caveman (1958), are depicted as fur-clad warrior tribes, in this instance confined to a valley surrounded by a deadly radioactive wasteland and a hideous monster that can kill by its touch. As a warning to future generations a narrated coda reveals that a devastating atomic war has caused horrid mutations and the return of the dinosaurs. In Yor: Hunter from the Future (1983), She (1983), and Ator: the Invincible (1984), protagonists inhabit a future post-nuclear Earth even though the imagery evokes a prehistoric past generically familiar from countless exploitation movies such as One Million Years BC (1966) or When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970).

The entire Planet of the Apes series (1968-73) and TV spin-offs employ similar disorientations of time and space in their surreal renderings of post-holocaust human regression into farming stock with corresponding simian intellectual evolution toward an industrial, but pre-atomic, capacity. Other films to employ the "Rip Van Winkle as visitor to the post-holocaust future" plot device include Genesis II (1973), Planet Earth (1974), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), and the Polish production Sex Mission (1984), in which two hibernating men awake to find a matriarchal society they despise, one where all males perished from radioactive contamination decades earlier.

3.4.3. Apocalypse Now: Today as Tomorrow’s Yesterday. The most frequent temporal shift, however, comes from films depicting deliberate attempts at time travel in which characters discover a nuclear war-ravaged future. In The Time Machine (1960), a Victorian inventor travels into the future only to find that London and the rest of the world had been devastated in the atomic war of 1966. Anticipating Planet of the Apes by 20 years, World Without End (1956) depicts astronauts landing on an unknown planet (post-holocaust Earth unrecognized) where gigantic spiders and deformed (mostly cyclopean) primitive mutants roam the surface. The expedition discovers an underground technological city inhabited by nubile women but sexually impotent men who explain they are survivors of a 22nd-century atomic war. Ib Melchior’s The Time Travelers (1964) portrays researchers creating a porthole to a barren post-holocaust future where they find murderous bald mutants at war with a scientific community of underground survivors desperately trying to escape the terminally contaminated planet in a starship-ark built by their android protectors. The 20th-century visitors eventually manage to return to their own time but are trapped in a marvelously realized cyclical time-loop paradox which prevents them from warning their contemporaries of the future war. Equally fatalistic renderings of the theme can be found in Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), which features a test pilot thrust into the future who also encounters an underground race of technologically superior telepathic survivors, and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1970), where a trio of time-traveling ape scientists are executed when they reveal a future "history" of nuclear genocide which marks them as (the causal) prophets of doom.

Another variant on this theme portrays emissaries materializing from a post-nuclear holocaust future into the 20th century, ostensibly to halt the immutable progress leading toward the cataclysmic war (The Terror from the Year 5,000, 1958; I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen, 1970; and Future Hunters, 1985), which explicitly adopts apocalyptic mythology when emissaries from a post-holocaust future visit contemporary Earth hoping to avert a nuclear war by using a Christian religious relic. The Terminator (1984) entertains a similar premise, but from a bleaker nihilistic perspective: a cyborg from the 21st century is sent into the "past" to eliminate Sara Connor, the mother of a post-holocaust resistance leader. But instead of Connor trying to prevent the nuclear war, foretold as being preempted by Pentagon artificial intelligences, she accepts and accommodates this potential future as preordained and prepares for its survival. In the recent sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) direct action is taken to avert this nuclear predeterminism, though the finale remains ambiguous as to its eventual success.

It is significant that, in their collective attempts to anticipate the future, each of the films in this category forecasts inevitable nuclear warfare leading to social inertia, decay, and/or total annihilation.

More often than not these movies articulate overt messages of warning both through expository dialogue and in the depiction of dehumanized futures the survivor species struggle to inhabit. At best, a few films do provide a narrative "escape" (the conventional Hollywood happy ending), by suggesting the possibility of communal rebirth in some far distant future, but such a conclusion remains problematic, for it always requires the presence and intervention of prewar individuals (always male) to motivate and reinvigorate the survivors’ literally sterile domain. Otherwise, these films have either a fatalistic or an ambiguous conclusion where it is hoped that "the present" (i.e., contemporary audiences) will learn from their vicarious experiences of the variously represented post-nuclear tomorrows and so not continue on the road to extinction. Clearly this group refutes Sontag’s claim that all SF cinema inculcates "a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction" which she finds "haunting and depressing" (37).

3.4.4. Exterminating Angels: The Post-apocalyptic Hero. By far the most significant and dominant generic movement of this sub-genre has been the emergence of post-apocalyptic hero mythology in the ‘80s. As their fecund titles imply, these films are less concerned with disaster than with relating the survivors’ heroic acts of justice, reprisal, and/or vengeance. Set long after the nuclear war, they depict a world in which what little fabric of community remains is constantly threatened by rampaging bands of marauders, challenged only by (self)righteous individuals or occasionally by smaller, organized groups. They are the Warriors, Terminators, Exterminators, Equalizers, Hunters, and Gladiators of the post-apocalyptic future.

The ‘80s cycle essentially commenced with two Australian exploitation films, Mad Max (1979) and its sequel The Road Warrior (1982), neither of which is expressly post-nuclear even though both are frequently read as metaphors of such. Ironically, the cross-cultural success of these films relies upon an existing cinema of nuclear and ecological catastrophe, e.g., The Ultimate Warrior (1975), Death Race 2000 (1978). The cycle was given added impetus by the more regionalized microcosmic disaster fare of Hollywood productions during the ‘70s, e.g. Earthquake (1974), Meteor (1979).

Yet even prior to Mad Max the predominant imagery set in this long-term realm was that of atavism and regression. As early as 1952, Captive Women demonstrated another approach to nuclear war by combining the neophyte visions of its contemporaries (Five, Rocketship X-M) in rendering a far distant Earth reduced to barbarism as a consequence of an atomic Third World War. Set in the ruins of Manhattan a thousand years hence, the film depicts three distinct castes of survivors: the Mutates, offspring of those genetically damaged by radiation; the relatively healthy underground-dwelling Norms; and their mutual enemy, the brutal and satanic Upriver people. A decade later Lord of the Flies (1963) showed how quickly dormant atavistic desires manifest themselves when a group of British Public Schoolboys crash-land on an uninhabited island during a nuclear war. Similarly, The End of August at the Ozone Hotel (1966) bleakly portrays a ruthless regressive band of women survivors 15 years after a nuclear war who roam about a barren surface killing mercilessly, whereas In the Year 2889 (1966) loosely remade Corman’s Day the World Ended but added the themes of cannibalism and mutant telepaths. Mutation as regression of the most surreal and absurdist form was effectively staged in Richard Lester’s comic Bed Sitting Room (1969) where the few survivors of World War III in London struggle to maintain their customary "stiff upper lip" in the face of post-nuclear adversity. Lester’s mise-en-scène, principally quarries and trash yards, avoids the expected disaster milieu by adopting bizarre juxtapositions of British mores against the makeshift hybrids to which survivors must adapt. The incongruity is foregrounded by survivors choosing to deny the horrific realities of their new environment, evident in the speed at which some mutate into furniture and wildlife, or the ironic romance and 18-month gestation of an unmarried mother’s monstrous foetus, which marvelously slights the conventional Adam-and-Eve generic closure. Infantile desires and fantasies are aligned strikingly in Jim McBride’s Glen and Randa (1971) in the pair of adolescent post-holocaust "noble savages" who leave their bucolic Eden in search of a mythical "Metropolis". The banality/naïvete of the new Adam and Eve is carefully studied.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) elaborates on both Lester’s and McBride’s inventive visions of survivors and their random, utilitarian garbs—an aesthetic evoking schizophrenic clashes of styles which anticipated punk by several years. The literal grabbag dress of the surface dwellers who survive by looting, murdering, raping, and bartering reoriented existing survivor iconography away from both the conformative modernist uniform of future remnant societies as in The Time Travelers and Logan’s Run (1976) and the luxurious off-the-rack apparel afforded the short-term survivor/looters in films such as Five or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

More provocatively, A Boy and His Dog acts to distill much of the preceding category of film examining long-term survival, while adding variation to the generic corpus. By now long-familiar motifs and tropes are sardonically united in a post-apocalyptic desert plateau around what used to be Phoenix, Arizona. Decades after a cataclysmic war, an adolescent named Vic and his mutant-telepathic dog, Blood, respectively hunt for women and food. Seduced by a mysterious girl, Quilla-June, Vic is lured to Topeka, a feared underground community of survivors ruled by a patriarchal clique of elders who ruthlessly kill such non-conformists as fail to subscribe to surreal mid-west "wholesome" family mores. Vic is required to impregnate the city’s newlywed women so as to reinvigorate and strengthen Topeka’s genetic stock, periodically weakened due to prolonged subterranean life. The farcical though nightmarish imagery of Topeka’s nocturnal inhabitants, dressed in turn-of-the-(20th)-century costume with rouge circles adorning their whitefaced cheeks, evokes a prophetic critical sense of postmodern nostalgia in its attempt to recreate a repressive communal past (which is at best mythical and far from utopian). It represents the perpetuation of Middle American praxis as a (continuing) means of social control, permeating with its invisible ideology successive generations who are sutured into unconscious compliance. Vic rejects his preordained role and leaves Topeka during a minor (oedipal) adolescent coup, preferring the companionship and dangers of the surface life, where there is the faint promise of a better life "over the hill." In its ironic though brutally misogynistic finale, Vic cooks Quilla-Jane and feeds her to his starving faithful hound, bleakly signifying that post-holocaust life can only be revitalized through the (literal) cannibalization of prewar goods, artifacts, and sentiments.15

Unlike these predecessors, the Mad Max features can be read as primary to the wave of early films identified as postmodern because of their adopting strategies of pastiche, intertextuality, and bricolage (see Broderick). While constructed as traditional action/exploitation films, the trilogy evolves beyond the confines of generic expectation toward a recasting of the Judeo-Christian myth of a messianic hero-saviour annihilating an oppressive tyranny, and liberating an elect into a new reign of communal harmony. In this way, the heroic exploits of Max, rapidly recycled in successive rip-offs expressly located in post-nuclear holocaust arenas, provided an almost instantaneous international staple for cinematic images of nuclear war and its long-term survivability.16

Max quintessentially conforms to Joseph Campbell’s description of the classic hero of the monomyth (36). The journey of Max throughout the trilogy as an idealized everyman symbolizes the "necessary" path of the collective social process toward rebirth and renewal after the hero’s successive trials by entropy, deprivation, and nuclear war. As such, these films (more so The Road Warrior) provide a narrative template, already rich in mythic resonance (but with a truly inventive costume and production design) for other filmmakers to copy. Even before Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), with its spatio-temporal domain specifically located as that of a future post-nuclear holocaust wasteland, was exhibited internationally, a wave of exploitation genre clones (principally from Italy, Spain, Israel, and the Philippines) were released around the world.

In narrative terms, these films act as a synthesis of existing generic modes which overlap different discursive elements ranging from biblical epics to science fiction and horror. Indeed, so fertile now is the imaginary long-term post-holocaust terrain that there have been unconventional, if not bizarre, graftings of such elements to form post-apocalyptic musicals (Sons of Steel, 1989), hard-core porn (The Load Warrior, 1984; Breastament, 1985), musical hard-core porn (Cafe Flesh, 1982), film noir (Radioactive Dreams, 1986), and westerns (2020: Texas Gladiators, 1985; Deadly Reactor, 1989).

The pervasive structure throughout, however, is a conflict between "good" (i.e., working towards a sustainable, profitable future) and "evil" (nihilistically consuming or destroying what little remains), the two having emerged as bipolar philosophies in the post-nuclear world, with the intervention of the lone (often initially ambiguous) warrior-hero—a narrative trichotomy which dates back at least to Captive Women.

3.4.5. The Good. For the most part, these films depict the idealized "good" forces of the post-holocaust world as communities that attempt reconstruction through renewal, not of the immediate prewar lifestyle and ethics, but of an earlier, superseded morality and social ethos.17 Often it is intrinsically linked to religious strictures which inform the purpose and behavioral codes of a sect or group of survivors. In The New Barbarians (1983), a survivors’ camp run by a man with a clerical collar (addressed as Father, but named Moses) is actually the site of an apocalyptic sect of "Dialationists" who have been traveling about in the wilderness for two years. They await a sign to fulfill a prewar scriptural prophecy which has already saved them from nuclear horrors by advising the chosen to take shelter and not to reemerge for seven years.

Post-holocaust communities, statically based at a permanent campsite, are usually led by an elderly patriarch, wise in technological organization and/or loric tradition (such as the professor who runs the refinery in 2020: Texas Gladiators, 1985, or the contrasting weapons strategist and pacifist leader in Stryker, 1983). The communes they lead are generally comprised of men, women, and children, with monogamous, heterosexual marriage and sustaining/procreating life as the society’s goals (romantic sub-plots involving heroes and women from survival camps motivate action in most of these films). Imagery frequently idealizes their agrarian toil and simplistic lifestyle (the "honest" and "fair" labor of a Protestant work ethic), with characters (often blonde) wearing light robes and furs (The Road Warrior, Stryker).

They are also the keepers of secrets which can be either spiritual (a divine calling that has chosen them to survive and inherit the Earth) or material (mainly as guardians of precious and limited resources vital for subsistence in the harsh post-nuclear landscape; e.g., water, oil, or alternate energy sources). As such they become the victims of attack by vicious competitors, contemptuous of their lifestyle, who pillage their goods.

Because the community offers little resistance to the constant raids, some individuals secretly rebel against the pacifist posture and pursue group goals through offensive external means. As in the technocratic survivor-cultures visited by time-travelers outlined above, these camps are in danger of collapse through their own inertia and hubris and so require the intervention of a messianic warrior-hero to unify and lead them from the wilderness.

3.4.6. The Evil. In general, the forces associated with "evil" long after the nuclear war are those that have adopted postures antithetical to that of the good survivors. Their community also is dominated by patriarchal law, but normally in the form of a younger, autocratic and ruthless tyrant, who commands a band of (mostly, if not exclusively) male troops. In The New Barbarians, for instance, the "good" apocalyptic sect is narratively contrasted with the "evil" Templars, who invert the others’ chiliastic purpose with anti-millennial acts which thematically position them as metaphoric anti-christs, exemplified histrionically in their leader’s genocidal rant:

We are the Templars, the warriors of vengeance. We are the Templars, the warriors of death. We have been chosen to make others pay for the crime of being alive. We guarantee that all of humanity, accomplices and heirs of the nuclear holocaust, will be wiped out once and for all—that the seed of Man will be cancelled forever from the face of the Earth!18

Similarly, the punk villain of World Gone Wild (1988) reads the "Wit and Wisdom of Charles Manson" to his followers at prayer meetings, and the opening sequence of Texas Gladiators features a brutal scene where an evil posse violate nuns and crucify a priest. Their philosophy of survival rests solely on satiating immediate, short-term desires, randomly looting, raping, and killing those who obstruct them. The iconography and imagery associated with them comprise crude punk aesthetics (leathers, chains, studs), barbaric weaponry, motor bikes (virtually every depiction of ravaging gangs has them as bikers), and souped-up cars.19 Frequently there is overt homosexual display amongst the gangs (the hero in New Barbarians and a boy in 2020: Texas Gladiators are respectively raped by marauders).20 They prey on the weaker survivors and find them legitimate targets by expediently aligning them with irrelevant, prewar ideals—or holding them complicitly responsible for the very cataclysm itself. Hence, as a scavenging pack, they are impulsive and nomadic by necessity. The marauders’ social agenda is one of regressive and brutal oppression, subjugating when not annihilating remnant communities. If on occasion these bandits do unite toward a collective purpose, it is only geared toward maximizing gains for an elite, despotic few at the murderous expense of many through slavery and domination. In The Last Exterminators (1984), a corrupt neo-feudal aristocracy uses contaminated survivors (and later healthy ones) as targets in lethal games, whereas 2020: Texas Gladiators features a technologically superior neo-Nazi troupe who purge dissenters from their fascistic New Order post-holocaust millennial reich (cf Lifton 4).

3.4.7. The Hero. As outlined earlier, the "hero" of the post-nuclear holocaust world conforms to the classical, cross-cultural mould of mythological champions. With few exceptions, the hero is male and frequently a drifter who has rejected social conformity due to a past of persecution at the hands of the forces of evil—most often via the rape, murder or kidnapping of a loved one, crimes he has witnessed but been unable to prevent. His project becomes one of self-preservation, of surviving in the wilderness through superior dexterity, strength, and cunning, fending for himself (though he gladly challenges the forces of evil wherever they are encountered). He is often at first a morally ambiguous character, one who rescues or protects an "innocent" from a deadly fate at the hands of evil raiders, more so by circumstance than deliberate intervention. Often this encounter leads to a suspicious and antagonistic rapport that later becomes one of respect when the innocent proves his/her prowess in battle, which may in turn save the hero’s life.

The hero is also aided by magical helpers along the way—mutant dwarves in Land of Doom (1985) and Stryker; American Indians in Texas Gladiators; children in New Barbarians, Exterminators of the Year 3000 (1983), and Beyond Thunderdome; women in Desert Warrior (1987), Warlords (1989), and Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987)—all of whom have been victimized by the evil forces responsible for the hero’s earlier renunciation of communal/familial life. His predestined role is to confront the evil regime and, with the help of others, to wreak vengeance on his foes in a terrible battle, and ultimately to destroy the oppressors—an act which is frequently concomitant with the liberation of the material resources necessary for social rebirth. As Campbell relates, "The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release of the flow of life into the body of the world" (40). This finale is rendered literal in the downpour of rain which falls for the first time in many years at the end of Stryker, World Gone Wild, and Steel Dawn (1988); in the hero’s setting men and/or women free to procreate and thus ensure the continuance of the species in Desert Warrior (1987), Le Dernier Combat (1983), 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983), America 3000 (1985), and Hell Comes to Frogtown; in the hero’s liberation of petroleum in The Road Warrior and Exterminators of the Year 3000; and in the hero’s leading children away from corrupt and decaying post-holocaust influences as in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Letters from a Dead Man.

As Ira Chernus has observed,

the actual situation after a nuclear war might, of course, bear little if any resemblance to this mythic vision. But such logical objections are unlikely to diminish its attractiveness. For this scenario speaks not to the logical mind but to the unconscious yearning in each of us to be a hero. The myth of the heroic survivors of nuclear war is merely one instance of the more general myth of the hero, which is perennially popular in our culture as in every other. (8)21

4. Pretext.

You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if, if we’re the generation that is going to see it come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of those prophecies lately, but, believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through. —Ronald Reagan to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, October 1983. (Caldicott 27)

To illustrate the dangerous level of credence given to spurious apocalyptic logic and desire, for eight years the Commander in Chief of America’s nuclear arsenal paradoxically entertained belief in a foreseeable biblical apocalypse in which he thought the Soviets were "going to be involved," while at the same time committing his nation’s military-industrial resources to a Strategic Defense Initiative designed to save the world from this imaginary destruction by making nuclear weapons "obsolete" (Rogin 36). In holding these two contradictory notions, President Reagan reoriented strategic policy for a decade and demonstrated his exemplary capacity to imagine beyond (apocalyptic) disaster and into a realm of (millennial) survival.

By necessity and definition, the apocalyptic imagination requires an imagination of disaster. Armageddon becomes an apocalyptic raison d’être: the forces of good and evil are destined to battle each other. Depending upon the interpretation, in this schema God’s saved elect are either "raptured" up into Heaven at the moment of nuclear conflagration, or the righteous and victorious survivors reign on Earth for a millennium in peace before ascending into God’s dominion (Lifton 4).

During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s imagery of genocidal nuclear stockpiles increasing year by year and converging with a renewed bellicose Christian fundamentalism and heightened superpower tensions encouraged a subculture of survivalists to prepare to emerge from the anticipated holocaust in a position of dominance. However, now that we have seen the signing of the INF treaty and START agreement, unilateral arms reductions by both superpowers, the democratization of Eastern Europe, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it is difficult to expect films exploiting survivalism to proliferate with the apocalyptic vigor of the neo-cold war ‘80s. But as Paul Boyer has demonstrated, historically it has been the period immediately following disarmament treaties and geopolitical shifts which has led to the submergence of nuclear fears and their projected displacement onto other arenas.22


1. The following analysis is not so much a revision of Sontag’s critique as (to use a cinematic analogy) a sequel—or as Umberto Eco might have it, a palimpsest on which her original still lingers—whereby its central thesis is scrutinized within the context of a significant and growing SF subgenre, the post-nuclear holocaust film. Disaster of course is not confined to the milieu of science fiction. Indeed it has become a potent site for narrative cinema in itself, most obvious in the spate of disaster films which proliferated and attracted huge box-office draws throughout the ‘70s. As I have argued elsewhere, the phenomenon of the disaster epic in a period of relative detente may be read as a metaphorical articulation of nuclear holocaust fears sublimated into other arenas. See Mick Broderick, "From Atoms to Apocalypse: Film and the Nuclear Issue," Nuclear Movies (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 1991), 36-37.

2. For literary equivalents, see Boyer, Brians, and Dowling.

3. Spencer Weart demonstrates how rays in this context are always analogous to atomic power and are "descended entirely from older myths." See his Nuclear Fear, a History of Images (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988), 46.

4. The comet motif was recently conflated with apocalyptic nuclear fears in Night of the Comet (1984), where the few uncontaminated survivors of an extraterrestrial plague are taken to an underground bunker designed to keep the race alive for years after a nuclear war.

5. The proliferation of these biblical epics with their detailed attention and narrative space afforded to scenes of populaces destroyed by cosmic intervention demonstrates an ongoing anticipation of an apocalyptic, if not eschatological, future.

6. In many ways the filmic and artistic precursors are epics which show vanquished empires, forgotten races, and extinction. Often such post-Hiroshima representations are clear metaphors of potential nuclear catastrophe with veiled references to prehistoric tribes and dinosaurs, violent volcanic eruptions annihilating whole societies, the fall of the Egyptian, Roman, and Greek empires, the disappearance of Atlantis at its technological zenith, and the Biblical destruction of enemy cities.

7. This is not to suggest these films are on the whole ideologically sound. Indeed, outside of their prophetic nuclear caveats, many are embarrassingly gung-ho in their militarism, as well as misogynistic and exploitative in both form and theme.

8. Some films have avoided this cosmic-intervention theme by placing the nuclear warning squarely in human terms, either from nuclear scientists, as in Seven Days to Noon (1950), or from "terrorists" in Spider-Man Strikes Back (1979). Andrei Tarkovski’s Stalker (1979), for instance, actually merges the two themes by inverting the cosmic-intervention trope when a protesting nuclear scientist tries to destroy an alien intelligence with a small (kiloton) nuclear weapon.

9. Although Five has been castigated for an "unrealistic" rendering of the material conditions which would confront survivors, it seems clear in retrospect that the narrative purpose was not to entertain (costly) imagery of atomic destruction, but to explore some germane emotional and ethical problematics of post-holocaust life by adopting a poetic and allegorical discursive strategy. For an example of contemporary and later critical responses to Five, see Ernest F. Martin’s essay in Jack C. Shaheen, ed., Nuclear War Films (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978), 11-16. Martin unwittingly hits the nail on the head when quoting reviewer Robert Hatch for support: "To suppose that the atom will bring quick death for the millions and a bright, clean world for a bright, clean boy and girl to repopulate is to tell a fairy story to the soft minded." It is precisely the mythic, fable-like quality of Five which imbues its narrative and has led to countless generic repetitions. To dismiss this power totally ignores its later effect on post-war filmmakers, reflected in scenes from Five terrifying 1950s youths in Jim McBride’s Great Balls of Fire! (1989).

10. Significantly, the child of the sole surviving female, as a symbol of the old pre-holocaust age and its former associations, must die to enable the survivor-lovers to unite and start again.

11. The Day After, for instance, employs only five minutes of sustained pyrotechnic disaster footage, or less than 5% of its running time.

12. Unlike virtually all other nuclear war films of the time, these films contained carefully constructed, graphic imagery of atomic explosions in comparable scenarios of geopolitical accidents leading to all out war. Having had first-hand experience of the horrific effects of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is not surprising that Japan produced these SF dramas. Like the popular radioactive monster genre (Godzilla, Rodan, etc.) created by the Tanaka-Honda-Tsuburaya team at Toho studios, these films applied the same destructive special-effect techniques, previously employed as metaphoric nuclear destruction, to cinematically project "the unthinkable." In both films, however, the magnitude of these catastrophic events is narratively grounded by the loss and grief of survivors for their loved ones, rather than focusing on the politico-military leaders responsible for the events.

13. Prior to this theoretical announcement, films such as World War III (1980) symbolically portrayed the end of the species in a finale reminiscent of Fail Safe (1964), whereas post-nuclear winter theory films like Red Dawn (1895) show a conventional war in the US with invading Soviet troops who employ surgical nuclear strikes at key locations to minimize radiation (and the filmmakers having to depict a nuclear winter?). s, avoiding the survivalist perspective by describing alien visitors who find prewar artifacts or automated human devices still continuing their programs long after the race is dead.

15. For an interesting comparison between A Boy and His Dog and Beyond Thunderdome, see Peter C. Hall and Richard D. Erlich, "Beyond Topeka and Thunderdome: Variations on the Comic-Romance Pattern in Recent SF Film," SFS 14:316-25, #43, Nov 1987.

16. For example, numerous instances are evident in music video, as early as The Police’s Synchronicity II clip (1983), and as recent as Keith Richard’s Take It So Hard (1990).

17. At first, Beyond Thunderdome—which was a considered reaction to the genre rip-off that preceded it—seems an exception here. But the unconventional aspects are superficial since Bartertown is only figuratively run by a woman (Master-Blaster has real power) and the settlement is not progressive but an admixture of outmoded styles and customs (a "sleaze pit" Max calls it) which debilitates and enslaves its populace.

18. In an earlier scene, the Templars attack another (religious) group of survivors. Their leader, Juan, is introduced to the audience rending a copy of the Jerusalem Bible in two, saying, "Books! That’s what started the apocalypse!" Such imagery posits the Templars as comparable to Islamic foes who, after numerous crusades against them, persecuted early Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land.

19. Apart from the obvious outlaw association rendered by bikers like Brando in The Wild One, the imagery also serves to engender familiarity via reduplication of the Western genre’s convention of horseback chases and Indians attacking wagon trains or stagecoaches.

20. The dominance of this motif reinforces the understated homosexual subtext of The Road Warrior’s mohawk Wes who vengefully attacks the "good" community after his young lover is killed by the Feral Kid’s boomerang. The action thus aligns him with Max’s outrage at the murder of his wife and child in the first film. The more common link with homosexual acts is that of assault, nihilism and depravity —and a practice which will ensure the species’ death. Other repeated genre motifs in this cycle involve sado-masochism, urinating on captives and voyeuristically forcing prisoners to watch loved ones raped, tortured and murdered.

21. As such it closely resembles Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of the socially constraining and legitimating master narratives described in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1986), 27-41.

22. Described as "the illusion of diminished risk" (Boyer 352-67).


Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light. NY: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Brians, Paul. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1987.

Broderick, Mick. "Heroic Apocalypse: Mad Max, Mythology and the Millennium," Crisis Cinema: The Apocalyptic Idea in Postmodern Narrative Film. Ed. Christopher Sharrett. Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, 1992. 251-72.

Caldicott, Helen. Missile Envy: The Arms Race & Nuclear War. NY: Bantam Books, 1985.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1973.

Chernus, Ira. Dr. Strangegod: On the Symbolic Meaning of Nuclear Weapons. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.

Dowling, David. Fictions of Nuclear Disaster. London: Macmillan Press, 1987.

Lifton, Robert. "The New Psychology of Human Survival: Images of Doom and Hope." Occasional Paper No. 1. NY: Center on Violence and Human Survival, 1987.

Meyer, Nicholas. "Thoughts on How Science Fiction Films Depict the Future." Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies. Ed. Danny Peary. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1984. 33.

Rogin, Michael. Ronald Reagan, The Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Smith, Jeff. "Reagan, Star Wars, and American Culture." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan/Feb 1987. 19-25.

Sontag, Susan. "The Imagination of Disaster." Hal in the Classroom: Science Fiction Film. Ed. Ralph J. Amelio. Dayton, OH: Pflaum, 1974. 22-38. First published in Against Interpretation, 1965.

Weart, Spencer. Nuclear Fear, a History of Images. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.

Abstract.—This survey argues that the substantial sub-genre of SF cinema which has entertained visions of nuclear Armageddon primarily concerns itself with survival as its dominant discursive mode, not disaster as suggested by Susan Sontag. From the early post-Hiroshima films which anticipated global atomic conflict, the ‘50s cautionary tales of short- and long-term effects, through to ‘80s hero myths of apocalypse, a discernable shift away from an imagination of disaster toward one of survival is evident. These films have drawn upon pre-existing mythologies of cataclysm and survival in their renderings of post-holocaust life, the most potent being a recasting of the Judeo-Christian messianic hero. The cinematic renderings of long-term post-nuclear survival appear highly reactionary, and seemingly advocate reinforcing the symbolic order of the status quo via the maintenance of conservative social regimes of patriarchal law (and lore). In this way the post-nuclear survivalist cycle of the ‘80s has signified another mode by which a generation has learned to stop worrying and love—if not the bomb—a (post-holocaust) future, which promises a compelling, utopian fantasy of a biblical Eden reborn in an apocalyptic millennia of peace on Earth. (MB)

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