As someone who’s old enough to remember the terror of living under the threat of WW3 during the Cold War, nothing frustrates me more than the fanboy war that broke out a decade ago between Threads (1984) and The Day After (1983). But before I explain why, I have to go into the history of why these movies were made.
After the end of WW2 in 1945 came the Cold War, an ideological conflict between the US and the Soviet Union that led to heightened tensions between the two nations. Normally, these tensions shouldn’t have caused any real concern. However, right from the very beginning, the world began walking on egg shells. It wasn’t just because it looked as though the Cold War could lead to a whole new world war, but that if WW3 did break out, it would be fought with a nuclear bomb, the most devastating weapon known to man.
For decades, people lived under the dark cloud of full-scale atomic and nuclear war, but clung to the faint hope that WW3 would never happen in their lifetime or that if it did, the human race could survive it. However, by 1980, all hopes were dashed. Not only did conflict between the US and USSR seem imminent, nuclear weapons had become so much more powerful than the ones some forty years before. To make matters worse, each superpower had stockpiled enough weapons to blow up the world several times over and wipe everything–including wildlife–off the face of the Earth.
The growing, omnipresent sense of doom that loomed because of the Cold War grew to such an extent that by the 1980s, it led to a frenzied increase in anti-nuclear war films, both here in the States and abroad. Many great movies came out during this period, but the two that had the biggest impact were The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). The Day After had such an impact, in fact, that even President Ronald Reagan said it changed his perspective on nuclear weapons and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).
Some 20 years after these movies debuted, something weird happened when a newer generation discovered both films. A fanboy war started, more on the Threads end than on The Day After’s end. You couldn’t read any internet comment or article about The Day After without people fuming that someone had the temerity to mention that film and not mention Threads. As far as they were concerned, not only was Threads the better movie, The Day After was pure crap anyway and not worth watching.
This fanboy war has frustrated me for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that it doesn’t make sense to create a pissing match over which post-nuclear apocalyptic movie was better. The whole point of these movies was to warn the world that it was getting precariously close to WW3 and to make the world leaders with access to The Button know in no uncertain terms that there was no such thing as a “winnable” nuclear war. To create some sort of competition based on flaws having nothing to do with whether they were effective in getting their message across completely misses the point of why these films were made in the first place.
Another reason why the fanboyism frustrates me is that both movies had their strengths and weaknesses that pretty much canceled out any contention that one was “better.” The Day After’s biggest strength was that it had heart. It had engaging characters who you immediately connected and empathized with, making what they went through in the aftermath of a nuclear war that much more poignant. The movie, like Testament, also did a good job of blowing apart people’s illusion that if they were far enough from any impact site (“ground zero”), they could just ride a nuclear war out as if nothing had happened and pick up where they last left off. What The Day After showed was that even if you survived the war itself without even so much as a scratch, you would die, anyway–if not from radiation sickness, then disease, starvation, infection or death at the hand of marauders.
The Day After’s biggest weaknesses were the poor production values and lack of realism during the famous detonation sequence. Particularly silly was the so-called “X-ray” effect (flashing skeletons of victims getting vaporized), and scenes of people enjoying everyday activities (like holding wedding ceremonies) right up to the moment the bomb dropped. Also, due to network constraints, much of what was shown was sanitized and in one case, even censored (a jump scare of a girl with bandaged eyes who suddenly sits up and screams into camera).
Threads’ strengths made up for the weaknesses of The Day After. Not only did it show in extremely accurate detail what happens in a nuclear blast (right down to the charred corpses), people behave more realistically than their American counterparts in The Day After. In Threads, we see people peeing themselves when a mushroom cloud appears in the distance; we see people being dragged kicking and screaming into bomb shelters. After the war, everything is relentlessly bleak; there are no occasional moments of “pluckiness” on display, no smart aleck quips from characters as they lay dying. Human civilization reverts back to the medieval period, and Threads makes clear in no uncertain terms that there’s no shot in hell that it will ever bounce back.
In spite of being technically better, grittier and more realistic, Threads’ biggest strengths also wound up being its greatest weakness. The movie may have pulled no punches in showing the sheer horrors of nuclear war, but ironically, this may have inadvertently caused the opposite effect of getting people to think and talk about it. I cannot emphasize enough that in the 1980s, people were terrified of nuclear war. Simply discussing the possibility of it happening was enough to make everyone break out into a cold sweat or shut down emotionally and mentally. So a film like this probably did more harm than good; rather than inspire debate and awareness, it probably caused viewers to fall into a pit of despair and fatalism.
With The Day After, the opposite happened. The weaker special effects blunted the film’s horror to such an extent that many viewers were able to watch the movie without falling into a full blown panic. On top of that, many people were so annoyed by what they felt was a downplayed, sanitized depiction of nuclear war that they couldn’t wait to debate the hell out of the film after it aired. Threads, on the other hand, merely just heightened the level of terror, hopelessness and fatalism that people were already feeling at the time, the last thing you would want in a film meant to spur debate about and activism against nuclear war.
You could argue that given today’s climate, Threads being so graphic and downbeat is a moot point. We’re living in an age where full-scale global nuclear war has passed, so why see the movie’s grittiness as a weakness? No one is on edge anymore the way everyone was in the 1980s. Well, the problem is that if in the future the world entered another situation similar to what we experienced at the height of the Cold War, the movie’s graphic approach would work against it because viewers would be too distressed to appreciate its message.
Don’t Listen to the Fanboys; Both Movies are Great
If the fanboys had their way, everyone in the world would just bypass The Day After and skip it in favor of Threads. Don’t listen to them. Both movies are solid entries in their own right, and both are worth viewing, whether you’re a fan of the nuclear apocalyptic genre as a whole, an anti-nuclear proponent, a young person who’s curious about what the Cold War was like in the 1980s or a film buff who appreciates harrowing drama.
If you recall, I made a comment on your post about Dr. Strangelove vs. Fail-Safe. Then I told you about how I grew up on air force bases. Well, when The Day After came out, I was doing just that; living on an air force base which was home to two B-52 bomber wings and the command center for close to three hundred nuclear missiles. We knew if there was a war, Bomb #1 had our name on it. So, to be honest, we didn’t worry about it. In fact, every body knew that if they saw our missiles being launched, we had about a half hour until the return volley would arrive.
Really well-argued point about Threads. When you first mentioned it has a weakness, I couldn’t possibly think what you meant. However, after reading the article through, you make a very valid point. Who wants to talk about possibly the scariest film ever made? I liked both films, thought Threads was better, but in no way thought The Day After was poor. Not as good, but still quality. Both still need to be watched, & if The Day After gets people talking more than Threads, it mustn’t be ignored.
A thoughtful write up. I remember getting sent out of class for laughing at the woman, in Threads, wetting herself in terror.
One thing to remember that whilst during the later years of the cold war despite having arsenals “capable of destroying the world over” if there had been a nuclear war only a fraction of them would have been used.
Neither side would have used all their nukes against the other. Here’s why.
In a nuclear war just like a conventional war there is an objective. This is to damage the opposition’s military capability faster than they can yours and their ability to recover to be a threat again.
So the military targets are fairly obvious. But civilian deep water ports and civilian airports would also be considered military targets due to their suitability for military aircraft and shipping.
To prevent the other side from recovering quicker than you doesn’t require nuclear “carpet bombing” or even Threads level bombardment. Taking out a Country’s oil refining capability (only four locations for this in UK) along with Natural Gas distribution network, and thirdly National Grid control centres would go a long way to achieving the second objective.
Also the protagonists would want weapons held back to discourage further exchanges with each other and also to threaten neutral States that may try take advantage of the damaged Countries.
Err not really. The Soviet strategy that was published by actual Soviet generals and military strategists clearly stated their aim in a nuclear attack was to destroy military and economic targets to prevent the enemy from recovering. This is according to Soviet general V. D. Sokolovskiy. He detailed that soviet strikes would be massive and in response to smaller strikes against the USSR by the US. They had over 40,000 weapons by the end of the Cold War, around 10,000 was enough for them to turn Europe into a wasteland and render the US completely useless. You can also look at the US plans, they would’ve also conducted massive strikes against the Soviet-Sino bloc.
David C Randall
I was a crew member on the shoot of The Day After in Lawrence, Kansas, and an extra in a few scenes. Our little town was glad to be a part of the effort to get the message out, but also terrified of what that message was. I didn’t know of Threads till years later, and it does indeed make TDA pale in comparison for its visceral honesty. It’s possible though that Reagan himself would have turned away from the better movie, and the message to the man with the button would have been lost. We have the blessing of time past, and we can argue the merits of filmmaking, but sometimes a message needs to be conveyed in several layers, more and less palatable, to get through to a human consciousness reluctant to a profound mind-shift. I am grateful to both these efforts
Reagan didn’t turn away from Threads – it’s known that he watched it when it aired in the US. The Labour party leader of the time Neil Kinnock also watched Threads and congratulated the director and producer. The film on its first showing was seen by 7 million people in the UK on BBC Two, and was then repeated for a wider audience on BBC One.
Yeah, we’re not actually “living in an age where full-scale global nuclear war has passed.” The threat of nuclear conflict is now as high as it was at any point during the cold war.
I think a lot of the debate came from when The Day After came out there were all these warnings, and honestly over hyped marketing about how the mini series would scar younger viewers. I was a teenager when these came out. I saw both, and found Threads far more horrifying. You are right, they both do a good job of pointing out the horrors of nuclear war, and I agree that the characters in The Day After are more compelling. The characters in Threads are barely memorable. But Threads is more about the global horror itself, and less about the horror that individuals suffer.
I typically watch both back to back
“living in an age where full-scale global nuclear war has passed.” I’m afraid not. The current situation is just as bad as It ever was, with arguably now more players. Current situation in Ukraine is frightening enough. I still live in fear of what would happen I have just learned to accept as an individual I cannot control it. Everyone should watch threads, it should be required viewing.
“You could argue that given today’s climate, Threads being so graphic and downbeat is a moot point. We’re living in an age where full-scale global nuclear war has passed,” .this has to be the quote of the year…. lol
Why would this be the quote of the year? I wrote this in 2017. That was five years ago.
You’re not as clever as you think you are, either. Look at what I had written exactly after that sentence:
QUOTE: “Well, the problem is that if in the future the world entered another situation similar to what we experienced at the height of the Cold War, the movie’s graphic approach would work against it because viewers would be too distressed to appreciate its message.”