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Frequently, the most terrifying part of an apocalypse movie or show is any snatches of news that leak through the haze of confusion and fear that comes after, say, a nuclear attack. The key is to tell the audience and the main characters a little (Jericho) but not too little (How I Live Now) about what’s going on in the outside world. Sometimes a flash of something is more terrifying than seeing the whole thing. Or at least more disturbing. The Day After makes you queasy, Testament makes you cry. Pick your poison (sorry, they’re both fallout).

Knowing this, and knowing about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast — regardless of the myth of the mass panic, it’s a damned good broadcast! Especially the straight ersatz news parts! — it is no surprise that a nuclear war plot makes a fine radio play. I found The Last Broadcast thanks to Youtube algorithms which know me all too well.

We interrupt this broadcast” and sudden, dead air has been used in all sorts of scary things since 1938, and it still works. None of us have ever heard or seen a program interrupted by news of nuclear war or alien invasion, and let’s hope we never will. But we’ve seen enough bad, big news that the aesthetic still chills. There seem to be quite a few TV movies, most from the ’80s and 90s, which use this framing as well. I may dive into them next.

It’s the ’80s, and the Soviet Union has invaded West Germany and has invaded our regularly scheduled ’50s throwback hour on an Ontario radio station. The news gets worse from there, and if the static seems slightly fake, the accents suspiciously Canadian except the one news person who clearly fell out of the ’40s, and nobody can say “nuclear” correctly, it’s still an eerie and disturbing hour and a quarter. It helped that I listened while drowsy, with eyes closed, thereby enhancing the surreal feeling (especially when I got up and was still in my boyfriend’s parents’ killingly normal apartment).

The play is amateur, but impressive for all that. The only information I could find about its origins was that it was made and voiced by Canadian students. Not sure if it’s highschool, or college, but I definitely didn’t do anything this much scary fun in either. (I know I didn’t go to highschool, shut up).

downloadSpoilers ahead.

Oh my God, Raymond Briggs, The Snowman was traumatic enough.

The chipper, addled senior citizens of Briggs’ short 1982 comic are aggressively out of touch. Jim Bloggs is cheerful and convinced that the government will save them from impending war, even if he has enough sense to take the prospect seriously. His worrywart wife Hilda thinks there’s time to reprimand her husband for swearing, and for messing up the house. There isn’t.

The preparation is careful and deliberate. Jim follows civil defense instructions to the letter. Except that he carefully builds an inner, fallout-proof sanctum in their house, but then fails to remember that they were supposed to stay inside it for 14 days.

What first appears to be goofy, can-do, learned it from the blitz spirit becomes sort of hamfisted and impossibly oblivious in time. Nobody could actually be this stupid, right?

However, after long, overly detailed build-up, the moment the bomb drops is amazing and nauseating, which is no small feat for a comic. The art is flawless. Pastoral home lived in by two round-faced seniors turns into grim and grimmer. Any aesthetic echos of The Snowman makes both comics much worse.

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Yet, they’re both so dumb. Impossibly dumb, unless they are really simple folk. Yet, one can more easily imagine simple folk not trying as hard as Jim and Hilda do to survive. It’s like they almost would have made it, but no, they never had a chance.

The reader knows. We know Jim and Hilda are sick long before they do. We know that the smell of roasted meat in the air isn’t barbecue. The chipper cluelessness of both of them is too much to believe or stand. And that’s the genius of it. The condemnation of doing your bit, the sympathy towards and gentle mocking of people who trust the government to not leave them in the post-apocalyptic lurch. Who assume that if you have the right checklist, nuclear war will be nothing but a bit of a bump in the road. We’ll tighten our belts and ration food for a time, but then we’ll be fine. Not so. Not so.

The end is so on the nose, it’s practically WarGames. You know, “strange game…the only way to win is not to play” as it applies to global thermonuclear war. It’s not hard to figure out the meaning of Hilda and Jim passing away from radiation sickness, while Jim quietly recites “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He doesn’t know why that bit of stirring, stern, sincere poetry comes to mind. But we do.

zn2ravyul9264mzv8cneJalopnik has the skinny on the video that Ted Turner wanted played before the apocalypse. Spoiler alert, is an Army brass and woodwind band playing one version of “Nearer My God to Thee.” That sounds inane, or a little too close to the maybe-apocryphal Titanic band’s choice of last song. However, if you have any spine-chills available for this kind of mood-piece (and I have it in excess), you should watch it all the same.

My favorite quote from the entire piece is in the image to the right: “HFR till end of the world confirmed.”

So modest, funny, and unnerving.

Even though the video is so insubstantial — though its simplicity, and its analog quality makes it appear to have crawled out of end of the world ’80s classics like Miracle Mile, Testament, or Threads — it has a creepy quality of belonging in two worlds. It’s a more true version of when real newscasters have bits parts in apocalypse or alien invasion films. Instead of imparters of fact playing a part, the video is the real real world playing at something that — thankfully — hasn’t happened yet, and so remains the stuff of nightmares and fiction.

I wonder if any other networks have such a thing on standby. I keep picturing Ted Turner planning this out late one feverish night after a bad dream.

Simply because I was only a toddler for the end of the Cold War, I cannot tell how true this idea of apocalypse in the air was; whether kids really thought they wouldn’t grow up; whether everyone was damn sure the big one would be dropped at some point. I can’t tell, because I wasn’t there for all intents and purposes so I can only trust a narrative, and a simplification. And because the simple version is, we all thought we were going to die from the bomb, and then in the world of This Bike is a Pipebomb, “everybody just forgot about it.” (As I read today, one reason the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists objects to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is that is plants the threat of nuclear weapons as squarely in the past.)

Tell me how it was, readers. And tell me if you know of any other network or media versions of this CNN apocalypse video. I want to collect them all, like the morbid, gasmask-collecting lunatic I know I can be.

testament-1983-ross-harris-roxanne-zal-jane-alexander-lukas-haas-rebecca-demornay-kevin-costner-pic-2A PBS production from 1983 that ended up in theaters, and with an Oscar nomination for lead Jane Alexander, Testament came at the end of the last Cold War hot flash, along with Threads and The Day After. Those two were all big, showing every grim — television budgeted — detail of the end of the world, or at least western civilization. Threads, bizarrely, is so excruciating that a numbness — albeit a queasy type — starts to set in by the time nuclear winter rolls round.

In Testament, you wish that were the case. This sneaky, understated movie is the Platonic ideal of real horror. Most nuclear war fiction, even if it is all about one family, town, or city plunged into uncertainty, shows you some pieces of the story. Jericho, Alas, Babylon,  On the Beach, they tell you how we got here, even though there is always a fog of war element. Testament is not interested in the why of anything, it just wants you to look until you can’t stand it anymore. This is just the story of a mom, her three kids, and her husband who never comes home from work in San Francisco on the day the bombs are dropped.

The movie takes its time on the family, the totally banal family living in the little California town. It’s about them and how they could be anyone. This could be happening for any reason, and whichever reason that is is bullshit. Even near the end, when Jane Alexander’s matriarch Carole falls to her knees and cries “Who did this?! God damn you!” she’s not asking about the socio-political explanation. It, in some ways, doesn’t matter. There is one tiny glimpse of television new that says nukes have been dropped, then there is a bright light. A few radio broadcasts tell us little later, but they mostly just mean a fraying connections to the outside world.

Things seem alright for a while in town, and the acting and the terrible regularness of it all confirms this. I find myself again feeling skeptical about the lack of hysteria. Hell, maybe “The Shelter” is most accurate then I thought. Why does nobody crack up? Haven’t they seen movies like this one? Jane Alexander is good, but she is mostly a little too composed.

But the everyday living facade, and the ease of watching it for the audience, starts to crack after the town puts on the school play that Carole was preparing for when the movie began. Twenty Kindergartners preform the Pied Piper, and the adults in the audience watch and cry because the see the familiarity: mistakes were made, and the children are going to pay for it. They cannot be trusted with the children. They are why they won’t get to have lives at all.

There are several more plateaus of regular living. Surviving requires working with the other people on town, and it does seem to work. Then another spike of horror comes when Carole’s friend is wandering in the rain holding a drawer that will serve as a coffin for his baby. Still, the food rations, the lines, the organization of everything sends the inevitability of thing back a few weeks. There’s the symbol of hope that is the radio, manned by a level-headed old neighbor. Carole’s oldest boy visits him, and then helps him check on the rest of the townspeople. He rides his bike, which is his talisman that reminds him of his dad, who would pester him into riding with him. Near the end, he has to ride his dad’s bike. He rides it past scenes of graves, and of graveyards filling past capacity. Eventually the bodies are burned instead.

This movie is a sneak, in the most stomach-aching fashion. The town is staying organized, until the police chief suddenly has a subtle, and entirely real nervous breakdown during a town meeting in church. The kids are bratty or earnest in turn until they are quieted by radiation sickness. The daughter is daddy’s girl, and rather dull, until the conversation she has with her mother about sex culminates in her tearfully saying that that love, and sharing, and all that will never happen for her, and she knows it. There are sentimental trimmings, including– like On the Beach — an overly intrusive soundtrack.

But the horror wins out. Fiendishly abruptly, things falls apart and the graveyards fill, the littlest boy is suddenly sick in the bathroom. After a few minutes, he’s wrapped in a sheet. That’s the progression of the movie now. It picks up speed as the family runs out of time.

Good parents are heroes in the most terrifying way. A good parent is supposed to give up their life for their child. The only thing more frightening an idea than that is the parent who can do nothing except watch their children slowly die. It’s happened, and it will always happen because of cruel accident and disease. But movies like this can’t help but remind me of what the US did to parents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It — the government that is just another word for things we choose to do together — made parents watch their children die. The power of the bombs were the way they killed slowly or in a millisecond. The latter gave us shadows on sidewalks, grim poetry and metaphor, and at least a complete lack of suffering for the victim. Radiation sickness, on the other hand, is slow agony. Nothing artful in that, just vomiting, and diarrhea, and hair loss, and nausea, and dizziness, and death. This movie, and other apocalyptic fiction, were intended to ward off what they showed on screen (though nothing is as grim as it would be, not even the ’80 dread trio). And they worked, if the tales of Reagan watching The Day After are as simple as they sound. But I can’t help but be reminded that that nightmare already was done to thousands of people. Our Cold War fiction is the horrors that were avoided. We are never as interested in the ones we caused. Too prosaic.

Testament is propelled by its characters — simple ones, who by rights should have stayed that way. We shouldn’t be watching them at all, because this shouldn’t have happened. But it’s not nihilistic. It’s not Threads, where it just pounds at you, screaming that this must never be, and if it does we’ll be brutes, and then there will be nothing left of humanity — because, seemingly, humanity is a thin skin over a pit of savagery. For a movie about the complete lack of control over saving yourself, and your loved ones, Testament highly values the idea of being good and decent as you die. It’s a feeble fading away with nothing to be done in one way. In another, you remember your loved ones who left, you help your neighbors, and you don’t become a monster. The smaller this movie gets — and it is oh, so small by the final — the more clearly it demonstrates that one family is the world, and the world is just about to end, but perhaps it ended as well as it could.

Ansel_Elgort_43600Once, unsure what sort of movie I was in the mood for, I asked twitter if I should go for nuclear war or ’80s teen movie. My then-colleague Tim Cavanaugh answered the only logical way — why choose, when there’s WarGames?

Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, earnest ’80s pleas for peace, and menacing Cold War terrors, and the impossibility of computers that can actually communicate with computers; this movie fulfilled those two genre urges like no other one can. It is dated in all the right ways. (Why is dated a pejorative again? I love dated.)

I don’t presume to know anything about hacking, except for what I learned from Cracked lists about what it doesn’t look like. But WarGames, the story of Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman almost starting global thermonuclear war when he thinks he’s playing a game with a computer named WOPR (War Operation Plan Response)/”Joshua” is reportedly a pretty solid portrayal of it. The exception is the cinema-ready self-awareness of the computer itself, but certainly the scene where David calls different computers to find one with a modem — thereby finding his way to Joshua — is the opposite of the Hackers-style flash and dash bullshit. The movie explains backdoor passwords, and shows much more than frantic typing in order to explain how computers function or react. This seriousness is why the Vegas hacker conference is named in the movie’s honor. Or rather, confusingly, it is called DEFCON — for the NORAD levels of defense readiness which we all learned from various alien/nuke movies. (DEFCON is important to the movie, and puns are great, but that’s still a silly name. Why not JoshuaCon? WOPRCon? MatthewBroderickCon?)

This is a fairly slow-paced movie. The acting is good enough to go unnoticed.  The hackerness is all respected, meaning the computer intrigue before the accidental near-nuclear war is given its due. Later there’s David being taken by the FBI into NORAD. He escapes, and he and lady friend Ally Sheedy make their way to Joshua’s creator to plead with him to save the day. In true Cold War (movies, if nothing else) nihilism style, Joshua’s creator is initially too depressed about the inevitably of nuclear doom to do anything to stop the events. But just in time, he is convinced, and the three heroes make their way back to NORAD just in time to play the great, metaphorical tic-tac-toe that ends Joshua’s attempts to kill us all with the terrifying fiction of a Soviet ICBM assault.

The computer’s famous ending lines are cheesy, and they somehow work within the earnestness of the moment. Tic-tac-toe/Mutually Assured Destruction is a: “Strange game, the only winning move is not to play.” (So “How about a nice game of chess?”) Notably, before Joshua is tricked, then taught — an AI that learns, also an alarming concept! — with the game of tic-tac-toe, the military men at NORAD must be convinced to hold off on a counter-strike against the (non-existent) Soviet assault on their own.  Now, there’s an endlessly topical lesson, applicable to the US and Israel and other muscly nations — maybe you don’t automatically fire back, melting a few civilians in the process. Maybe you take a minute to consider your options, even when you are being attacked. Maybe you just don’t play.

In spite of the evergreen lesson of don’t kill everybody — and don’t let it happen by automation, which pops up in all manner of cold war fiction, for good reason — WaGames is solidly of its time. This makes talk of remaking it particularly baffling. What is a WarGames from 2014 or ’15 even about? Preventing a fake 9/11? There could be espionage and government secrets, but any variation would logically make this a different movie altogether. Personal computers are not the aliens that they were in 1983 — we now check them like we used to smoke cigarettes, with the same thoughtless tic. And we may be looking nervously at Russia more often than we were a few months ago, but fear of The Bomb is more passe than even space travel. Whether that is unwise remains to be seen — hopefully forever.