9 nightmarish nuclear fallout films
In honor (?) of a new horror movie set at the site of the Chernobyl disaster, we present a look at the cinematic tradition of meltdown films.
Tue, May 22, 2012 at 06:06 PM
WHAT A TRIP: In "The Chernobyl Diaries," an "extreme" tour guide takes tourists into Pripyat. They soon find themselves stranded, only to learn that they are not alone. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)
The worst nuclear power plant accident in history, the Chernobyl disaster, is now, 26 years later, getting its own big-budget horror movie. Due to open May 26, “The Chernobyl Diaries” is a supernatural thriller co-written and produced by Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”) and appears to be a hybrid of “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Hills Have Eyes” with a disaster tourism twist: A group of young American tourists for some reason think it would be a fantastic idea to embark on a guided tour of Pripyat, the once-bustling-now-abandoned Ukrainian city in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. (Note: in reality, Pripyat is indeed open to “extreme tourism” groups although “The Chernobyl Diaries” was not filmed on location.) The daylight tour of Pripyat is unnerving enough (cue to an obligatory shot of a creepy, forsaken baby doll lying in the dirt), but things really get spooky when darkness falls and the Geiger counter-clutching group returns to their vehicle only to discover that it’s been sabotaged by unseen forces. Guess that means they’ll have to spend the night in a radioactive ghost city!
While “The Chernobyl Diaries” risks being labeled as just as insensitive as it is scary given its tragic setting, nuclear-themed popcorn flicks are nothing new. In fact, pissed-off monsters that arise from atomic testing sites and disaster areas are a cherished cinematic tradition dating back to the days of “Godzilla.” During the 1950s, nuclear horror films were all the rage as Hollywood unleashed a stable of mutated radioactive beasts upon moviegoers who left theaters both terrified of the creatures themselves and, of course, the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union.
In the '70s and '80s, atomic creature features died off somewhat and gave way to post-apocalyptic thrillers and flesh-eating humanoid films (for a while there, mutants were all the rage … double points if they rode motorcycles) that were less about atomic warfare and more concerned with nuclear energy and toxic waste. Perhaps the most important and most terrifying nuclear disaster film of that era, “The China Syndrome,” was released in 1979, only two weeks before the Three Mile Island Accident, a partial core meltdown at a nuclear power facility in Dauphine County, Pa. While not a horror movie per se, the fictional concept of “The China Syndrome” — a loss-of-coolant accident in which a nuclear reactor’s core components melt through the crust of the Earth and travel all the way to China — managed to scare the pants off of American moviegoers.
Below, to mark the release of “The Chernobyl Diaries,” we’ve rounded up nine notable nuclear horror films that span more than 50 years of murder, mayhem and reactor meltdowns. Is there an important one that we missed? Tell us about it in the comments section!
Many modern audiences often fail to realize that the undisputed heavyweight of movie monsters, Godzilla (or Gojira in his native Japanese), isn’t just some kind of indestructible reptilian beast that randomly emerged from the sea for the first time in 1954 to wreak havoc on innocent people. Godzilla is actually a metaphor for the ultimate nuclear weapon, a prehistoric beast awakened by atomic testing in the Pacific Ocean and given all sorts of radioactive superpowers (and no, that’s no fire he’s breathing but atomic breath) used to terrorize humans and battle his Kaiju co-stars (Rodan, Mothra, Gamera, Anguirus, et al.). Remarks Peter Wynn Kirby in an excellent opinion piece for the New York Times published in the days following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster: “Audiences who flocked to 'Gojira' were clearly watching more than just a monster movie. The film’s opening scenes evoked the nuclear explosion in the Pacific and the damaged Japanese bodies so poignant to domestic viewers. Godzilla — relentless, vengeful, sinister — looms as an overt symbol of science run amok.”
Released the same year as the original “Godzilla,” “Them!” is among the first, and perhaps the most quintessential, of a string of Cold War-era “nuclear monster movies” (our apologies to the “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”) that all feature cranky, oversized creatures summoned by atomic testing. But while Japan has a radiation-breathing sea monster that went on to spawn an entire franchise and countless imitators, America got atomic ants the size of Cadillacs and a not-so-subtle anti-nuclear message at the film’s conclusion: “When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” And “Them!” hasn’t been the only nuclear-testing-gone-awry monster movie set in the New Mexico desert: There’s “The Hills Have Eyes,” which offers a much different look at the effects of nuclear fallout has on local populations.
“Fiend Without A Face” (1958)
Naturally, when the bodies of civilians living in a town near a remote military base start a-pilin’ up, the victims’ brains and spinal cords stolen from their bodies, you’d immediately want to blame space aliens, right? Right. But in the case of the “Fiend Without A Face,” a notable British entry into the atomic creature genre, the brain-slurping bad guys (at first, they’re invisible but eventually develop into slithering, antennaed brain-monsters) are 100 percent homegrown, the result of top-secret nuclear testing at said military base. And naturally, there’s an eccentric retired scientist behind the whole thing as well. Of course, the only way to stop the multiplying creatures from continuing on with their horrific organ-snatching campaign is to destroy the nuclear reactor at the military base. At the film’s conclusion, the film’s hero does just that, causing, in the words of the original New York Times review, “the small monsters to drop lifeless from the trees like caterpillars on a hot summer day.”
“The Horror of Party Beach” (1964)
Singled out as one of the first antinuclear films by PBS Frontline, Del Tenney’s drive-in cult classic “The Horror of Party Beach” is the stereotypical 1960s teen beach party flick with an terrifying atomic twist: In addition to the bikini-clad babes, motorbike-riding bad boys, rock ‘n’ roll musical numbers and requisite slumber parties, there’s also a host of seriously ridiculous-looking radioactive monsters that emerge from the sea to stalk and feast on the blood of young, nubile Gidgets-in-training. As was customary of monster movies at this time, these crustacean-liked creatures formed by a nuclear sludge dumped into the ocean show gender bias as to whom exactly they terrorize … if you’re a twistin’ teeny-bopper sporting XY chromosomes, they really couldn’t be bothered.
“The Chain Reaction” (1980)
Earthquakes! High-speed car chases! Erased memories! Cover-ups! Nuclear waste storage facilities! Frequently and mostly accurately described as "'Mad Max' meets 'The China Syndrome,'" this acclaimed Australian hit from 1980 (not be confused the 1996 Morgan Freeman/Keanu Reeves thriller) is more of a stunt-driven action flick than a straight-out horror movie. Still, the storyline is nightmarish: An injured man with radiation-induced amnesia who “knows too much” is relentlessly pursued by murderous thugs wearing scary contamination suits. And on the topic of nightmarish, if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll catch none other than “Mad Max” himself, Mr. Mel Gibson, in a small, uncredited role as an auto mechanic.
“The Children” (1980)
Released in the wake of the worst nuclear power plant accident in American history, the Three Mile Island Accident, “The Children” is a low-budget zombie film cum antinuclear parable filled with bad acting, a screeching score courtesy Harry Manfredini (“Friday the 13th”) and a storyline that’s pretty much every parents’ worst nightmare: On the way home from school, a school bus filled with youngsters passes through a cloud of radioactive gas (what do you know, there had just been a major accident at ye olde local nuclear power plant). As a result of the chemical exposure, the children of Ravensback, Mass., are transformed into half-catatonic, black finger-nailed creeps who are really big on hugging. Yes, hugging. As the film explores in gory detail, hugging your atomic zombie child back is a really bad idea.
Crime. Corruption. Crumbling infrastructure. Residents of New York City in the early 1980s had enough to worry about as it was let alone the fact that homeless people living in the city’s network of abandoned subway tunnels were coming in contact with radioactive waste (secretly stashed there by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, naturally) that transformed them into murderous mutants or, more precisely, Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Although the concept of “C.H.U.D” is ridiculous — as an April Fools’ Day joke in 2002, the Criterion Collection announced it planned to reissue the movie on Blu-ray and DVD — the movie does have some terrifying moments involving glowing-eyed freaks ascending to the city streets from beneath manhole covers. Plus, it stars Daniel Stern and John Heard who reunited six years later for a much different kind of horror film: “Home Alone.”
“Class of Nuke ‘Em High” (1986)
Like all films (see: “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead” and “Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D.”) produced by schlock factory Troma Entertainment, the plot of “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” defies easy description. In his New York Times review, critic Vincent Canby gamely takes a stab, first clarifying that the movie takes place at a New Jersey high school located next to a faulty nuclear power plant “which has drain pipes that look as if they'd been stolen from the original House of Seven Gables.” Explains Canby: “When the school's only bookish student makes the mistake of drinking a green liquid that gushes from the water fountain, he foams at the mouth and ears and jumps out a window. People in Tromaville aren't good at putting two and two together. They blame the boy's strange behavior on the fact that he owns two microwave ovens. Poor, virginal Chrissy, the sweetest, prettiest girl in the senior class, makes the first mistake of her young life when she smokes marijuana grown in radioactive soil. Immediately she sleeps with her boyfriend and, the next day, gives birth to a radioactive salamander.”
“The Hills Have Eyes” (2006)
While horror maestro Wes Craven’s 1977 shocker only hints at the fact that the film’s antagonists — a clan of deformed, deranged hill-dwellers who terrorize a wholesome, road-tripping American family — were mutated by radioactive fallout, Alexandre Aja’s exceedingly gruesome 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” plays up the whole Cold War-era nuclear testing backstory and then some. In fact, one of the “incestuous cannibalistic gnashing slobberers” himself — a particularly unsightly fellow named Big Brain — is considerate enough to explain the origin of his “nuclear family” to one of his blood-splattered intended victims: “Your people asked our families to leave the towns, and you destroyed our homes. We went into the mines, you set off your bombs, and turned everything to ashes. You made us what we've become. Boom! Boom! Boom!” Moral of the story? Not everyone who looks like “Sloth” from “The Goonies” wants to be your friend. Also, it really helps to have your faithful German shepherd with you when traveling in your RV through desolate nuclear testing sites in the New Mexico desert.
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