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Wayback Wednesday: The totally nuclear eighties

Nuclear weapons are in the news again. Who has them? How many? Under what circumstances might they be used?

But back in the 1980's, nukes just weren't for the news. They were entertainment. The 80s gave us the Swatch, Alf and Spuds McKenzie. It also gave us the TV nuclear annihilation movie of the week. What could be better than gathering the family around the tube after Sunday dinner and sharing in the wonder and endless possibilities of a nuclear winter.

Here's a look back at a few "totally nuclear" TV movies from the 1980's.

World War III (1982)

In this gem Cathy Lee Crosby and David Soul team up to battle the Ruskies who have sent an elite ski commando team into Alaska to seize a strategically important pipeline as a response to the United States' grain embargo.

The plot is deliciously crazy.

Rock Hudson plays the American president who orders the Alaska National Guard to intervene. Hudson's character later meets with the Russian president played by Bryan Keith. They can't nail down a ceasefire agreement. Later they do. Then the Russian president is assassinated and a coup is launched. In the end, the nukes go off and everybody dies.

Testament (1983)

Unbelievably, Testament was originally on PBS and it's worth including simply because it might be the most depressing movie ever made. The 90-minute story looks at how residents of a small suburban San Francisco town coped with the fallout (literally) of an exchange of nuclear weapons between the Russia and the United States.

It's any other afternoon. Carol, a homemaker and neighborhood mensch is at home when suddenly the TV goes into emergency broadcasting mode. After the president begins to speak to the nation, a nuclear explosion appears outside of the Oval Office window.

What follows is radioactive fallout. More radioactive fallout, followed by more and more radioactive fallout. People begin to starve.  Some begin to get sick and die. Children are buried in dresser drawers. In the end, nobody is spared. It's the kind of movie you only ever want to watch once, if at all.

Special Bulletin (1983)

This NBC movie wasn't about a turf war between America and the Russians. Special Report took the form of a fake breaking news event covered by a mythical news network. In a way, it was TV's answer to Orson Welles.

While the movie was kind of cool, and it scared some people for real, the plot was a bit kooky. In Special Report a small group of concerned scientist-terrorists bring a homemade nuclear weapon onto a boat in Charleston Harbor with the goal of forcing the U.S. government to disable its nukes. Hilarity ensues. There's back and forth between the scientist-terrorists and government, and then a commando raid. The mythical network covers it all breathlessly and then boom goes the dynamite, along with a whole bunch of expensive vacation homes.

The Day After (1984)

The granddaddy of them all. The Day After came with huge buildup. Parents were urged to talk to their kids about it before they let them watch it, and it was even addressed in some schools. As much as any TV movie of the week in the 1980's, The Day After inspired dialogue among viewers.

With JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, Jason Robards and John Lithgow it also had some star power not usually seen in TV movies. In The Day After, tensions between NATO and Russia in East Germany fuel the events that lead up to nuclear war. This film takes a look at all of that from the perspective of folks in Lawrence, Kansas.  As with the others, hope is in short supply. Spoiler alert: Things get really, really bad and then everyone dies.

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Matt Patterson

Matt Patterson has been with The Oklahoman since 2006. Prior to joining the news staff in 2010, Patterson worked in The Oklahoman's sports department for five years. He previously worked at The Lawton Constitution and The Edmond Sun.... Read more ›