In the 20th century, the apocalypse happened more than once. In a perceptive 1978 essay on Surrealism, Angela Carter wrote: 'the 1914-18 war was, in many respects, for France and Germany, the end of the world. However, the Russian Revolution of 1917 suggested the end of one world might mark the commencement of another world, one in which human beings might themselves take possession not only of their own lives, but also of their own means of expressing the reality of that life, i.e. art. It is possible for the true optimist to view the end of the world with sang-froid. What is so great about all this crap? Might there be something better?'
Carter recognised that the apocalyptic impulse, at its inception, is an optimistic one – in fact, a revolutionary one. Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium makes quite clear that eschatology emerges from the religion of the poor, in the context of oppression and betrayal. From the book of Daniel onwards, the apocalyptic mode is based on denunciations of Rome or Babylon, of Priests and false prophets, and lurid descriptions of the various misfortunes that will befall the evil, and the pleasures that await the righteous ones. So why is it, that in the 20th century, the apocalyptic imaginary has largely been a series of horrific images, of horrendous catastrophes from which no-one can be safe?
The short answer is that, after 1918, a vision of apocalypse took form in the imagination that was very closely based in reality. In 1914-8, millions directly experienced a blasted landscape in which it was impossible to discern the corpses, with all life obliterated by the most advanced technology. One of the earliest cinematic apocalypses takes immediate inspiration from this. William Cameron Menzies, Alexander Korda and H.G Wells' Things to Come (1936) stages a series of Hegelian catastrophes, in which first, 'Everytown' is obliterated in a (still horrifying) blitzkrieg, then we have a decades-long war in which aerial bombing manages to destroy all of the world's cities. By 1970, the remnants of Enlightenment civilisation are just about legible as the backdrop to an atavistic, tribal world of local chieftains, disease and obscurantism. What follows this, in a manner familiar from the similar apocalypses and rebirths in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, is a rationalist Bauhaus world beneath the surface of the earth, in which finally nature has been mastered and war eliminated. The film ends with the prospect of that world too being destroyed by its restive inhabitants, demanding that technological development be ceased.
Things to Come establishes many of the conventions of apocalypse cinema – the blasted post-apocalyptic landscape, the terrifying depiction of instrumentalised slaughter – but what is missing in its successors is the utopian element, the promise that technology could, in the right hands, promise a paradise as much as a hell. After Hiroshima, the apocalyptic imagination was provided with the genuine scientific and geopolitical possibility of destroying civilisation, and after 30 years of the arms race, all life on earth. This prospect is luridly visible in hundreds of 1950s Cold War schlock films, in which usually some sort of atomic contamination has literally created a monster, from Godzilla to the giant ants of Them! One of the most interesting of these films is Roger Corman's self-explanatory 1958 shocker The Day the World Ended. This film is heralded by the magnificent introduction 'what you are about to see may never happen...but to this anxious age in which we live, it presents a fearsome warning...Our film begins with...THE END!'
Cue a succession of nuclear explosions, and images of depopulated, devastated cities (no doubt taken from stock footage of Coventry, Dresden, or Tokyo), and then we come to the survivors. Our leading protagonist has built a (rather Eames-like) house in the only geological area in the USA which can withstand an all-out nuclear war. He has been planning this for a decade, making sure that he and two others have exactly enough food to last through the fallout. The radio doesn't pick up any signals, from New York, San Francisco, Paris, or Moscow. Yet as the house begins to fill up, this post-apocalyptic serenity is broken. In a Cadillac, not far from the house, are a young couple, a gangster, and his girl, a burlesque dancer. Nearby, a drifter with accompanying donkey. Initially, none of them seem able to imagine the catastrophe that has occurred. Corman makes grim comedy out of this inability. 'When are we going to be able to get to San Francisco?' asks the hood. 'There is no San Francisco any more.' 'No Frisco!? I don't believe it'. The survivors quickly fall into atavism, with fights, sexual rivalry, battles for supremacy and the house's gun. The only moment when the horror of what lies outside really occurs to the characters is when the dancer gives them a run through of her act ('here's where I would start to peel') and collapses into tears. Meanwhile, the survivalist tries to interest his daughter in one of the men, telling her she must bear children for the future. 'There is no future', she replies.
Corman's film doesn't manage to sustain this relentlessly claustrophobic atmosphere, resorting soon to the requisite (and here, fairly silly) radioactively modified humanoid monsters - but the first half of the film prefigures what are the undisputed masterpieces of apocalyptic cinema, George Romero's trilogy Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). The house bunkered in against apocalypse is here, as is the speculation that radiation has caused some strange and horrifying change in the human race, into a bestial creature of reflexes – but most of all, the films attack any notion that the best side of humanity will surmount and fight out the apocalypse. The trilogy shows society completely collapsing, with any notions of solidarity falling apart in a wave of violence and martial barbarity. This isn't mere Lord of the Flies pessimism about 'human nature', some abstract notion of inherent atavism – rather, what we see in these films is this society collapsing, one in which solidarity is already scarce. Near the end of Night of the Living Dead, we see vigilantes and national guardsmen combing the countryside for zombies, shooting them all on sight with glee – as one of the horrified protagonists of Dawn of the Dead points out, there are some who are actually enjoying this.
Romero's films are also extremely adroit in outlining the likely role of communications media in the apocalypse. The radio and TV in Night offer regular updates on the catastrophe, films-within-films that are compelling and convincing in their dread and matter-of-fact awfulness – the unsteadiness of the camera as government spokesmen are interviewed, the uncertainty of the newsreaders. By Dawn this has become even more horribly compelling, perhaps to reflect the attendant brutalisation of television in the intervening decade. One of the film's most memorable images is the talk show discussion of the massacres, where a presenter with an eyepatch repeats, as if to himself 'we have to remain rational. We have to remain rational'. Later on, even this signal has disappeared. By the third film, there is no radio, no television, no communication at all with the outside world – the implication being that the final breakdown of society can be ascertained from the non-existence of the media.
From its first scene - a couple in a car on a hill, in a clinch to 'Johnny B Goode' - Threads is wholly conscious of its status as scientific, geopolitical horror film. 'The early post-blast scenes - with survivors huddling into barricaded-in basements, fearful of and hostile to outsiders - were reminiscent of nothing so much as Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Near-total anomie, society stripped back to its Hobbesian bare minimum', wrote Mark Fisher on Threads' unbearable, truly nightmarish vision (backed up here by with a veritable list of scientific advisers in the credits, rather than zombie folk tales). In Mike Jackson and Barry Hines' TV film, we see a humanity which, like shell-shocked protagonists of Night, can't truly believe what's happened to it – what is most terrifying is that the world doesn't end in a flash, via Dr Strangelove's Doomsday machine, but somehow endures, in a grotesque, devastated form. The comparison made between Romero's trilogy and Threads seems especially appropriate in its portrayal of a mediated apocalypse. The ambient televisual noise in the film provides an ever-more terrifying countdown to Armageddon as a counterpoint to the quotidian worries of the characters themselves, who are largely either unaware or incapable of reacting to the approaching horror. Both films share a documentary realism that seems particularly apt for the depicting the unimaginable.
The apocalypse is particularly mediated today, in the queasy expectation of something appalling (nuclear, climatic, economic?) being announced every time the 'BREAKING NEWS' strip appears on News 24. In essence, the tropes of apocalyptic cinema are borrowed by every news bulletin. Yet one of the most convincing apocalyptic films of the last 15 years doesn't feature so much as a radio. In Mike Leigh's atypically brilliant, relentless Naked (1993), where the setting is merely an unflinching but televisually realistic depiction of London, we return to the source of the apocalyptic imaginary - the force and fervour of the prophetic voice. Only here, there's no sense that the apocalypse will lead to the smiting of the evil and the ascension of the righteous. Here, we openly hear discussion of what even Threads can't countenance – the total elimination of the human race itself. 'By the very definition of apocalypse, man will cease to exist!' Johnny yells at a hapless security guard. The sermon ends with two images – God ('who is') as a malevolent, amoral force, initiating the apocalypse for his own amusement; and the possibility of transcendence, of an evolution out of humanity into something else, 'a species of pure thought, are you with me?' This is what the optimistic apocalyptics are reduced to, in a world where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. 'There is hope, but not for us'.