For as merciless as that bombing scene is, Threads is primarily remembered for its relentlessly cruel depiction of the aftermath—a grim, hopeless trudge through broken streets littered with grinning corpses and smoldering dead cats, trembling women holding the black, charred remains of tiny babies. As the text dispassionately informs us, burying the bodies is deemed to be impractical, so they’re just left to the rats. Cholera and other diseases run rampant, while radiation-burned victims slop through blood and pus at the local hospital, where the best that doctors can do is saw their limbs off as they bite down on rags.

Later, the military rounds up the able-bodied to work in “reconstruction” camps, while the old and infirm starve to death; in the apocalypse, only the cockroaches and the British class system are guaranteed to survive. And as the food supplies dwindle and atomic dust blots out the sun, Ruth and her fellow refugees (Jimmy is assumed to have died in the blast, though his idiot friend sticks around) stumble off into nearby farm towns, reduced to eating rotting sheep carcasses raw in the freezing cold. Ruth, at least, manages to keep her strength long enough to give birth to her daughter, gnawing the umbilical cord off herself.

As Threads skips over months and years, the population dwindling to medieval levels, the sunlight eventually returns, though the increased levels of ultraviolet radiation leaves Ruth blinded with cataracts and dying of cancer. Her daughter, Jane, like the other children of the apocalypse, grows into a sullen, near-feral creature, capable of only caveman grunts of “Work!” and other bits of broken English. And because there are still a few minutes left in the runtime to squeeze in as much misery as possible, Jane is soon raped, eventually giving birth to her own unplanned baby—a stillborn deformity, whose face causes Jane to scream as the film cuts mercifully to black.

The children of apocalypse (Photo: Screenshot)
The children of apocalypse (Photo: Screenshot)

Whereas The Day After provided the salve of pretending that the preceding were just a cautionary tale—John Lithgow’s “Is anybody listening?” benediction an urgent call to heed the film’s dire warnings—there was an aura of bleakly resolute acceptance to Threads that, like its characters, seemed to suggest that we were already fucked. Sure, like Nicholas Meyer, Mick Jackson claimed that Ronald Reagan also watched his film, saying years later that he “likes to imagine” it similarly factored into Reagan’s attempts to broker peace with the Russians. (Though unlike Meyer, he never received a telegram telling him as much.) But its real impact was arguably on the British temperament: Some time after Threads’ premiere, journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts looked at the nation’s dwindling volunteers for civil defense exercises and concluded, “After watching The Day After and Threads, anyone might be forgiven for taking the ‘better to die than to survive’ attitude. So why bother?”

That attitude can be extrapolated to the living, too. Threads’ opening narration, delivered as a spider unspools its light and silvery web, reminds us that civilization only exists thanks to the gossamer human connections that bind it together. Three years after Threads aired, Margaret Thatcher would famously be quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” Threads seemed to argue that this tapestry was all just an illusion, its individual threads easily torn asunder by a sudden hot wind. Or even slowly picked apart, like the blankets being disassembled by Jane and her fellow neo-Neanderthals, by the gradual erosion of our empathy for each other.

The burden of that knowledge—of seeing how flimsy this whole human race racket really is—could explain our persistent attraction to seeing it all blown to shit, time and time again, in the apocalypse films that have become as common a genre as slashers or movies where sports teams lose until they don’t. After all, there’s something undeniably cathartic about just dropping the pretense and reveling in the hopelessness of the modern human condition; like Jimmy and his pal shrugging off World War III in favor of another pint, hey, it’s not like we can do anything about it. The best we can hope is to be drunk and snug inside the blast radius when our own death from above arrives.

But that wasn’t what Jackson or Hines intended, of course. They wanted Threads to spur the international outcry for nuclear disarmament, to become activists for the cause the same way Ruth’s portrayer Karen Meagher did. They wanted us to put down the pint and go do something, to recognize that the ties binding us together needed to be tightened immediately, before they were forever torn. For all its grim hopelessness, Threads had a subtextual faith that people would understand all this before it was too late.

Watching Threads now, in 2017, when the ones holding those strings in their tiny hands only seem to care about yanking them for their own ego-gratifying amusement, well… With apologies to the charred babies and incinerated cats, maybe the scariest thing about Threads is how grimly, hopelessly naive that seems.