This is very possibly the scariest film I have ever seen.
A compilation of propaganda shorts and instructionals from the "Atomic Age" during the Cold War in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. No commentary or celebrity input is needed for this documentary, the footage truly speaks for itself.
The beginning of the film in particular is extremely chilling with footage of nuclear bomb victims, both alive and dead. Many people, when thinking of deaths due to bombings, never really understand just how haunting it truly is, no matter how many death counts you give them. But seeing the actual bodies or the forever scarred survivors, it helps put it into perspective just how chilling and disgusting it is. Of course no one can ever truly understand the pain as someone who experienced it, but it does provide some amount of insight.
The Atomic Cafe captures the Cold War paranoia of the time that many Americans were experiencing, if not all. Not only that but it also displays the enormous amount of propaganda from the U.S. government and the vast amount of blind patriotism that followed. It's quite disgusting, for me at least, to see the pure manipulation and murder that occurred and, sadly, still occurs.
Not only are there the typical clips you'd expect to see from a film like this, e.g., political speeches, propaganda shorts; there's also clips that bring us directly into the lives of Americans at the time, right into their homes. One example would be a simple, very short clip of a woman standing in an air force base staring at the camera and subtly dancing. Or just seeing young kids dressed in gas masks and radiation suits. It adds a suiting, creepy factor.
The film is accompanied by some great atomic tunes of the time that help set the feel. In each tune we either hear paranoia, or blind patriotism, or communist hate. If there's ever been a soundtrack that fit a film perfectly, it's this one.
Though it may seem a bit cruel to say, this film actually has a fair amount of black comedy present. Aside from the terrifying parts of course. Old-timey cheese is automatically laughable, but there are also some dark humor moments. A line from an Army information film from the Cold War: "When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world." Sad, horrifying, and funny all at the same time (depending on your sense of humor of course). After all, The Village Voice does deem it as "a comic horror film" as seen on the poster.
To me, this is a film that should be required viewing for just about everyone. Scary, insightful, thought provoking, funny.
Some other documentaries dealing with atomic weapons that I have seen and can recommend are The War Game and Radio Bikini.