Defcon-4 (1985) poster

Defcon-4 (1985)


aka Ground Zero

Canada. 1985.


Director/Screenplay – Paul Donovan, Producer – Paul Donovan, Maura O’Connell & B.A. Gillian, Photography – Doug Connell & Les Krizsan, Music – Chris Young, Models – Atlantex Ltd (Supervisor – Gordon Hammond), Computer Animation – Geoff Park, Production Design – Emmanuel Jannasch & J.W. Walsh. Production Company – Salter Street Films.


Tim Choate (Commander Cecil Howe), Kevin King (Gideon Hayes), Lenore Zann (Jacqueline ‘J.J.’ Jameson), Maury Chaykin (Vinny McKinnon), Kate Lynch (Dr Eva Jordan), John Walsch (Walker), Jeff Pustil (Corporal Lacey), Allan MacGillivray (Boomer), Florence Paterson (Mrs Boyd)


The NORAD defence satellite Nemesis and its three-person crew watch as nuclear war begins down below on Earth after a Tomahawk missile stolen from a US bomber is fired on the USSR. They sit in orbit not knowing what there is left to return to. A hostile program tries to take over their system and they are forced to make an emergency landing. On the ground, they now face cannibals, ruthless survivalists and a teenage military despot who wants the satellite’s computers in order to locate the remaining fallout shelters.

Although not always one hundred percent successful in its intentions, this low-budget Canadian feature was a breath of creativity into the post-holocaust stakes when the genre had been taken over by dozens of low-budget action films attempting to copy Mad Max 2 (1981). It is welcome even if for the fact that it is one film set in the post-holocaust milieu that doesn’t contain a single Mohawked crazy or stock car derby.

There is a great opening set in orbit (amid some quality budget effects shots of the orbiting satellite). The entire scenario is sketched with remarkable economy via newscasts telling about the outbreak of war that suddenly go blank and with the crew watching the graphic representation of US cities on a map as they are nuked. It is then that director Paul Donovan starts to propel the plot through a series of increasingly wilder turns. The wholly unexpected is prone to happen (with perfect plausibility one later finds) at any point – like the moment following the crash where there comes tapping from outside the capsule and John Walsch is dragged up through the door by his arm; or where Tim Choate is captured by survivalist Maury Chaykin and there comes that wonderful throwaway moment when Chaykin takes the food he refuses to eat and tosses it down through the trapdoor and a faint voice replies “Thank you.”

There is a tense and exciting scene where Donovan has all the principal characters sentenced to hang and Tim Choate is offered the chance to hang all the others in return for his freedom. Donovan is not afraid to take risks and create scenes that might seem potentially absurd – the dialogue has a snappy wit and inventiveness, like the scene with Maury Chaykin asking what type of nipples and aureoles that the woman Tim Choate promises him has, which skirts potential risibility but actually works.

Tim Choate and Lenore Zann in Defcon-4 (1985)
Tim Choate and Lenore Zann

On the other hand, about two-thirds of the way through Paul Donovan paints himself into a corner. It is from that point that the film introduces the teenage tough that one can chart Defcon-4 losing its head of steam and running downhill, whereupon it dissolves into a standard Mad Max action scenario. Some tepid action sequences are offered up in the last few moments as though the film believed the genre mandated them. The explanations of the snatch from orbit and how a teenager ended up in charge of an armed camp are not entirely satisfying.

Nor too does the script seek to follow the moral implications of Tim Choate’s willingness to hang the others – was it a ruse upon his part or was he serious? – it would be interesting to see how he dealt with explaining this to everybody afterwards. Nevertheless, for most of the running time Defcon-4 remains a entertainingly inventive little effort of which everybody involved has reason to be proud.

Canadian director Paul Donovan has made a handful of other films. His only other ventures into genre material were Tomcat: Dangerous Desires (1993) featuring Richard Grieco as a genetically-engineered psychopath and as producer, writer and director on the sf tv series Lexx (1997-2002).

Trailer here

Actors: , , , , ,
Themes: , , , , ,