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Fallout Shelter Fail

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"Relax! I built us a bomb shelter!"

"How many times did I say it, Harold? How many times? 'Make sure that bomb shelter's got a can opener - ain't much good without a can opener,' I said."
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Whether it's a million-dollar government bunker concealed hundreds of feet beneath the Earth or just a humble basement, the shelter is your first line of defence in the event of an apocalypse. Regardless of whether the cataclysm is nuclear, bacteriological, environmental, supernatural or something else entirely, this place has everything you need - from strong walls to canned food - to wait out the apocalypse in safety, if not comfort. By all appearances, it should be the ideal refuge in the event of Armageddon...

The key word being "should."

Unfortunately, fallout shelters aren't always as safe or functional as they initially appear: maybe there's flooding, cave-ins, or structural failures due to the sheer scale of the disaster. Maybe the shelter's been contaminated by something from the outside world, a disease or a Zombie Infectee. Maybe there isn't enough food, water or medicine to keep the population healthy. Or maybe, in especially cynical situations, the shelter is completely useless and never would have helped anyone - either through incompetence or by design.

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Whatever the case, the shelter is a death trap, and the best thing to do is to leave and look elsewhere - and if that isn't an option, pray for a swift death...

A subtrope of Failsafe Failure.

Compare Safe Zone Hope Spot, which usually involves people being drawn here following the apocalypse instead of prior to it.


Examples

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     Anime & Manga 
  • Dragonball Z: In a filler episode before the Cell Games, Gohan comes across some people trying to get into a bunker headed by a sketchy businessman named Mr. Borbonne, claiming it would protect them from Cell should he win the games. After confronting him and scaring off Mercenary Tao, who was in Borbonne's employ, Gohan blows up the bunker before anyone can go in. Citing if he could do that easily, than Cell would destroy it and the people inside without batting an eyelash.

     Audio Plays 
  • The Big Finish Doctor Who episode "Protect And Survive" features Ace and Hex getting stranded in an alternate timeline where the Cold War turned nuclear. Forced to stay with an elderly couple by the name of Albert and Peggy Marsden, they help them build a fallout room in their cellar using boxes of soil to absorb radiation - all in accordance with leaflets provided by the local government. Hex reflects that these are largely there to keep people calm and they probably won't be much help in the event of a real nuclear blast. Sure enough, when a nuclear ICBM wipes out the local RAF base, the radioactivity of the strike zone renders all their preparations completely useless and all four of them end up being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. However, it turns out that the timeline is actually a pocket dimension on a "Groundhog Day" Loop: Albert and Peggy are Elder Gods sentenced to experience every horrific aspect of the apocalyptic war they started right up to the moment of their deaths, only for time to rewind and return them to the day before the apocalypse - dooming them to do it all over again until they finally learn their lesson. For good measure, it's a Shout-Out to When the Wind Blows (see below).
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     Comic Books 
  • At the start of When the Wind Blows, the British government provide instruction on how citizens can build their own fallout shelters out of doors and cushions. Not realizing that this advice is shoddy placebo-based rubbish, Jim Bloggs takes the leaflets seriously and builds his "inner core or refuge" right in the middle of the house - declining to use the root cellar. Combined with the limited supplies and the simple fact that the Bloggses don't really understand the threat of radiation, the shelter is hopelessly inadequate. Even before Jim and Hilda make the mistake of leaving the shelter two weeks early, they've already been exposed to a lethal dose of fallout, and the book ends with the two dying of radiation sickness.

     Comic Strips 
  • As quoted above, The Far Side has one strip in a fully-stocked post-nuke bomb shelter where a woman is berating her companion for forgetting the most critical item.

     Fanfiction 
  • The World War Z fanfic "The Way Is Shut" delves a little deeper into the fate of North Korea when investigators uncover tunnel entrances in the DMZ. One of the sealed vault doors they encounter is leaking stagnant black water contaminated with chunks of decomposed flesh, which indicates two very nasty things: first, the pumps that would normally keep the Underground City dry are either inoperable or unmanned, meaning that the complex is probably flooded. Second, several corpses are rotting on the other side of the door, some of them zombies, some of them humans. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but the implications aren't good. None of the doors are opened, but the investigator fears they may not need to: North Korean construction efforts are notoriously shoddy, and with water building up pressure, it's only a matter of time before whatever's on the other side of the doors is released.

     Film - Animated 
  • Invoked on The Iron Giant. After a nuclear strike is accidentally called on the town, Kent Mansley, who called said attack, suggests going to a nearby shelter, but General Rogard tells him point blank that there is no way to survive a direct hit from a nuke. Fortunately, they are all saved by the Giant's Heroic Sacrifice.

     Film - Live Action 
  • Discussed in The Day After: in the face of World War III, guards at a missile silo opt to hide in the now-empty silo, mentioning that it's built like a bomb shelter and stocked with enough supplies for the next two weeks... but one of them points out that the nukes targeting the launch sites will easily destroy the silo regardless of how fortified it is. As such, it's not so surprising that McCoy decides to risk leaving the base in the hopes of reaching his family. His fellow guards are never seen again, so it's a safe bet they didn't make it. Tragically, neither does McCoy: his family is killed in the bombardment, and fallout sickness eventually kills him as well.
  • In These Final Hours, an asteroid will hit in twelve hours and eliminate all life on Earth, so James' second girlfriend Zoe builds a bunker for them and her brother to survive. James harshly points out that it isn't deep enough and thick enough for them to live, and also states that even if it was and they survived, there won't be any food left once they run out of rations since the Earth will be completely uninhabitable. Zoe completely breaks down once this realization hits her.
  • Threads:
    • An emergency council is assembled in the basement of Sheffield Town Hall in the hopes of managing the situation if the worst comes to the worst: the makeshift bomb shelter has food, water, a portable generator and communications equipment, so despite the confusion, the council seems well prepared. Unfortunately, when World War III does break out, the nuclear attack causes the entire town hall to collapse on top of the shelter, trapping the council inside; forced to wait until the army can dig them out, the council can only sit tight, argue frequently, and try to manage the rapidly-deteriorating situation by radio. Worse still, the blocked air vents begin to cause breathing difficulties for some of the council members. By the time the army reaches them, the entire council has suffocated to death.
    • Following government advice, the Kemps attempt to build an inner refuge out of doors and mattresses. This probably wouldn't have been much use even if they'd finished it in time, but thanks to sheer bad luck, their house is on the edge of a strike zone: the building is almost completely destroyed, rendering the inner core largely useless; Michael is instantly crushed to death in the rubble, Rita suffers fatal burns, and Bill is left to slowly die of radiation sickness.
    • By contrast, the Becketts have a basement and are lucky enough to own a house situated well outside the blast zone. Though they have to endure a death in the family and Ruth runs away from home soon after, it appears as though her parents have all the supplies they need to survive the apocalypse. Unfortunately, the one thing they skimped on was security: a gang of looters break in and murder Ruth's parents for their food.

     Literature 
  • In the introductory chapter of Children Of The Dust, Sarah and her family are able to improvise a fallout shelter from their living room just before an all-out nuclear bombardment of the United Kingdom. As their house is a significant distance from the blast zone, they survive for some time... up until Sarah realizes that they forgot to block the chimney: radioactive fallout has been pouring through the fireplace and into their water supply... and by now, everyone except her younger sister Catherine has ingested a lethal dose.
  • The City of Ember centers on an underground city named Ember, meant to keep a segment of the populace safe from a nuclear cataclysm for at least 200 years. Two critical circumstances drive the plot: 1) the lockbox containing the exit protocols was passed down to a mayor who died without indicating what the lockbox was for; and 2) the central generator that powers everything is succumbing to age, as blackouts are becoming much more numerous and lengthy. After generations in Ember, its citizens have forgotten an outside world exists. Adapted into the film The City Of Ember in 2008.
  • In The City Without Memory, it is revealed that the planetary civilization collapsed because one Mad Scientist believed people cannot achieve happiness because they cannot let go of the past, so he decided to flood the planet with memory-wiping field, wait in a shelter until it subsided, and then emerge to teach the people good. Due to the trope, only the first stage was successful.
  • In the second book of the Hyperion Cantos, the leader of one religion builds a shelter for himself deep inside a mountain to live in comfort until the end of the world his church expects. He gets a massive Oh, Crap! moment when the end of the world doesn't come... but the collapse of the Portal Network does. To explain, the portals were the only way to get in air out of the shelter... or to let air in.
  • In the Gaunt's Ghosts novel Necropolis, the population of Vervunhive rushes to shelters as the city is shelled. One such shelter gets locked way under capacity due to the stratified society (lower-rank people are kept out), and the narration mentions those who were admitted inside were all dead the next day because the shelter's ventilation system had failed.
  • In Fritz Leiber's short story "A Pail of Air", the narrator's father and his colleagues were working on a shelter to survive the upcoming apocalypse. Unfortunately, earthquakes had destroyed the shelter and killed the colleagues, so dad was forced to essentially cobble together another one out of household items.
  • The protagonist of The Postman mentions finding fallout shelters whose owners didn't make it every so often, and hoping that the prior occupants stocked up on more non-perishable food than useless stuff like gold.
  • In Robert Sheckley's short story "A Wind is Rising", two humans need to survive for a year on a Perpetual Storm planet in a specially built fortified building. Three months before the year ends, they are hit with a Category 6 hurricane that proves the building to be barely adequate, and they are both aware it won't handle another storm. They go to ask a native about the weather... and he says "A moderate gale indicating the summer is over. Now me and my tribe are leaving to hide from the winter storms".
  • World War Z:
    • During the Zombie Apocalypse, the people of North Korea retreated to a vast Underground City beneath the country; here, Kim Jong Il could rule over a population dependent on him to provide food, water, air and even light. After years without a single sign of life in the entire country, the interviewee for this segment speculates that something might have gone horribly wrong: after all, all it would take to destabilize the entire complex would be one Zombie Infectee among the inducted populace... and perhaps the underground settlement is now populated entirely by undead horrors just waiting to be released.
    • Another chapter of the book discusses how a coalition of various American celebrities built a zombie-proof luxury compound on Long Island where they could live out the apocalypse in safety and comfort. Well-stocked with provisions and protected by armed guards, it looked to be perfect... up until the celebrities broadcast their activities and location on national TV as a "reality show". Not long after they start broadcasting, the compound was attacked and overrun - not by zombies, but by other survivors looking for food and shelter.

     Live Action TV 
  • Played with on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The Lighthouse was designed to withstand an alien invasion, unfortunately Coulson chose to use the natural disaster option (he got impatient and chose before realizing there was an alien invasion option).
  • Doctor Who: As revealed in "The Ark In Space", solar flares threatened to wipe out all life on Earth during the 30th century, and many humans flat out abandoned the planet, either travelling deep into space in the hopes of finding a new home, or accepting cryogenic suspension aboard the Ark in orbit above Earth. However, many others opted to enter shelters, hoping to simply weather out the lethal radiation. The colonists succeeded well enough that, after several thousand years, they had forged a massive empire in Andromeda; aside from a Wirrn infestation nearly killing them all, the Ark was a success. The shelters, by contrast, failed so badly that for millennia the earth was considered uninhabited.
  • Invoked on Elementary. A state of the art bunker turned out to be a scam to rip off billionaires afraid of the apocalypse.
  • In one episode of Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy and Rodney acquire some lead sheets with intent to sell them at a profit, but they later learn that what they actually have is the parts for a fall out shelter. They completely miss the point and assemble it on the roof of their apartment building.
  • The The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "The Shelter" features a suburban doctor and his family readying the fallout shelter in their basement, believing that a nuclear attack is imminent; however, trouble occurs when neighbours try to get into the shelter as well. There's only enough space and resources to sustain three people, and fighting breaks out over what little is available - to the point that the neighbours try to batter down the shelter doors. And then the whole thing turns out to have been a false alarm.
  • In the The Twilight Zone (1985) episode "Shelter Skelter," a Crazy Survivalist builds a state-of-the-art fallout shelter under his house in preparation for World War III, complete with radiation gauges and a communication antenna; when the end apparently arrives, he and his friend are safe there... but because they didn't retract the antenna before the blast, their communication equipment is useless, and the survivalist's too scared of violent scavengers to call for help when he hears voices upstairs. Also, for some reason, the gauges are still reporting lethal radiation levels weeks after radioactivity should have dropped to safe levels. It turns out that the apocalypse never happened: a nuclear accident at the nearby air force base leveled the town, forcing the US government to erect a concrete dome over the ruins in order to contain the radiation. The "scavengers" he heard were a survey team looking for survivors to evacuate before the dome was built, but because our Crazy Survivalist didn't call out to them, nobody knows he's down there - and without the antenna, no-one ever will. The man has been, for all intents and purposes, Buried Alive.

     Tabletop Games 
  • The End of the World:
    • In Zombie Apocalypse, the scenario "Under The Skin" features an ancient Puppeteer Parasite being accidentally unearthed by miners and infesting millions of people worldwide, forcing governments to hastily build underground shelters, evacuate as many uninfested people as they can, and then nuke the surface in an attempt to destroy the parasite. As the post-apocalypse segment of this scenario makes clear, life in one of the shelters is anything but pleasant, and it's possible for a shelter to fall in certain plot events: in one case, the screening process on new arrivals fails, letting in a parasite-infested scientist; in another, characters are tasked with digging a new tunnel to expand the shelter - only to accidentally uncover another dormant parasite.
    • In the epilogue of the Revolt of the Machines scenario "Nanopocalypse", the survivors of a Grey Goo situation flee to Antarctica, where the cold disables any pursuing nanites. Here, Antarctic research stations become the shelters of choice... but it soon becomes clear that there isn't enough food to go around in storage, and once the hunters run out of game, wars between other stations and even cannibalism become common. Worse still, it's clear that with the rest of the world stripped bare by the nanites, this is one case of this trope that's going to end with the human race extinct.
  • Invoked in Mage: The Ascension: Ascension: the scenario "The Earth Will Shake" features the fate of the planet being decided not by the Traditions or the Technocracy, but by a colossal meteor dubbed "Typhon." Screwing up this scenario will naturally result in an apocalyptic collision - and the book specifically notes that the meteor is so large that even the best-reinforced bunkers on Earth will collapse on impact, killing everyone inside just as surely as everyone else on the planet.

     Video Games 
  • In The Bunker, it's eventually discovered that the eponymous government fallout shelter was just one of a whole series of botch jobs: because nobody ever believed there'd be a nuclear war, construction went to the lowest possible bidder and was polished off in about six weeks, meaning that the shelters started falling to pieces almost immediately after they were occupied. All the others have already failed by the start of the game, with final reports mentioning filtration problems, radiation leaks, and fights over dwindling resources. John's bunker seems to be the exception: it manages to hold together for at least thirty years before experiencing faults in the filtration system, and there's enough supplies to keep John going until external radiation levels are safe for him to leave the bunker. However, this only because his mother fatally poisoned all the other residents, reducing the stress on the internal systems and leaving enough food to sustain the two of them for the next three decades.
  • Chrono Trigger: The desperate people of the future send a man out of the shelter and through a Killer Robot-infested dome-city to find food (they have a machine that can supply their needs, but you still feel hungry after using it); by the time he gets there, it turns out the crates weren't airtight and the food went rotten. He died there, but when the P Cs find him, he is clutching a seed - which they bring back to the people in the first dome: they decide to try caring for the seed.
  • All over the place in the Fallout series:
    • With a nuclear war with China inevitable, the U.S. government contracted the Vault-Tec Corporation to build a series of underground shelters to protect chosen members of the population until it was safe to begin repopulating the planet... or at least, that was the cover story. The unfortunate reality was that the overwhelming majority of the vaults weren't meant to save anyone: most of them were actually research facilities where the population were used as guinea pigs for whatever Vault-Tec and the government wanted to study in preparation for an exodus to colonize space. Hallucinogenic gasses were pumped into the ventilation, psychological experiments turned neighbour against neighbour, sonic weaponry was tested on musicians, recovering drug addicts were forced back into their old habits, residents were dosed with the Forced Evolutionary Virus, and a single inhabitant was locked in a vault with no company except for a box of puppets. The ones that weren't were merely the control group. Consequently, of the hundred and twenty-two known vaults constructed by the company, the ones that were successfully opened and emptied without nightmarish results can be counted on one hand. Plus, even if the inhabitants didn't end up suffering terribly, a few vaults ended up failing anyway due to hardware failure, supply shortages or sheer bad luck. A few examples can be found below:
      • Vault 3 remained safe until a water leak forced them to open their doors in the hopes of attracting traders, only to be raided by the Fiends and massacred to the last man.
      • Vault 13's water chip wore out after eighty-four years, prompting the Overseer to send the Vault Dweller into the wilderness in search of a replacement.
      • Vault 111 was designed to study the effects of prolonged cryogenic suspension, but the staff turned on each other in a mutiny, leaving the inhabitants on ice for the next two centuries, only for them to end up getting killed by sabotage to the life-support systems: the only survivors of this were the player character, their spouse, and baby Shaun.
      • Vault 112 is a virtual reality playground under the control of Dr Stanislaus Braun, with every resident brainwashed into serving his sadistic whims. Only a case of this trope gives the player an opportunity to stop him: one of the memory chips used to brainwash the residents is offline, allowing Mrs Dithers to help you out when you enter the simulation.
    • The series also features Pulowski Preservation Shelters, tube-shaped coin-operated shelters advertised as affordable alternatives to the underground facilities of the competing Vault-Tec. Given that they're often found occupied by the skeletons of their last customers, they didn't work very well.
  • One of the last gambits of the Protheans to survive the Reaper invasion in Mass Effect 3 involved building a sheltered stasis vault to store a million of their people until the Reapers finished harvesting all advanced life in the galaxy and left. Unfortunately, the vault was discovered due to Indoctrinated Protheans and all but destroyed before it could be activated, with only a few hundred stasis pods surviving. To make it worse, the systems for automated reawakening were disabled, so only one Prothean lasted long enough to be awoken - and not until the Reapers returned at that.
  • One of the post-apocalyptic events in The New Order Last Days Of Europe features a fallout shelter in which everything that could have wrong has gone wrong: the vault doors didn't seal shut, the tunnel had to be dynamited to keep out the radiation, half the food hadn't been delivered, the doctors never showed up, and structural failures destroyed much of the shelter. Worse still, the food spoiled very quickly and the water was contaminated, accelerating the inevitable deaths. By the start of this little story, there's only one survivor left out of the entire vault population, waiting to die as the lights go out and the roof caves in.
  • In The Secret World, it's revealed that the Morninglight had a secret underground clubhouse in Tokyo for the brightest of their junior members. When one of the cult's suicide bombers unleashed the Filth on Kaidan, triggering an emergency quarantine of the district, the Morninglight leadership decided it would be safest if the members remained inside and repurposed the clubhouse as a shelter. Unfortunately, problems began cropping up almost immediately: Morninglight VIPs abandoned ship once they realized nobody was coming to rescue them; food ran out after a week, resulting in cannibalism after fourteen days; then it turned out that the clubhouse's defences couldn't keep out the Black Signal, who started torturing the kids over the PA system; then the Filth itself began infecting the residents. By the time you get there, almost everyone is dead or infected.
  • In 60 Seconds! the shelter is built well enough to survive the nuclear attack and the aftermath but you failed to stock it with the necessary supplies ahead of time. You only have 60 seconds to grab your family members and any supplies you have around your house before you have to lock the hatch. If you do not get enough supplies or missed some key items, you are in for a rough time: you'll have to send family members out to scavenge and the people who stay behind might go insane from boredom. Your shelter will fail sooner or later and your only chance is to last long enough for the army to come and rescue you.
  • Following an apocalyptic Impact Event in SOMA, the underwater PATHOS-II station managed to escape the collision relatively unharmed and was repurposed as a shelter for the company employees. Apart from the depression of being the last people alive on Earth, the base personnel coped decently enough... and then the station's Warden Unit decided to take drastic steps to preserve the human race, resulting in the complex being quickly overwhelmed by insane robots and mutant monsters intent on incorporating the survivors into the WAU's Lotus-Eater Machine. Worse still, the WAU's expanding presence in the local wildlife meant that there was progressively less food to go around, resulting in the personnel at Tau base starving to death. By the time Simon arrives, there's only one unaltered human left in all of PATHOS-II - hooked up to life support - and she wants nothing more than to die.
  • In Stellaris, after you colonize a Tomb World, you have a chance to find large underground vaults. Then, you can start a Special Project to open them and find out what happens. There are three possible outcomes that are equally likely:
    • The shelters actually worked and thus you can either welcome the inhabitants into your empire (as citizens or as slaves) or force them back in and seal their fate, literally and figuratively.
    • The shelters actually worked... For a time, until food ran out and the inhabitants turned on each other. At least the computer logs of that society's last ditch efforts at survival will help your empire's research...
    • The inhabitants survived... In a way, as twisted experiments turned them into mutated horrors attacking whatever they can find...

     Web Animation 
  • The Cyanide & Happiness Show: In "The Shelter", a family is seen moving into a fallout shelter to survive a nuclear apocalypse, with a pantry stocked with enough cans to feed the family for decades. Until the father opens a can, and realizes the cans he'd stocked up on were not cans of food, but canned laughter. Cue an unseen Studio Audience laughing uproariously as the family suddenly finds themselves in danger of starving to death.

     Western Animation 
  • The Amazing World of Gumball: When Gumball and Darwin believe the world will end in 24 hours, Richard sets up a porta-potty as a shelter, cramming Anais and Nicole in there with him. Luckily, it turns out Gumball and Darwin were wrong about the world ending. At the end of the episode, the rest of their family is still stuck in the porta-potty, and it falls over and spills toilet water all over them.
  • DuckTales (2017): Featured in "Raiders of the Doomsday Vault" Professor Ludwig Von Drake built the titular doomsday vault in the artic to house every type of seed and plant imaginable, so they could be used to restart the world in the event of the end of civilisation by disaster. However, despite preparing for a variety of fantastic doomsday scenarios (including Werewolves and "hyper intelligent hairless apes") he didn't take global warming into account, thus in the present the Vault is in serious danger of breaking down due to the ice melting.
  • The Simpsons: Narrowly averted in "Bart's Comet". When a comet is headed on a collision course for Springfield, the whole town crowds into the Flanders' bunker though Ned states they'll likely die of suffocation before the comet hits and there's no food for all of them but he allows it because he just can't refuse to help. Indeed, it's very comically crowded and filled to the breaking point. Eventually everyone leaves to face their demise together, but luckily the comet burns up in the atmosphere and is reduced to a small rock, which bounces off the bunker - causing the whole thing to instantly crumble on impact.

     Real Life 
  • Homemade nuclear shelters would not survive a nuclear explosion. Even if they were distant enough to avoid being caught in the initial blast, the fallout would likely kill the occupants anyway. Much like covering under a desk, their purpose was to help keep the populace calm.
  • Bunker buster bombs are specifically designed to exploit this.
 
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The Council Bunker

Underground, the emergency council is fully protected from the nuclear attack on Sheffield - but unfortunately left entombed under the ruins of the town hall with a slowly-failing air supply, as these scenes demonstrate.

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