The Day After

I went to buy DVDs yesterday after a haircut, and found out that The Day After just got released on DVD. It wasn’t ever on DVD, and I never thought I’d get to see it again, unless I bought a tenth-generated pirated VCD copy from some guy in Brazil off of eBay, so I was very happy to see a real version of it for only ten bucks, and I grabbed it immediately. I managed to watch it last night, and had a lot of thoughts about it, so here I am.

The Day After was a two-hour disaster movie about nuclear war shot for TV and aired on ABC, and it was a really big deal when it was aired in November of 1983. This was at the height of Reaganism and when the Soviet Union and the US were standing toe to toe on the brink of atomic war, and the idea of a movie that showed all of this in great detail created a groundswell of controversy and interest. This was around the time of movies like Red Dawn and Wargames, when movies about nuclear apocalypse were in vogue. Also, at a time when few people had cable or satellite dishes and all of the minor TV networks and cable outlets hadn’t bled away the focus of the big three networks, it was much easier to get people to crowd a TV premiere and make an event into an Event.

I remember watching the first half of The Day After as a twelve-year-old kid. They divided the movie into hour-long pieces, with the nuclear blast happening after the first hour. They also went commercial-free for the last hour. Since they publicized many warnings about how traumatizing the post-apocalypse scenes might be, my parents would not let me watch the last hour, and I was pretty pissed. I mean, at this point, I’d already seen Freddy and Jason slice open a million people, and I think Salem’s Lot was more scary than watching a bunch of people with bad rubber makeup of flash burns on their faces. What was even stupider was that my bedroom was right next to the family room where my parents continued to watch the show, so I HEARD the whole thing. Well, looks like all of that cautious parenting turned me into a well-adjusted normal person, right?

Anyway, I watched the DVD last night, and it’s always amazing to see something you haven’t seen for twenty years and add a fresh layer of detail to the distant memories you have in the back of your head about it. The movie takes place in Lawrence, Kansas, a place I saw a few years ago. Lawrence and the nearby Kansas City are about as Midwestern as any part of Indiana was back in 1983. The movie opens with panning aerial shots of farmers working in fields, kids playing football, the stadiums for the Kansas City Royals, the college campus at Kansas University, and the people walking through town. It all had that late 70s/early 80s feel to it, like Breaking Away did – the signs are all different, less corporate; the stores look friendlier, more like that old IGA instead of the big mega-grocery; the people wore earth-tone colors and big collars and dorky hairstyles like those old grade-school photos you try to hide in the rest of your picture collection. Despite what MTV might tell you, the 80s weren’t all like Miami Vice and Joan Jet and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. To a lot of us who did not live on a coast, the 80s were a gradual extension of everything bad about the 70s, except we got personal computers with 64K of memory.

The movie starts out by building up a troop of characters and families. Jason Robards plays a doctor working at the college medical center; John Lithgow is a scientist also at the school; a whole family, including a daughter about to be married, is headed up by John Cullum (who most recently played Mark Greene’s dying father on the TV show ER); Steve Guttenberg is a wandering college student; there’s also an Air Force airman and his family, and a few other people. It’s a nice little cross-slice of America, and makes you think you’re about to step into some sort of sappy situation-comedy as you get to know each group.

Just as you see these people introduced into their daily routines, the shit hits the fan. There’s a lot of vague pieces of news thrown at you about the fall of Berlin, different countries being taken over by tanks, and Russians moving ground against Europe. This is all in the form of TV bulletins and stuff on the radio, shown in snippets. You never get a clear idea of all of the politics behind it, but that’s the intention; they aren’t going to sit back and explain World War III at a later point, like they did in Red Dawn. You just get the shots of people freaking out, hording food at the grocery store, boarding up windows, or standing there paralyzed with fear. This is mixed with stock footage of Strategic Air Command putting people in missile silos and communicating with their airborne command center, which holds all of the codes needed for an all-out nuclear war.

Finally, it all falls apart. Lawrence used to be home to SAC and had tons of missile silos scattered around farmland. So people are sitting on their back porch of their farm house, and all of a sudden, giant columns of white smoke erupt from the ground as Minuteman missiles leap out of their silos and head off to Russia. Then the everyone-running-down-the-street footage starts, mixed with the all-out military footage of guys running to B-52s, pulling the safeties out of ALCMs, getting on the horn with Looking Glass for confirmation codes, and all of the cool stuff that you never ever see except for about 18 minutes before the end of the entire world. There’s also a great quote in which Lithgow and a few other science students are standing outside watching the missiles launch and this girl says “What is it? Is it some kind of test?” To which he replies, “no you bitch, there’s an alien on the wing of the plane!” (Oh wait, wrong movie.)

When the nukes hit, it’s an eerie and paralyzing feeling, even though the special effects look like something my 7-year-old nephew could do in Microsoft Paint. They do a lot of the thing where the bodies get zapped and you can see the skeletons inside for a second, which is pretty spooky. However, the whole thing is marred by the fact that if Lawrence, Kansas got hit by a Soviet attack in 1983, not one god damned person would live to tell about it. And they’re showing people that are like ten miles away from the air blast of a 500 Megaton bomb ducking down in their car and putting an arm over their eyes, and then getting up a second later and saying “what was that?”

A lot of people do die, but many of our main characters are around. Cullum (who, by the way, would be my first choice if I was casting a movie about Richard Speck in his later years. He doesn’t wear a shirt in one scene where he’s digging with a shovel, and THAT was more traumatizing than seeing two billion people die.) and his family are boarded up in a basement that is sealed with a radiation-stopping inch of dirt over the windows, and they all live. His son looked right at the blast, and has bandages over his eyes for the rest of the movie, although he has some hope that he will regain his vision, despite the fact that his retinas were deep-fried and there is absolutely no medical technology on the planet anymore. Also, his mom and daughter are going increasingly nutso, and Steve Guttenberg’s character drops in and becomes sort of an adopted son to them. It’s strange to see Guttenberg so early in his career, because you expect him to break into some kind of Police Academy shtick at any moment. The airman spends his whole time wandering around the countryside, which is pretty stupid, but there you go. The doctor played by Robards basically spends 24 hours a day dealing with severe radiation burn victims with no power, lights, fresh water, sterile conditions, or medical equipment. Lithgow spends his whole time fucking around with a shortwave radio and a Geiger counter.

A lot of the movie plays like a bad filmstrip teaching facts about nuclear annihilation, in a way that makes the actors look like they are reading straight off of cue cards. A girl runs outside and Guttenberg runs after her and the exchange is like this:

Him: “Come back inside. There’s, um, radiation out here.”

Her: “What’s, um, that?”

Him: “Radiation is all around. us. It’s, going through. us. now. Like. An x-ray.”

Most of the post-war world is nowhere near as bad as it really would be. In fact, at the end of the movie, they ran a disclaimer, that basically said “Know how bad it looked in this movie? Well, it’s going to be a hundred times worse in real life, so kiss your ass goodbye.” They did a reasonable job of trying to show radiation sickness, given 1983 makeup technology and the masses of people that had to be shown. There were ruins everywhere, and everyone was losing hair in weird, funky patches, and had fake burns on their faces and all kinds of dermatological nightmares on their skin. But in reality, that entire area would be a crater. And while some nuclear winter effects were shown, they neglected to mention that the ash thrown skyward from the bombs would create a cloud of darkness that would last decades. I guess that darkness interfered with their film cameras, so they had to work around it.

The movie has no real ending, no “we’ll get through this together” or “we will persevere” or anything else, and I think that’s good. If they made this into a miniseries, I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of what happened around the world, or what became of the rest of the country. But I think the idea was to show that Lawrence, pretty much in the middle of the country, would have taken the least of the damage, so New York or LA would have been completely fucked compared to Kansas.

Despite the goofy special effects and the fact that you had to ignore reality a bit, I actually enjoyed seeing this movie again. The first half of the movie, like I mentioned, was a time capsule to that period right before I started Junior High, the wood-paneled living rooms and giant console TVs and portable radios as big as ten iPods. The second half was a time capsule into the fears and politics of the era. I remember around the time of this movie thinking about what would happen if there was a nuclear war, how we’d probably be fucked because we lived just east of Chicago and just north of Grissom AFB. I can’t say that I missed a lot of sleep over it, but the thought was there in my head for my whole childhood. I wonder if kids now worry about terrorists the way we used to worry about Soviet nukes. Probably not. It’s not like it was a great thing, but it was part of my culture as a kid, and now that’s gone, so it’s always interesting to take a peek back at it and see how much the world has changed.

Okay, time to go get some work done.