A subject that I find morbidly fascinating is the concept of nuclear annihilation (I’m a blast at parties, I swear). In one form or another, it’s something that’s quietly lurked in the background of pretty much my entire life, in some cases simply on the merit of the existence of the fucking atom bomb (or 12 705 of them globally, by last count). But there were periods in my 45 years on this planet where, even as a kid, I recognized that tensions were high. The early 1980’s was one such period and it’s very clearly reflected in the media of the time.
As with most subjects that interest or fascinate me, I have what I call ‘cooling periods’ where whatever highly regarded subject I’m zeroed in on drifts away from my day-to-day consciousness, usually owing to pesky ‘real life’ intruding, or possibly the addition of some new ‘thing’ that captures my attention. But certain subjects, I always circle around.
It was during one such period, years ago, when I started looking into doomsday media brought on by the ‘what if?’ spectre of WW3, a spectre that seemed VERY likely to happen at the time of production. During this period of casual research, several titles stood out to me, in particular The War Game (1965), Threads (1984) and The Day After (1983). There are many others from this period, of varying quality, but these three kept coming up as subjects of discussion.
So I decided that I would put these titles onto some Doomsday Must See list. The first two I knocked off right away and I confess that The War Game and especially Threads set the bar impressively high, even going to so far as to leave me feeling that Threads is, hands down, one of the most bleak and frightening films I’ve ever seen…to this day.
You can check out my reviews for both here:
Those two British entries into the whole ‘anti-nuke’ genre pretty much topped off my quota for this type of ‘entertainment’, and therefore I lapsed back into one of my ‘cooling periods’.
That was a few years ago.
It would seems that I’m again coming back around to this Happy Happy Joy Joy subject, as I recently found myself unearthing a paperback copy of a research piece honing in on the truly devastating effects of Nuclear Winter (incidentally the title of the book) as well as FINALLY deciding to sit my ass down and rip the Band-off of seeing The Day After.
So that’s what I did.
The Day After is a 1983 ABC Studios TV movie that allegedly STILL holds the distinction of being The Most Viewed TV Event in US Television History. At least, I read that somewhere. Though I could believe it, given the global tensions at the time and the presence of several well-known actors in the sprawling cast. It was directed by Nicolas Meyer, who had just finished coming off the science fiction blockbuster Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan just the year before and it tells the story of rising nuclear posturing as seen from several different characters in and around Kansas City. Similar to Threads, it charts the rising geo-political tensions (as glimpsed in the backgrounds of the characters mundane lives), which literally explodes into a devastating nuclear exchange, aka WW3, followed by the miserable downfall of the survivors who are left fighting to survive in what remains of the world they knew.
As I’ve mentioned (and will undoubtedly mention again) is that Threads set the bar REALLY high for this kind of material and based on the snippets I’d caught over the years, The Day After seemed…lacking, for lack of a better term. But that would just be me unfairly prejudging something, essentially judging the book by the cover and I’m trying not to go down THAT road these days.
So last weekend, as yet another damn heat wave washed over us, I sealed myself away (this type of flick is not the wife’s cup o tea) with an unfortunately low rez version of this title, note pad in hand, and FINALLY checked out The Day After.
Here lie them scribbles…
Opening military scenes feel authentic. Probably because they were. The flick cold opens on the crew of a KC-135 Command and Control aircraft as it’s crew prepare to get airborne. A commanding officer climbs aboard and an intelligence briefing ensues, a briefing that felt surprisingly genuine. That’s due to the fact that the ‘actors’ are actually military personnel and it shows. We also get stock footage of Red Alert drills being conducted, which also lent to the illusion of realism.
–Uh oh. Film score = cheezy. After the opening, we cut to several long helicopter shots showing the small cities and towns, and the huge tracts of open Kansas farm land that will be the story’s backdrop. Over this plays some pretty mood destroying score, score that suggests someone wanted this to see the inside of a movie theatre. So right off the bat, The Day After comes with an artificial sheen that I found cheapened the proceedings.
–JoBeth Williams?! Sweet! I kinda fell in love with actress JoBeth Williams when I first saw her in 1982’s horror classic Poltergeist, so seeing her name in the credits was a nice little bonus. Gorgeous lady, that one.
–Already too ‘cinematic’. Again, the overly cinematic tone shows itself right in the beginning, which already had me emotionally distancing myself from narrative.
–Threads already wins…and the credits aren’t even over yet. That sentence doesn’t leave much more needing to be said. Both films are trying to accomplish the same thing, to convey the same all important message, but execution is everything and Threads, with its to-the-point docu-drama approach, handily comes out ahead.
–Some dialogue already hokey, acting near cartoonishly overcooked. Not sure what Meyer’s directional intent was but some of the amateurish dialogue and performances just brim with cheesy, unconvincing over-acting and it was immediately distracting.
–Odd contrast – civvie vs military. Civvie dialogue sucks. This one can easily allude back to my last scribble. The majority of the cross-cut military scenes, most likely due to being populated by actual military staff members, actually feel genuine, in both words and actions. But as soon as we cut back to any of our civilian ‘characters’ – on-the-nose Cheese City.
–Kansas vs Sheffield. Just another Threads observation, with the contrast between-in the wide-open farmland spaces and prairie cities of Kansas vs the industrial, lived-in trappings of the UK’s Sheffield standing out sharply to me as I watched.
–House from Nightmare 4?! Ok, I swear THAT house is the same one used 5 years later by director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master for ‘Kristen’s not-so-humble abode and later… *SPOILER*…her fiery, Freddy induced death-by-cigarette demise. Without bothering to actually look…I swear it’s the same place.
–Robards doing what he can. Jason Robards (Parenthood), who I always remember from his small but memorable roles in two of my favorite Tony Scott films, Crimson Tide (1995) and Enemy of the State (1998), is easily one of the most accomplished actors in the cast, rocking a total of 132 acting credits until his death in 2000 and he actually seems like he’s trying to cut through the cheesy-ass dialogue and direction to give his beleaguered ‘Dr. Oakes’ character some gravitas and dignity.
–Goddamn music is a distraction! Here we go again, with the weak, overly in-your-face score sullying the tone at nearly every turn.
–Interesting differences in lead-up – Threads vs TDA, Iran vs Berlin. Yep, more comparisons. In doing my side-by-side, I found it interesting to compare the geo-political / military lead-ups to the main conflict that both films hypothesize, with Threads using an escalating conflict in Iran as the catalyst, whereas an attempted invasion of West Berlin by Soviet forces kicks things off here. Given the global intricacies of the time (and today, incidentally), I’m inclined to buy more into the Iran scenario spiralling out of control as opposed to a full-on land war in Europe being the kick-off to Armageddon. But hey…that’s just me.
–Russian aggression seems strangely timely. So pretty much my entire life, with the notable exception of a sympathetic, almost friendly period immediately following the collapse of the USSR (that pretty much lasted for the entirety of the 90’s), the Soviets / Russians have been a shady, underhanded force on the world stage (this is not JUST opinion) and as of the time of this writing, are currently waging a completely unjustified war against / attempted invasion of the neighboring country (and former Soviet satellite state) of Ukraine. When this ugly and shocking event kicked off February 24th, 2022, it didn’t take long for Putin and his sycophantic cadre of asshole henchmen to start rattling the sabre, launching numerous threats, including nuclear, at the Western countries that openly lambasted Russia’s undeniably illegal adventure of attempted imperial expansion and readily supplied the determined and tough-as-motherfucking-nails Ukrainian military with means to effectively strike back at the invaders. So, to anyone who wants to glibly say “The Cold War ended in 1989 and we, the West, won.” is seriously naïve and needs to pay a bit more attention to current events, with certain historical precedents kept squarely in mind.
–“Stupidity…has a habit of getting it’s way.” So fucking true. For a movie that boasts a lot of shit dialogue and performances, it does have some oddly memorable quotes, with this one standing out during a quick discussion between Robard’s increasingly concerned ‘Dr. Oakes’ and another doctor on his staff about how likely it is that hostilities will ensue.
–JoBeth! Finally! This woman lights up the screen for me, even in her smallish role as a nurse at Robard’s hospital.
–Gootz! Been a while. I’d forgotten that a young Steve Guttenberg turns up in the cast. I always associate Gootz with his comedic turns in the smash hit raunch-comedy series Police Academy (1984 – 1994) and, more personally, his role in 1986’s sci-fi / comedy hit Short Circuit (a favorite of mine as a kid). Here he plays a hitchhiker trying to get back to his hometown when the hostilities spill over and is forced to shack up with a family of farmers when the first missiles detonate.
–Ah, panic buying. So fun. As we’ve recently seen what the emergence of a deadly virus into a population can do (thank you / fuck you, Covid 19!), one thing that I instantly related to were the scenes of a panicked population swarming the grocery stores in a last-minute bid to stock up on emergency supplies. We just witnessed some barely controlled chaos here in Real Life too of much the same nature, just not at quite the same scale.
–And…you’re all fucked. Scribbled as the characters are all frozen in place by the sight of nuclear missiles unexpectedly stabbing skyward from a series of hidden silos scattered across the farmland around them, all targeted on the USSR. John Lithgow, as a scientist named ‘Huxley’, points out as he watches in awe and terror that it’ll take about 30 minutes for the warheads to reach their targets, meaning they can expect the Russian attack / counter attack, to hit in roughly the same time.
–Cue the stock footage. All of it. Nukes. With the exception of some ink-in-water tank mushroom clouds and some obvious models, almost everything we’re shown of the Soviet nuke impacts is classic nuclear test footage showing buildings and vehicles (and everything in between) being shattered and burned by the ungodly forces unleashed by weaponized atomic energy.
–Decent mass panic. In between the nuke strikes, we are treated to some admittedly impressive sequences of mass panic in the streets, with huge numbers of people rushing about, consumed by terror as the reality of what is happening hits them…just before a warhead does.
–Well, that sure cuts down on the cast, now doesn’t it. *SPOILERS* And just like THAT…about half our established cast are vaporized in one fell swoop, or one rolling mushroom cloud, if you prefer.
–“What matters is…we’re alive.” Really? You sure that’s a good thing? Seriously, if you ponder it, would ANYONE be better off to have survived such a close brush with nuclear annihilation? If everything you knew and loved had been burned and blown away, leaving behind the shattered and poisoned remains of the world you once knew but would never know again, would you want to continue? I know I wouldn’t. The day after…would NOT be some cool, action-packed ‘romantic’ adventure like Mad Max (1979 – 2015), but would, in fact, be a horrible slog of an existence more akin to what we’re shown in The Road (2009). Humanity reduced to the dark ages. If I were to survive such a cataclysm, I’m sure that I’d be spending time searching for that one bullet that I could shoot through my skull and end the crippling terror and misery that would inevitably define ‘life’ post WW3.
–Leave it to Lithgow. Of course, he’s a useful nerdy scientist type. We see ‘Huxley’ and the remains of his university staff collecting and setting up an ad hoc ham radio system in an attempt to reach other survivors that may or may not be out in the ruins. This falls right in with other types of characters Lithgow has taken on over the years, normally slightly eccentric types of above-average intelligence.
–I do appreciate the ‘on the nose’ scientific exposition. Being that the whole point of The Day After, and the others of its ilk, is to serve as a warning to the populations and, more importantly, leaders of nuclear weapon-baring countries, it’s necessary to convey ALL the dangers present in such a scenario so that there is a better, overall understanding of just what’s at stake. Aside from showing us, to the best of the production’s ability, there are also key points where characters lay out for other characters (acting as the audience’s proxy), things that need to be watched out for / protected against in the hellish aftermath. Some of this plays out like a clumsy exposition dump but given the gravity of what’s being conveyed, I let some of the clumsily injected dialogue go, simply on the merit of the film’s overall intent.
–Dead family dog? Go to Hell, movie! As a dog lover, I hate seeing what happens to family pets in this sort of flick. Reminds me of the cat in the throes of death after the first strike in Threads. Heart-breaking shit.
–Gootz laying out some truth burgers! Radiation sucks. In the 3rd Act, *SPOILERS*…Guttenberg has found himself both irreparably poisoned by radiation (after having rushed out of a shelter to stop a mentally fracturing girl from fleeing into the wasteland) while also acting as an armed guard at what is essentially a huge triage in the remains of a gymnasium. While there, he finds the girl he ‘rescued’ (the daughter of the farmer that took him in during the first strike) and they have a quiet but pained discussion about the reality of the new world, as the radiation ravages their bodies and minds.
–Appropriately bleak, but still too ‘Hollywood’. That. Right there. That scribble really does sum The Day After up…but the flick wasn’t over yet.
–Simple but clever visual fake-out. This was one of those examples where a character, who’s grasp on reality is slipping, rolls over in bed to see another character we KNOW is dead, only for them to vanish moments later.
–Chick losing her mind? This is referencing a quick shot (that was allegedly deleted in some versions) of a traumatized woman lurching into frame in a tight close-up, punctuating the end of a deep discussion by two characters in the background with a heart-rending cry of agony as she stares into…nothing. It’s actually a little unsettling.
–Church in session? Really?! Leave it to the superstitious ‘believers’ in the American mid-west to continue with something already as silly as church during a massive, unprecedented disaster. That’s my elitist inner agnostic speaking. The other, teeny little spiritual part of me TOTALLY gets it – YOUR WORLD HAS ENDED. Existence is a nightmare now. By everything you know and believe, the End of Days has come. The Four Horsemen are JUST around the corner. Who else do you turn to, when literally almost everyone else is gone? Well, I guess at that point, whatever divine entity you mutter words to qualifies. Any hope in a time of no hope, yeah?
Still seems silly though.
–Is that smudged on 3-day shadow?! Hilarious! I swear I saw this more than once – certain male characters, who are supposed to be shown developing / regressing over a period of time, all seem to be stricken with a terrible ailment. “Radiation poisoning? Perhaps sepsis? Insanity maybe?” you ask. No, dear friend…it’s a terrible case of hilariously smudged-on stubble. I will not accept the argument that it’s dirt and grit from the ruined world around the characters. This was someone’s idea of ‘make-up’, and it was funny as fuck when I noticed it. Something just didn’t seem right…somehow, but then it hit me. And I laughed out loud.
–Goes all ‘rah rah America’ at the end; President’s address. The film wraps up with a VERY Ronny RayGun-esque speech that naturally goes off with some right-winger nationalism wrapped in Ole Glory, spouting off something about the triumph of the US of A over those pinko commie bastards and blah blah blah. What’s interesting about that is that a little digging into the trivia behind this flick revealed that director Nicolas Meyers hoped the film to act as a means to further destabilize Reagan’s hawkish political agenda and possibly contribute to pushing him out of office, as contrary to Meyer’s own world view-point as Reagan’s was. Those damn Hollywood liberals, huh!?
–Some good crowd shots. Lots of extras. This is one area the flick did well. The expansive, multi-character nature of the story, certain sequences, in order to have the impact needed, HAD to have scores of either panicked or dying people, depending of the scene and the production found them in a city or town somewhere in Kansas. The movie even opens with a shout-out Title Card thanking said folks, before the movie even begins.
–Good message…but certainly no Threads. That about sums it up. In this depressing little genre, Threads still reigns supreme for me, with it’s no-holds-barred, gut-shot of a take on the material packing far more of a punch than virtually anything presented in The Day After, which suffers from too heavy a dose of ‘Hollywood’ running through its narrative.
All in all, I’m glad that I finally got around to checking out this entry into the Cold War Doomsday Genre of the early 1980’s, given that it is still renowned in many cinematic circles. For me, it was decent and well-thought out, but suffered dramatically from horrible dialogue, weak acting, shoddy effects and a truly distracting music score. I cannot fault the message in any way, as I myself stand staunchly with the No Nukes crowd but the presentation fell just short of where I think this production COULD have gone, had more money, time and effort went into it. Baring that in mind, I cannot see myself ever seeking this one out again for a revisit, unlike Threads, which I will force myself to rewatch at least every few years, to keep my hatred and fear of nuclear weapons, and the scary assholes that control them, alive and well within. But The Day After? Not so much. Which isn’t to say that I would discourage a curious would-be viewer from checking it out…not at all.
In the context of when it was made and what was going on in the world at the time, it IS an interesting, albeit highly American, snapshot into a hypothetical outcome of those volatile times, times that easily could’ve gone the route of Biblical-scale disaster with very little provocation.
Too bad it seems like certain lessons have not carried forward into our contemporary times, still edging us closer to the Unimaginable than many people realize. As long as nuclear weapons remain ‘out there’, our entire race’s survival hangs in the balance. Until the unlikely day when the last warhead is safely destroyed and the nations of the world can come together peacefully (yeah, right!), this man-created invention of terror and mass destruction will haunt us in the background of all international political considerations. It’s something we wish we could dis-invent…but Reality says it can’t be done.