I need to watch things die,
From a good safe distance,
Vicariously I,
Live while the whole world dies…
Much better you than I.

Tool – Vicarious

Is there an instinct, a desire to see horror and misery in others, some drive to observe the terrible chaos of life, as long as it happens to someone else? Rubbernecking on the highway, Law and Order: SVU, Jersey Shore- things we look at and go, “Well I’m glad that’s not me…” Do these things serve some sort of cathartic purpose, or are they there just to make ourselves feel superior watching these train wrecks?

In an urban society, everything connects. Each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.

“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”

Watching the world suffer and die, as is the case in the various zombie movies and other disaster films, lets us put ourselves as one of the survivors, as one of the lone few, strong enough to eek our way through to another day of life while everyone else goes insane and fails. This movie, however, does not allow such fantasy. There is no room for empathy with a hero, because there are no heroes. There is no escape. There is no hope.

Threads. I remember seeing snippets of this movie on TBS when it was broadcast in the US in 1985. I remember very specifically one scene- a man on the toilet hears the beginning of it all and rushes to get his family into the shelter. They almost dragged the elderly mother down the stairs in panic.

That brief scene, and the knowledge of the subject matter, was enough to steer me clear of much of the rest of the film when I was 12. As I mentioned in my last post on The Day After, I watched Threads, well, the next day. What kind of reaction does a sane man have to witnessing something like this? For me, it was numb detachment. It was clinical, distant. I wasn’t putting myself into the film, I was keeping it squarely in it’s mid-eighties birthplace, keeping it in Sheffield, England, keeping it on my iPad, on YouTube. I would not allow it any closer. I couldn’t.

I don’t watch horror films. I really have no desire to do so. I have watched the classics: The Exorcist, The Shining, Poltergeist, all of which were exceptional films. I have never watched any torture-porn movies like Saw, and nothing in the reality-TV vein like The Blair Witch Project. Therefore I don’t know if it is apt to call Threads a horror film. You can get a good synopsis of the film from the Wikipedia entry, and also from the TV Tropes page. Here’s my summary.

Ruth standing next to a bit of a fixer-upper.

Ruth standing next to a bit of a fixer-upper.

Nuclear war happens. The English city of Sheffield takes some hits, and some ground-burst bombs nearby throw fallout across the country. Millions die in the attack. Millions more die from radiation poisoning. Millions more die from the aftermath of starvation and disease. Sensing a trend? The movie is a docu-drama that intersperses the scenes of the film with narration and overlays with certain clinical facts, such as the total megatonnage that is dropped on the city.

Well it's good there's some government still.  Right?  Guys... anyone...?

Well it’s good there’s some government still. Right? Guys… anyone…?

Unlike The Day After, Threads continues beyond the initial destruction wrought by the bombs, and peers into the possibilities of what happens then. It takes its data from what was known about the contingency plans at the time, about what the government had prepared for. And it showed the futility of any such plan. It was like putting up an umbrella for a tornado and expecting to be safe.

A series of videos created to be broadcast in case of imminent nuclear attack was created entitled Protect and Survive. They’re terrifying, and actually sampled in the movie to excellent effect.

The existence of such films and pamphlets may have only existed to ensure the public that there was something to be done, even if there wasn’t. I’m not sure about that, but the movie shows how difficult if not impossible it would be to implement any of the suggestions presented.

Who are these moochers who need functioning roads and available fuel? Bootstraps, people!

Who are these moochers who need functioning roads and available fuel? Bootstraps, people!

After the destruction of the city, food is used by the surviving dispersed authority figures as rewards for hard work, and withheld as punishment. At one point, one of the government employees orders caloric intake limited to 1000 for people able to work, 500 otherwise, per day.

But that doesn’t last. With no efficient way to resupply, even the limited food on hand dwindles. Army officers are ordered to shoot first when confronted with looters or hoarders.

But how long can the men with guns survive? Bullets are no guarantee of protection against hunger and radiation.

Sex for rats? Sounds reasonable.

Sex for rats? Sounds reasonable.

This is something I’ve wondered about post apocalyptic fiction- it’s always shown that the tough guys and the alpha males with the guns are the best survivors, but in such a scenario presented here, how are you going to be king of your own fiefdom if half your followers are dying of leukemia and the other half are starving? And what happens when you run out of bullets? Or get cataracts from the devastated ozone layer? Good luck shooting straight then.

Radiation is kinda like cooking, right?

Radiation is kinda like cooking, right?

The very title of the movie is about the necessary connections between people and systems that allow for modern survival. Removed form those systems, survival becomes nearly impossible for someone once reliant upon them. We’re all specialists, talents devoted to one part of our incredibly complex society. We can’t all be survivalists, that would stunt the ability for a society to grown and thrive. Specialization is what allows human culture to excel.

Children born malnourished and irradiated in utero make for the best building blocks of a new society.

Children born malnourished and irradiated make for the best building blocks of a new society.

But it’s also the bane of the species when the threads are cut.

Ruth’s child, born in a starved womb bombarded by radiation, winds up physically able, but mentally stunted. It’s suggested a whole generation of survivor children wind up that way- brought up on not enough food, and exposed to too much radiation in utero.

The movie jumps to 10 years later. Without any infrastructure for centralized education, or materials to learn from, the children are little more then feral scroungers with only the most rudimentary language skills. Not terribly different than today’s youth, in other words. Oh snap!

Children and parents spend most of their time working on ways to survive, and a lot of that centers around trying to farm the irradiated land using only hand tools, since fuel has long been unavailable.

Ruth dies and leaves her daughter on her own. Wikipedia’s summary of the end of the movie is apt.

Three years after Ruth’s death, Jane and two boys are caught stealing food. One boy is shot in the ensuing confusion, and Jane wrestles for the food with the other boy and ends up having what the script describes as “crude intercourse”.

Months later, and full term, Jane finds a makeshift hospital and gives birth. The film ends just as she is about to scream in horror as she looks upon her baby.

This is an important film. I know it is. I just don’t know if I enjoyed watching this movie. But I’m glad I did. I don’t think I want to watch it again though, not on my own. I want to share the experience, to talk about it, about what it says about society, whether it’s an accurate picture of the possibilities.

The Day After

An ill wind comes arising
Across the cities of the plain
There’s no swimming in the heavy water
No singing in the acid rain

Rush – Distant Early Warning 


The 1980’s was marked by a number of dismal events: Mount St. Helens, the Challenger, Duran Duran, but hanging over Reagan’s America, at least in my mind, and many of my fellow Gen X’ers, was the constant threat of nuclear war.

It wasn’t an idle one. I remember my father pointing out the Minute Man missile installations as we drove past them when we lived in central Montana.

“Confidence is high. I repeat, confidence is high. Roger, we’ve got 32 targets in track and 10 impacting points. I want it confirmed… is this an exercise? Roger, copy. This is not an exercise!”

War seemed closer than ever back then, and the world knew it. The ’80s saw a surge of nuclear war fiction and many movies come out of it, but none were so well known as 1983’s “The Day After.”

According to the Wikipedia entry, nearly 100 million people saw it when it first aired. I was 10 at the time, and don’t recall actually seeing it in its entirety. I was aware of it, and was constantly afraid of the world ending from war, but I think I would have had clearer memories of the movie than I did.

So I took it upon myself, now at 40 and with a kid of my own, to watch it, and thanks to the miracle of copyright violation and YouTube, that proved quite easy.

It was a nuclear war movie for broadcast television, with all the compromises that required. As to whether or not it was a good movie, I’m not really sure. It had some strong moments, mostly during and after the attack itself. I really didn’t care about the characters too much, honestly, though watching Steve Gutenberg’s face gradually decay from radiation poisoning was somewhat amusing.

The harm from watching nuclear war movies is measured in Gutenbergs.

The harm from watching nuclear war movies is measured in Gutenbergs.

It must have been terrifying seeing those minuteman missiles launching themselves out of the ground, gently arcing their way through the sky on their way to the Soviet Union. It was easy to imagine the scene actually happening, especially for those who lived in Kansas at the time. Everyone knew the missiles were there, but they were some abstract notion, some sort of talisman to keep the boogieman of the Russian Bear at bay through the magic of mutually assured destruction. It couldn’t ever actually happen. Right?

The scariest thing one could imagine in 1983, outside Adam Ant.

The scariest thing one could imagine in 1983, outside Adam Ant.


Yet there it was, on television anyway. Middle America (Lawrence Kansas is basically in the geographic middle of the country) got to see the beginning of all of it.

And by the time the movie was over, the end of all of it.

The movie concentrated on the day of, and after, (thus, the name…) of a full scale nuclear attack.

I’m not going to bother with a movie review, it’s been done to death (it came out in ’83 for Christ’s sake,) rather, just comment on how it affected me. I confess I was able to watch it with a somewhat detached and skeptical eye. It’s 2013, and there’s no omnipresent threat of nuclear exchange with the Soviets. Removed from that fear, watching the movie was like watching archival footage of a time long since past.


There is still an insane amount of nuclear warheads mounted on missiles aimed at the US and other states. The chances of a full-scale war breaking out are less than they were, but it’s still something that exists. And unlike a zombie apocalypse, it could actually happen.

They pulled out all the stops, spending a lot on creating realistic looking mushroom clouds and damage. The heat flash doesn’t actually turn you into a skeleton and vaporize you. It just cooks your flesh and gives you 3rd degree burns. You only turn to vapor if you’re really close to the fireball.

Much of the movie after the bombs hit deal with the main character, a doctor, trying to operate one of the few remaining hospitals in the city. Waves after waves of stunned survivors try to get in. When they determine the radiation threat is decreased, they start to move people into the gymnasium, where rows and rows of cots hold people too weak to stand on their own, as they all die from radiation damage.

The Day After dealt with the psychic trauma in a few ways. One scene had the old farmer returning to his house, only to find squatters there (no mention if the squatters offed his family) only to get shot by them. One character befriends a mute loner and the two walk along the radiation soaked roads to town, without really knowing why.

The final scene of the movie has the main character wanting to see his home. He is already fatally damaged by radiation, and wants to die where his wife surely was when the bombs hit. For some reason there are some people there for him to shout at, to tell them to leave his home, which is nothing by ash and charred rock.

The movie still deserves only one Gutenberg however. The movie was intended to shock the conscience, to wake people up to the horrors of nuclear war, but it stops short of getting there. Yes the damage is incalculable. It’s likely it will take decades to recover. Food will be in short supply, but the farmers are working on it.

"You know what Einstein said about World War III? He said he didn't know how they would fight World War III, but he knew how they would fight World War IV: With sticks and stones."

“You know what Einstein said about World War III? He said he didn’t know how they would fight World War III, but he knew how they would fight World War IV: With sticks and stones.”

The horror of nuclear war isn’t in the day after. It’s in the days after. It’s in the damage thereafter. They never touched on the aftermath to any great extent. No mention of Nuclear Winter. No talk of the massive starvation that would occur in the surviving populace due to the disruption and destruction of infrastructure and production. No mention of how the breakdown of order would affect rebuilding efforts, or if the psychic trauma would even allow people room in their minds for the thought of rebuilding.

Nuclear war is a complex and horrible thing to contemplate. One that severs the connections a specialized, functioning society needs to operate. The next movie I watched, Threads, deals with this very issue.

And does it with terrifying aptitude. If The Day After gets one Gutenberg, Threads tops the scale with 10. I’ll deal with my own psychic trauma about that movie later.

These are my Avengers

Avengers, assemble!

I have a five year old who has been into superheroes for a while now. (He moved on from Thomas the Tank Engine sometime last year.)

Thanks to Netflix and our on-demand world, we discovered Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It didn’t take long for me to be more hooked on it than my son, and I was slightly peeved that there would only be two seasons. Marvel has chosen to create a new Avengers series, based more on the characters from the movies. Initial reports say the new series is disappointing in comparison to EMH.

Earths Mightiest Heroes!

Earths Mightiest Heroes second season lineup

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