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.

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