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"The Day After" 27th Anniversary

November 19, 2010


November 20, 1983, ABC airs a made for television film The Day After.  I was nine years old, and I watched the whole thing on our huge projection television.  I had nightmares derived from this film for over twenty years and sometimes still.   I watched it in sections over the past two days to see if the effect was from seeing it so young but have concluded that it’s impact was not due to my age.  The film made sick to my stomach and was as harsh and horrifying as I remember it.

There were a number of significant things about this film:

  • The Day After was unusual in that it had limited commercial interruptions and Hollywood style top grade special effects.  Big name actors were in this television production.  The effects were utterly realistic, especially at the time.  This is before CGI and when we saw things on television and in the movies, they had more weight to them.  The buildings burning, blowing up and collapsing, fires and shockwaves, all had to be created in real life for use of the film.  One source I read indicated that the final scene of the film was composited from photographs of Hiroshima after it was bombed.  High speed filming of explosions and scale models were most likely used, but I want to emphasize that these special effects still carried more weight because the general public did not have a step or two of emotional removal from the movie imagery.  Today people have an intellectual knowledge in the back of our heads that a machine – computers, specifically –  made the imagery in films and we keep a portion of our consciousness in suspended disbelief to some degree.  The better CGI does today, the less any movie scene intrudes on our awareness of the fiction being created.  What we saw in he 1980s was more plausible, more actual, more real to our minds.
  • At nine years old, I was aware enough of current affairs, as were my elders, that this was a potential scenario that could happen at any minute.  I knew the thirty ICBMs estimated to be released stood for “Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile”.  Anything a viewer did not understand at the time was filled in during the course of the film, such as when a doctor explains that the EMP [electro-magnetic pulse] accompanying the nuclear blast had wiped out all things electrical.  Social collapse, mental collapse, death from radiation are all illustrated in the characters.
  • This film was not some glorious epic of two sides clashing; this is a tragedy where the people blown to hell by incineration and dying horrible deaths in a nuclear winter are you and me.  The President is not trying to manage the tragedy with top military officials from some war room or chamber, or is shown at all, there is no ID4 style “us versus them” action plot or oasis of ordered security.  This is no struggle against space alien invaders or supernatural mythic creatures: human kind destroys itself.  This is not a film about the people in power.  The schmucks that are vaporized in the initial blasts and the less fortunate that survive the initial blasts were you and me: cops, firemen, students, office workers, farmers, blue collar workers, doctors and people at the nearest university.  In India, there is an ancient saying: When elephants go to war, it is the grass that suffers.  We are the blades of grass in this film.
  • The story was placed in Kansas City, not a high profile place like New York or Los Angeles but the middle of middle America.  The menace of the hidden silos are underfoot of the everyday lives of people prior to being unleashed.  The movie made you wonder how many of these things were around, and where.
  • The Wikipedia indicates that over 100 Million Americans watched this film on its first broadcast.  I remembered there was a lot of promotion for the film prior to the broadcast.  This was a time when very few people had “pay” cable television and before satellite existed; the main few channels were widely watched on a national level: ABC, NBC and CBS.  This movie terrified people so much, people took actions based in fear after it.  Bomb drills were re-instated in some areas.  [I wonder if gun sales went up?]  ABC was aware of history: when H.G. Wells radio broadcast his original version of War of the Worlds, enough people believed an alien invasion was real and panicked, some committed suicide, farmers stalked their fields late at night with loaded shot guns; so ABC set up toll free telephone hot-lines for frightened viewers to call. 

This was the grandmother of contemporary Doomsday Films in the USA; so many other movies can trace their visual vocabulary back to The Day After in 1983.  One year later, a song would come out and become a prayer this would never happen:

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