Looking back at “The Day After”
To be clear,“The Day After”, a horrifying story about nuclear destruction and the aftermath, was not released as a theatrical film (at least, not in the United States). Twenty-five years ago, during the Spring of 1983, it was broadcasted on ABC-TV. The next morning, viewers felt like they were pulverized with a sledgehammer.
The film was directed by Nicholas Myer (he also directed “Time after Time”, “Star Trek II” and “VI”) and starred noteworthy talents like Jason Robards, Jobeth Williams and Steve Guttenberg. The film opens with a world in political crisis as news of possible war spreads throughout the media. We don’t know why or which side is at fault; we only know that it’s going to happen. The film focuses on Kansas City, Missouri and its citizens coping (and dying) when the big one ultimately hits. There are scenes of death during the nuclear explosion that were considered very risky and very graphic for television at the time.
When people ask me what movie has ever scared me the most, my answer has always been “The Day After”. No other film has ever put such a dreaded knot in my stomach as this one has. One need only watch the scene just before the bomb hits, when the awful sound of that alarm is filling the streets and people are completely panic-striken. The camera pulls back from the city skyline and the blast hits, creating the ominous, almost beautiful mushroom cloud that follows. Those images have scared me a lot more than anything Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kruger will ever do on screen. What happens next is inevitable. What happens after that is simply, the day after.
When I watched this film on TV twenty-five years ago, I was just 16 years-old. When it was over, I found myself walking over to my bedroom window and pulling the shade back to catch a glimpse of the night sky and the street outside. I needed to see that it was still there. What happened after that, I swear on my wife and child, I am not making up – Ted Koppel appeared on TV for ABC’s “Nightline” and the very first thing he said was (paraphrasing), “Alright, you can all relax, it’s all still out there.” My God, I wasn’t the only one!
Looking back to when it first broadcasted, the subject and the horror of nuclear war may seem a bit dated now. In 1983, Ronald Reagan was president and the cold war with the Soviet Union still existed. And while it could not be compared to the nuclear paranoia of the 1950’s, the nuclear threat still hung over our heads. Today, the threat still exists, of course (I believe we call it “weapons of mass destruction”), but the eyes of the world have concerned itself more with global terrorism since the tragedies of September 11, 2001.
“The Day After” is available on DVD, but I would love to hear your memories about watching it on TV twenty-five years ago.