Ok, so what I’m about to do is probably going to piss off quite a few people. I’m going to write a reveiw for a movie. A disaster movie. This is not a horror movie in the traditional sense. In fact, it was a made for TV movie. CBS cranked this little honey out way the hell back in 1983. There are no zombies, cannibals, 40-foot snakes, aliens or Limeys infected with “rage” in this flick. Chances are that 9 out of ten of you have never even heard of this movie. The special effects are at best lame and the makeup is at best passable.
But that doesn’t stop “The Day After” from being one of the most deceptively creepy and disturbing films released during the 1980’s.
Before I go any farther, let me issue one warning: If you’re not old enough to remember a time when the threat of instantaneous nuclear annihilation was more than just an abstract, save yourself the time and avoid this movie. You’re definitely not going to find it in a video rental store. You might be able to pirate it off a fileswapping service, but you’ll most likely end up buying the DVD. And this would be a horrible waste of money for somebody who is temporally destined not to fully enjoy a good nuclear disaster flick.
“The Day After” starts out like a great many good horror movies do: with a bunch of ordinary people doing ordinary things on an ordinary day in an ordinary place. This place being Lawrence, Kansas. But things are not well. Berlin is heating up and communications between the US and the USSR are breaking down. Sure, folks are worried. But they just go about their days as they always have. There’s almost a documentary feel here with hand-held camera work focusing on military personnel who are obviously not actors. You get the impression of controlled anxiety; of professionals doing their jobs even though something menacing is looming on the horizon. Everybody knows something truly catastrophic is brewing but they all just carry on as usual, hoping the problem will just go away.
The situation overseas escalates in the blink of an eye. Some savvy folks are smart enough to stockpile supplies and prepare improvised shelters, but most people are caught on the highways evacuating cities when the first missiles strike. This is the cheesiest part of the movie. It is worth mentioning that in 1983, made for TV movies (nor any others) didn’t have the luxury of advanced special effects that even the lowliest directors have at their disposal these days. Some cheesiness is expected. But scenes of peoples’ skeletons becoming visible in the nuclear flashes are still a bit of a stretch. The mushroom clouds are fairly convincing but the rest of it is adimttedly a bit unrealistic.
All things being equal, if you can stomach the few scenes of bizarrely 80’s-ish special effects, you have a chance at fully appreciating this film.
“The Day After” is a nightmarish, apocalyptic theme park log ride into the depths of Cold War popular paranoia. Only then, the paranoia was real. Everybody knew it. The people who made this film sure as hell did and they spared no expense in sharing the misery with the audience. “The Day After” conjures all the worst post-apocalyptic fears: big cities and their entire populations cease to exist in miliseconds, radiation is killing and sickening those fortunate to survive the blasts, the government is reduced to a vainly positive voice in a canned radio message, hospitals become cesspits full of the dead and dying and the overworked medical staff trying in vain to comfort them. Everything just goes haywire. The carefully constructed fabric of civilization unravels and the survivors are left to wander throughout a blighted and poisonous landscape.
There are a lot of great moments in this film. There is a scene where a once thriving family farm is revealed to be a dust-covered nuclear desert dotted with the corpses of hundreds of dead animals. Another great scene is a church service held in a roofless, burned-out church and attended by a radiation-poisoned flock. The last half of the film is chocked full of such disturbing imagery. And it’s made all the more disturbing when you picture yourself in the characters’ shoes; trying to survive the absolutely worst case scenario.
Remember that this movie was made at a time when the Soviets were still very much our enemies and every sapient organism in the northern hemisphere knew that nuclear-tipped missiles could be streaming out of the sky at any time. Sure, the threat wasn’t as imminent as it was during the 50’s or 60’s, but it was still very real in the public consciousness. Those of us who remember such fear will appreciate the movie far more perhaps than the younger generation. Yes, “The Day After” is dated. Fatally so, in fact. And it was never intended to be a horror movie in the conventional sense. But these things do not prevent it from being frightening and disturbing. And in the end, that’s what any good horror movie is all about: frightening and disturbing those who watch it. Watch “The Day After”. Understand it for what it is and realize that its fiction could very well have (and still very well could) become fact.