The Day After
Of course we’re talking about The Day After… it’s Cold War Week here at best of the 80s, and there’s never been a TV show that said ‘Cold War’ (or scared the bejeezus out of us) like it.
When ABC aired The Day After on November 20, 1983, we were right in the thick of things. Just two months earlier, the Soviet Union ‘mistakenly’ shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Meanwhile, President Reagan had recently unveiled his new ‘Star Wars’ initiative, and War Games (which we love!) spent the summer dominating movie theaters.
Ack, the Cold War was all around us!
Of course, to many of us, the whole idea of a nuclear holocaust was about as realistic as zipping through the forests of Endor on speederbikes, but when The Day After hit our TV screens (and if our parents actually let us watch it), man… it suddenly felt pretty real.
The movie centers on several families in the Lawrence, Kansas, area, including prominent surgeon Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards), the Dahlbergs (who lived on a farm next to a heap of missile silos), and KU student Stephen (Steve Guttenberg). For the first hour, we watched them all live normal lives, while in the background we kept hearing radio reports and news stories about escalating events in Germany. The Soviets were trying to force the U.S. into leaving West Berlin by building up their military presence there. In the course of a day (less than an hour in the movie), things had escalated into a full-blown nuclear war (…though we were purposely kept in the dark about which side dropped the first bomb).
If you’ve never seen it, the entire 2-hour movie is available on YouTube. It’s well-worth a watch if you’ve never seen it (or if it’s been 28 years):
The most terrifying scenes, obviously, involved the dropping of the bombs (as everyone vaporized into see-through, skeleton folk), but what really hit home was the aftermath. People (the few who survived, anyway) were walking around the like zombies, hair falling out because of radiation sickness, severe burns… all kinds of nastiness.
The Day After was, quite simply the hugest, most talked-about thing to hit TV since the whole “Who shot J.R.?” saga. Almost 100 million people watched, prayer vigils were held, and 1-800 therapy lines were set up so people could talk through what they’d just seen.
When all was said and done, and we’re left with that image of Robards in the crater where his house used to stand, huddled with an ash-covered stranger… man, tell me you weren’t freaking out a little.
And then, just so we wouldn’t go away at all hopeful, we were left with this lovely little disclaimer:
“The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States. It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert that fateful day.”
Dude, you’re bringin’ me down.
…but I guess it worked.
We ♥ The Day After.