If you grew up in the ’80s, there’s probably a lot about that decade locked away in the back recesses of your mind. When you think ’80s culture, you think Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, Knight Rider, the films of John Hughes, the action pics of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and the occasional boob you could use your VCR to freeze-frame in mid-bounce. Most mainstream pop-culture was light-weight, completely frivolous, brainless, and lacking in substance. That’s because, out in the real world, there was still a Cold War going on, and with it, the fear of nuclear holocaust. That fear was real and palpable, and if you were young, it was terrifying.
Most of us have forgotten about that aspect of the ’80s, but tonight’s episode of The Americans brought it back full force. Those memories only come out when you’re drunk or reminiscing, and it suddenly seems insane the things to which that fear drove us. In the early ’80s, out in the heartland of the country, grade-schoolers — kids in the second grade — had nuclear war drills, where we’d hide under our desks in preparation for the bomb. Those in D.C. or New York City — they didn’t even bother. If there was a nuclear bomb, they were under no misconception that a school desk could save them. In most cities, an emergency siren would blare once a week, presumably just to test it in the event it was needed in a real World War III situation to let us all know that our lives would soon be over. But it also served as a weekly reminder that our existence was on the precipice. That was some heady stuff if you were eight years old. Indeed, the existing Terror Alert Level pales in comparison to what lurked in the back of all of our minds in 1985: Someone could push the button, and the world — for all intents and purposes — would cease to exist.
The Day After, a 1983 TV movie, only served to heighten those fears. While most television and film was escapist, seemingly designed to take our minds off the threat of nuclear war, The Day After served to do the opposite: to scare the holy shit out of us. To increase the fear; to give us a picture of what World War III might look like; to make it more real, more terrifying. They put it on TV for everyone, of all ages, to see. One hundred million people saw it air on November 20, 1983, the biggest audience ever for a television movie. That was nearly 50 percent of the American population at the time. And, if I’m not mistaken, they replayed The Day After in schools over the next several years. To what end, I have no idea, except to put the entire country in a constant state of panic.
Until The Day After, I’m not sure that anyone had a concrete idea of what nuclear war might look like. It was a possibility that existed in everyone’s mind, I’m sure, and had since the Bay of Pigs in 1962. But The Day After put a picture to that fear. The focus of the movie wasn’t on the war itself, it was on those of us sitting in our living rooms, watching television, preparing for a wedding, tending the farm, or pumping water from the well out back. “Daddy,” a little girl says to her father (“Northern Exposure’s” John Collum), “a man on the radio says there might be a war. He says we should unplug all our radios, and the TV and stuff.”
We’re not talking about major cities or anything, either. This wasn’t a Roland Emmerich production, where the world’s most famous monuments were in the most danger. Nor was it the sort of post-9/11 terror many of us felt in major cities. The focus here was in and around Lawrence, Kansas. The middle of the country. Surrounded by Kansas City and beyond that, in either direction, miles and miles of farming land. As a character played by John Lithgow noted, “There’s no nowhere anymore … [the United States] has an awful lot of bullseyes.”
The political motivations were not really explained; the Russians attacked Germany. A nuclear bomb was dropped somewhere else. And suddenly, the entire United States was in danger. Little kids in Kansas fields stood outside around their play sets and watched nuclear missiles fly into space. “Either we fired first, and they’re going to try to hit what’s left. Or they fired first, and we just got our missiles out of the ground in time,” a soldier in Kansas notes solemnly. “Hiroshima was peanuts,” another man noted. Everyone prepared in mild disbelief, skeptical until they saw the bomb hit. And then it was too late to be anything else.
A house wife screams in terror as her husband takes her away from making the bed to put her in the basement with the rest of the family, as though a cellar door and a few gallons of water could save them from nuclear fallout. Traffic, in Kansas, draws to a standstill. Men get out their shotguns (what? They’re going to shoot down nuclear missiles?). A soldier leaves his position to spend the last few minutes with his family. “Over 300 missiles inbound now,” a military bureaucrat intones. Sirens blare. Church bells ring. The city devolves into panic. There’s no looting because what’s the point?
And then the bomb drops. Power goes out. For some reason, all the automobiles die. And then a big red light swallows the sky followed by a giant mushroom cloud. People in the wake of the blast disintegrate: moms holding their children, people hiding under ground, others sitting in their cars. Zap. They’re gone. Microwaved in the blast.
That’s only half of the movie, and the other half — the day after — is even more grim, if you can believe it. Those remaining are left in a state of confusion and panic, uncertain of how to avoid the radiation fall-out, or about what other parts of the country were affected. The hospital is filled, where Jason Robards attempted to rally the survivors. There seems to be little point: There’s no electricity. Little water. And no means to get to it. The farm family survives in their cellar, at least for a while; the little boy had been flash blinded from looking straight at an explosion. A surviving traveler, played by Steven Guttenberg, joins them underneath with his cans of nonperishables.
Later, the remaining survivors are relegated to tents, tasked with burying the masses of dead and scrounging for food that doesn’t exist. The livestock is dead. The soil is contaminated. Radiation and starvation is killing off the remaining few; shotguns are helping the cause. No one has any hair left. A woman delivers a child into a world that has no future. Two old men embrace and wait for death.
The message that 100 million Americans are left with at the end of The Day After? That the Earth will be a giant graveyard. That there is no hope. That mankind is doomed to failure. This is the message that so many of us took to our second-grade classes the next morning. We’d spend the next few years staring into the sky, waiting for that bomb to drop. An airplane would fly over, and we’d be frozen, waiting for the end. Every Wednesday at noon, that siren would blare, and our hearts would seize for a few seconds before we realized what time of week it was. And in school, an alarm would signal — we quickly learned the difference between a tornado drill and one signaling the end of time — and we’d act accordingly. Scramble into the hall for the tornado, head tucked between our legs, or scurry under our desks for the nuclear war drill, though we knew by then that nothing could protect us from the annihilation of a nuclear bomb.
The 1980s was one supremely fucked-up decade.