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Nicholas Meyer's 1983 television film, "The Day After".
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Life goes on. The kids play in the backyard, their giggles almost as loud as the TV blaring in the background, some newscaster talking about this warring faction threatening that warring faction...we’ve heard it all before. It’s nothing new.

Life goes on. Babies are born, birthdays are celebrated, weddings are attended and we’re so comfortable in our own little worlds there’s really no need to let the rest of it in, right? Whatever happens over there doesn’t affect us, right?

It can’t happen here…right?

It’s starting to feel like 1983 all over again. Even if you were a child back then, it was impossible not to feel the chill of the Cold War tensions between America and Russia as the creeping fear of a possible nuclear exchange started to permeate all forms of culture. Hell, I remember reading about it in my Weekly Reader.

Living under the rule of an impetuous tyrant, the anxiety and fear have managed to return, a worldwide pissing contest playing out in 140 characters almost daily on social media. As North Korea threatens to aim atomic weapons in our direction—and vice-versa—those images from 1983 anti-nuke flicks like The Day After have been replaying in my head over and over again, so much so that I had to sit down and rewatch them and rediscover the most terrifying thing about them: life goes on.

Premiering on ABC on November 20th, 1983 to much national fanfare, Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (MGM Home Entertainment) was a major event, a dramatized duck and cover reel designed to shock and awe the U.S. into what a massive nuclear exchange between America and Russia would look like, focusing mainly on salt of the earth types in Kansas and how they attempt to press on.

Comprised of multiple storylines that eventually converge in one way or another, even as rumors of war are bantered about over the airwaves for weeks, it isn’t until the last minute, until the moment that the missiles are in the air, that people realize this isn’t a drill; makeshift shelters are piecemealed together as people take what they can from the grocery store. The roads become congested as the electromagnetic pulse shuts down all electronics and the ensuing mushroom cloud vaporizes mostly everything in its path.

Life goes on.

A doctor (Jason Robards) tries to deal with the increasing overflow of patients at his university hospital, watching the sickness eat away and destroy not only everyone coming in through those doors but himself as well. Meanwhile, a simple farmer (John Cullum) watches as his community falls apart, with martial law returning and roving bands in search of food and shelter threatening his family and property.

The diseased fields are littered with corpses, animal and human, and ash falls almost as fast as the temperatures do, the sun blocked for possibly months. The barely-working government’s tight-fisted rationing is causing riots in the streets as gymnasiums full of the living dead slowly bleed themselves out internally. There’s no hope and yet, cruelly, life goes on…but it will never be the same again.

This concept is given an absolute gut-wrenching ground-zero polestar in the lesser-known 1983 film Testament (Warner Archive). Originally broadcast as part of PBS’ Playhouse series, Jane Alexander stars as Carol Wetherly, a typical suburban mom in a typical suburban setting, a houseful of kids and a husband (William Devane) who commutes to the city. Via the radio, we learn nuclear bombs have gone off along the coasts and while we see none of the physical destruction in Testament, instead we’re given a terrifying glimpse of the mental desiccation and destruction as a tight-knit community falls apart when push most definitely comes to shove.

Lynne Littman's 1983 television film, Testament. (Paramount Pictures) 

At first, despite the shock of what has happened, Carol and her family are somewhat calm and prepared, as are her friends and neighbors, believing things will soon go back to normal; the valiantly attempt to carry on with their normal, everyday lives as such. But as life goes on and things don’t go back to normal, the politeness and civility soon start to breakdown as goods and services dwindle and radiation poisoning starts to claim more and more lives, including Carol’s own. Those neighbors are now in competition with you in a game of survival.

Life goes on.

Testament manages to be ultimately shocking not in its images of bright burning orange mushroom clouds or irradiated wastelands filled with scarred survivors—there’s none of that here—but in portraying an all-American family trying to keep it together under the most brutal of circumstances and slowly, painfully failing and falling apart no matter how hard they try. It begs the question to all these paranoid preppers and alpha-male survivalists: why? Why would you want to survive a nuclear holocaust, even on a personal level?

This question is not only expounded upon but brutally answered once and for all in what I consider one of the most horrific films of all time, the 1984 British telefilm Threads (unavailable in America). Combining this realistic mass extinction event footage with a personal narrative, this BBC film has its roots based in Peter Watkins’ banned 1965 mockumentary The War Game, focusing on the long-term effects of a nuclear war on a typical British town, in this case, Sheffield.

Mick Jackson's 1984 television film, Threads. (BBC Archives)

As young couple Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher) plan their shotgun marriage, voices on the various radios and television continually warn everyone of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, but they are ignored as, of course, life goes on and by the time the air raid sirens blare, the flash has hit and the lucky ones caught in the open instantly vaporize, while numerous others instantly combust alive.

From here, the film becomes a bleak docudrama, following the next few months as the fallout hits and takes out the weak while nuclear winter does in the rest. Eventually, we’re taken a few months ahead as martial law has been installed, fuel reserves run out and disease is rampant. As Ruth has her baby in a dirty barn, the main sustenance has become rats and other assorted vermin, while those that are strong enough toil the fields in a useless effort to try to regain an agrarian level of society as the British population hits medieval numbers.

As the film continues ten years down the road, a prematurely aged Ruth dies while her uneducated daughter, now ten, who speaks only in grunts and broken English as education has been completely forgotten roam the ruins of the city, eating whatever she can find when she’s eventually raped, leading to the darkest, most nihilistic finale ever that masterfully shows that while life goes on, hope irrevocably dies. For good.

So, yeah. Drop those bombs, Mr. Trump. Life will go on, but once you step outside that fortified government bunker and witness the burnt, barren landscape that you personally decimated—surely your idea of making America great—I wonder if you’ll drop to your knees and beg God for forgiveness…

Life goes on. God help us. Life goes on.

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About the Author

Louis Fowler

Güicho. Gadfly. Chicano. Choctaw. Cristero. Freelancer. Leftist. Activist. Vilified. PKD....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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