It Came From the ’80s: The Day After (1983)

July 12, 2011

by Sheri White

My parents had the Cuban Missile Crisis when they were in school; I had the threat of world nuclear annihilation during my school years. Occasionally a warning siren would be tested while we were in the middle of class, practically ensuring my uniform would need a washing that night from the sweat that had soaked it.

President Ronald Reagan thought it the height of hilarity to joke about having nuked Russia before going on TV for a press conference. Threats were made by us and at us seemingly every day – lines in the sand were always being drawn and crossed. Although nothing usually happened after crossing that line, tensions were still high.

So things were scary for those of us who hopefully had our futures in front of us. I was 17 and had just graduated from high school when The Day After was shown on TV – it actually might have been on every channel; I don’t remember – but pretty much everyone in the country tuned in. It may have been just a TV movie, but it was a major event.

I went to my boyfriend Rick’s house to watch it. I didn’t realize how badly it was going to affect me, but as someone who was already being raised by a strict and fanatical religious mother who firmly believed that the world was about to end with the coming of the year 2000, the movie was just another layer of fear and paranoia to add to my fragile little psyche.

I stuck it out at Rick’s house until after the nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas. By then I had had enough, and was in tears caused by the sheer terror of the images on the screen. Looking back, I was probably having a panic attack. I made Rick take me home so I could be with my parents in case the nuclear attack happened in our town. Ridiculous, I know, but that was one of the scariest movies I had ever seen, and it could actually happen! You heard the words “Cold War,” “Nuclear War,” “radiation sickness,” “end of the world,” and so forth on TV, the radio and read them in newspapers and magazines. It was a scary time to be a teenager and have it in the back of your mind that maybe you didn’t really have your whole life ahead of you.

After watching people on the screen get vaporized, burned, gruesomely killed and even survive only to be stricken with radiation sickness made the prospect of nuclear war even more terrifying. Even if you did survive, what was there to look forward to? Nuclear winter, radiation sickness with your hair and teeth falling out, no food, contaminated water, violent people – a fucking nightmare of a life.

So I thought that my future would go one of two ways – either Russia would wipe us out or God would. Neither prospect excited me. Both were scary as hell. It was at this point that I decided that if I were going to die soon, I’d at least have a great time before it happened. And did I? Well, let’s just say at least I’ve never been arrested and I’m still alive.

The Day After can still scare the hell out of me when I catch it on TV. Sure, the acting is a little over-the-top at times and the SFX are a little corny, but they were terrifying in 1983. Oh, and if I thought The Day After did a number on me, it was nothing compared to a lesser-known British movie called Threads. Seriously, that movie made The Day After look like a Rated-G movie for kids. The last scene of Threads was brutal and horrific.

Thankfully, we don’t seem to be in that position any longer, and if we are, keep it to yourself, please. Self-denial has long been my way of getting through such things, and I have no intention of stopping. As far as I’m concerned, we are in no danger of any bombs being dropped and incinerating everything around me for miles and miles. Nope.

After The Day After aired, there were many discussions among world leaders about the Cold War situation. Maybe the movie did some good, because several years later in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, symbolizing the end of the Cold War. However, I was still in a state of fear all the time because in my beaten-down thinking, since Russia didn’t take us out, then I guess God was going to once the clock hit midnight on 1/1/2000 – according to my fanatical mother. It wasn’t until I finally confessed my fears to Chris about what would happen that night, and his compassion for my fears as well as his logical explanations about why that wasn’t going to happen. Once that not-so-happy New Years passed, I realized I was finally fear of the Cold War and my mother’s crazy religious beliefs. I could finally get on with living for real.

My kids are being raised without religion or fear. Sure, they watch horror movies, and I’ll let them watch The Day After and Threads because to them, they really are just horror movies and not scenes of imminent death and destruction for the world.


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