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October 13, 2015

All-time scariest TV characters -- #2: The Day After's entire cast

by Jay Black, posted Oct 24th 2007 12:00PM
Scariest. Movie. Ever.Characters: Entire cast
Show: The Day After
Episode: Mini-series

I hope this post doesn't feel like a cop-out. I tried really hard to find a more traditional scary character and couldn't think of one; the fact of the matter is, monsters and freaks don't scare me. I don't really have an explanation for this other than the fact that I live in New Jersey so seeing monsters and freaks isn't that big a deal.

The Day After is about nuclear holocaust. It might be hard for some of our younger readers to understand just how scary the world was in the early eighties. To give you some historical context: we had a right-wing hawkish president in office, there were rising tensions with the Russians, and the Middle East was destabilized.

Uh, you know what, maybe our younger readers actually don't need any historical context to understand The Day After. Here's all you need to know about the movie: it was scary as hell...

In 1983, ABC decided to make a movie to show you exactly what the world would look like if we had a full-blown toe-to-toe fight with the Ruskies. It might be hard to believe, but there were some people -- Joshua the Computer and General Buck Turgidson, to name just two -- who thought a nuclear war was winnable. The Day After was a fictional attempt to prove once and for all that thermonuclear war was a strange game, one in which the only way to win is not to play.

In 1983, I was seven. What I knew about world politics, I had learned through my dad: namely that the Russians were were evil, vodka-swilling, godless heathens, many of whom ate children. Also, that Ronald Reagan was a indestructible superhero who didn't need Air Force One because, when he wanted to fly, he just used his Power Americana to call four bald eagles to carry him wherever he needed to go.

Admittedly, this was not a sophisticated world view. But a simplistic world view is the key to happiness; I wasn't scared of a single thing when I was seven.

Then I watched The Day After. I shouldn't have watched it.

I wasn't allowed to watch The Day After, which was, on the surface, a smart move by my parents. Where they went wrong was telling me I wasn't allowed to watch The Day After, a movie that, up until the moment I was forbidden to watch it, I had no idea existed. By telling me that viewing it was verboten, they, of course, made me have to watch it.

I shouldn't have watched it.

I'll say this again: I. Should. Not. Have. Watched. It.

I stayed up till eleven, sitting close to the TV in my room so that I could keep the sound low. I watched as the entire infrastructure of Kansas crumbled, marveling as I did that, hey, Kansas had an infrastructure to crumble. I watched as Jason Robards, Steve Guttenburg, and John Lithgow tried to keep the world going even as they faced famine and radiation sickness. I watched the famous scene in the burned out church when Lori Lethin's character starts to menstruate uncontrollably and the priest tries to find God in a godless world. I watched the final scene -- with the sick and dying Jason Robards futilely confronting a family who had settled on his property only to collapse in tears after they offer him one of their meager collection of onions -- fade to black as the final words of the movie rattled out from Lithgow's ham radio: "This is Lawrence. This is Lawrence Kansas. Is there anybody out there? Anybody at all?"

I shouldn't have watched it.

It screwed me up, bad. Nuclear war, something that my father told me I'd never have to worry about because Super Reagan would just fly up in the sky and knock the missiles down, suddenly became a real possibility. I became obsessed with what would happen to my family if we had to face a post-nuclear world. Every time I heard even a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System, my stomach would fill up with acid thinking that'll be the last electronic sound I'll ever hear before the missiles hit.

Yeah, this was my childhood. As it turned out the trickle-down effect of Reaganomics is that 24 years later, a lot of my money is trickling into the pockets of my therapist.

Even after the collapse of communism, I continued to be worried about nuclear war. Every time I read about increasing tensions with the Russians, I get the same seven-year-old fear in my gut.

I don't know what it is that keeps this movie scary even two and half decades later. Certainly, it was wonderfully produced: it was a step above the standard TV movie mostly due to its director, Nicholas Meyer. The man who gave us the Kobayashi Maru was the perfect choice to show us what the world would look like post-nuclear holocaust.

If I had to venture one theory as to what makes The Day After scary in a way that most other horror movies are not, it's this: control. See, the fundamental flaw of most "scary movies" is that in order to make them work, the heroes have to choose to be affected by the scary characters and I would never make the same choices that they inevitably do.

"There were several murders here a few years back and there's a legend that the murderer continues to stalk these woods? Okay, we're leaving; I'm not really that attached to the idea of camping."

"There's a family of inbred monsters that live in that house? Hey, here's an idea, let's not go near the house. There'll be other places to trick or treat."

"That kid is possessed by the devil? Grab two handfuls of Ritalin. I'll put Vitamin R up against the Dark Lord any day of the week and twice on Tuesday."

Nuclear war, though, is completely out of our hands. In fact, it's in precisely the wrong hands. The decision whether or not to end the entire world is currently in the hands of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Keeping politics out of it, do you really feel comfortable with either of those people having the fate of the entire world one button-push away? I mean, no disrespect, but you get the feeling that Bush might nuke something just on a dare from one of his former frat brothers.

On top of that, my skill set is completely useless once the world is bombed back to the stone age. There are two things I do well: telling jokes and typing. Neither of those things will kill a mutant deer to eat. If there is, indeed, a nuclear war and I manage to survive it somehow, I'm totally doomed to die in a way that's even worse than those that evaporate in the first flash.

The characters in The Day After were the scariest characters in the history of anything, so far as I'm concerned, because they looked and acted just like us and everything that happened to them could very easily have happened to us. Every time one of them lost their hair to radiation sickness or had to fight over some scraps of food, we got a glimpse of one very possible future. Not a single thing has scared me more in the history of my life.

I was not alone. In the comic strip Bloom County, the character Michael Binkley watches the movie too. I couldn't find the strip online, but I could find the thing that makes him remember that things weren't all bad. If this post depressed you as much as it depressed me, click here. If you find that particular video too saccharin, try this one.

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I was a little older than you. Old enough to know NOT to watch it. I've never seen it. I don't know if I should at this point, it would be dated; but would it still be scary.

March 30 2015 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You think the 80's were scary from the perspective of nuclear war? Try the 60's! I was 8 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were fingerprinted in school to make it easier to identify the bodies later. (Yes I know now that there wouldn't have been any fingers left; that's not the point. The adults were making plans for AFTER YOU DIE -- that's the scary part.)

September 18 2011 at 11:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just a little nitpick... anyone notice that the flag was flying the wrong direction when the father was carrying the son across the street?

December 10 2007 at 11:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

@Jay - yeah, Threads was really really depressing! (and a TV movie, I think). I'm not sure how accurate some of the stuff dealing with several years on was, but it was certainly scary...

October 31 2007 at 8:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Some of this movie was shot in my hometown of Harrisonville, Missouri. So it was surreal seeing these familiar surroundings with the dead lying about.
At the time I had surveyed where all the nuclear missile sites were in the county, six of them, and most of the county would have been a smoldering pit 'in the event of a real emergency'.

October 29 2007 at 10:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mountain Mike

Nuclear war is just another way to die. WHat is the difference between nuclear war and getting hit by a truck?

October 29 2007 at 6:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was also born and raised in Jersey, when I was young I asked my parents if we were gonna get bombed and my mommy said "We live in New Jersey, we won't get bombed, there's nothing important here".

October 28 2007 at 6:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

totally agree. i watched this at school in my social studies class (in 2003), and i never forgave the teacher who put it on. i had to leave halfway through to go thow up in the toilet, and then went to the nurse in, what i believe now, was shock. i never told anyone how bad this affected me because i didn't want to be laughed at and have to talk to the teacher and get them in trouble etc. but seriously, don't watch it. i'm glad i never got to see steve guttenberg lose his hair, but i imagine it. ugh

October 28 2007 at 8:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

One more thing, growing up in the early sixties during the Cuban missile crisis and the like, we kids were terrified when people started building bomb shelters (I BEGGED my father to build one. He didn't.), and then there were "ways to protect yourself", that we followed. One was to wear white to "deflect the radiation"! Seriously! Just as dumb as "duck and cover", huh? But we kids wore white all the time when we went outside!! So simple and naive. Oh, I also begged my father to brick our house. He didn't. And about the bomb shelter? His best friend built one, we went and looked at it, I just KNEW we were going to die and they would be saved. Fast forward through several non bomb years, he turned it into a swimming pool! Much better!!!!!

October 25 2007 at 2:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh, Susan, I know what you mean. I read that book in my late teens and it really freaked me out. And no one could understand why I was so freaked out, because no one else would read it! I know there was a movie made from it, but I don't want to see it because I would be afraid that it would take away the power of the book.
And, BTW, there's a lot of dirt around here that is younger than me, also!!!

October 25 2007 at 2:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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