image of the mushroom cloud over the Bikini Atoll

Origin Stories: The Day After

This is going to be one of those deep dives into my own bullshit. Fair warned.

A while ago I had a slightly wine-five conversation with a friend of mine (hi sj!) where we tried to parse the origins of our zombie obsessions. I know I have roughly eleventy million reasons why I keep seeking out zombie narratives – from a love of horror/comic gore that no doubt has roots in the body trauma I experienced birthing babies, to a static-shock kind of irritation I have with common, even prevalent, constructions of domesticity I find when the dead rise – but the reasons why I started picking up fictions of the undead are maybe a little murkier. I believe there are two formative experiences. I’ll start with the most recent.

There’s this half-joking definition of Gen-X that posits that it is the generation just too late for atomic bomb drills, but too early for Code Red. When we hit the school basement, our heads down and our fingers interlaced over our necks, it was because of the most prosaic tornado. (Or at least in the Midwest, where we had such a thing.) At a family function recently that put together my Boomer parents with my Gen-whatever kids, I was keenly aware of this divide. The Boomers and the kids rightly bonded over the trauma of the drills they are subjected to, whereas Richard and I just shrugged. This was not a part of our experience, this exact civic trauma baked into our primary educations. But we were still on the tailing edge of the Red Scare, even if the civic authorities had kenned to the ridiculousness of the bomb drill. My go-to nightmare before the zombie shambled into my psyche – and after, often in a confusing jumble – was one of nuclear devastation.

The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, just days after my 12th birthday. I’ve been watching the HBO series about the disaster, and kind of freaking myself out with how clear my memories of the event were, even though I was just a tween in the 80s. I remember Sweden sounding the alarms: where in the fuck is this radiation coming from? I remember all the Russian dissembling, and the slow leak of information. I remember once the disaster was contained, the propaganda they released about the brave and noble workers who sacrificed themselves to encase the reactor in concrete; as if. Seeing how close they were to meltdown — to the poisoning of Central Europe for the next several millennia – retroactively validates my schoolgirl fears. I had a fallout dream a week ago; I haven’t had one in years. Add in the fact that I spent a month in Minsk five years later – 400ish kms from Chernobyl, very roughly the distance from New York to Boston – and my schoolgirl fears look awfully credible. It’s completely crazy we didn’t quite clock the reality of that danger. But then, the whole goram Soviet Union was shuddering apart, so dying of wasting cancer seemed very fucking remote compared to possibly having to yeet off to Poland once all the unrest started in earnest. We were there in April. By August, the Soviet Union had shattered.

But I think the event that caused my zombie thing happened three years earlier.

This is the scene, as I remember it (which is a fairly huge caveat, because I’m regularly interrupted by family members telling me that’s Not How It Happened): I was at my grandparents’ house in Munhall, PA, a post-War suburb outside of Homestead, PA, birthplace of Carnegie Steel. Everyone was gathered round the television to watch “The Day After“,* which was a Television Event of the kind that my kids won’t ever experience: 100 million people watched that broadcast. The internet tells me there were 224 million people in the country at the time, which means that Jesus Christ that was a lot of people. (I think maybe Game of Thrones may be the last big tv event, but even that was a series – not a Big Deal TV Movie event. “Bird Box” this was not.) Or not everyone was gathered round; I’m fairly sure my five year old sister was already abed. We slept in the same room — which used to be our mother’s — in 30 year old twin beds. There were mourning doves who roosted in the eaves and woke us up in the gloaming with their sadly loud laments. Grandpa Ed was in His Chair, my parents and Grandma Fran were on the couch, and I was fists on chin on the plush carpeting. I was allowed to stay up because I was a worldly nine.

The first whatever hour of “The Day After” is just interpersonal bullshit as it plays out in Laurence, Kansas. Nothing about it is particularly memorable or interesting: it is just a day in the life. Some of the actors involved had established film careers, like JoBeth Williams, who had just starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill”, or Jason Robards, who had a pretty storied career at this point. John Lithgow had been nominated for an Oscar already, for “The World According to Garp” – which, gah, that movie is due for some reassessment – and would pick up another shortly for “Terms of Endearment”. (Steve Guttenberg wouldn’t make it big until a year or two later.) This wouldn’t be notable today – things are pretty porous between the big and the small screen – but back then actors tended to be relegated to one or another. I mean, maybe some second tier movie actor would cameo on Happy Days when they were deep in the junket, but that was about it.

Once the bombs fall, though, that’s when it happens. Or maybe that’s when it doesn’t happen, because the absolute worst thing about “The Day After” is how matter of fact it is about the fallout, both emotionally and physically. A couple of characters just simply vanish, never to be heard from again. Most try to carry on the only way they know how – like Jason Robards’ character, who continues doctoring despite the death of his family, his neighborhood, and his city. When the inevitability of his radiation poisoning becomes clear, he returns home, to find a bleak and blasted landscape with people picking the bones. He breaks down when he’s offered the barest kindness, weeping in the arms of a stranger. He presumably dies in the rubble. It’s a lot of people dying watching other people dying, at least until some of the dying start to kill. A woman delivers a godamn baby. They are all going to die.

I didn’t see this ending in 1983 because I freaked the fuck out so hard my parents carried me bodily to bed, where I presume I eventually slept. As a parent now, I can just see my parents’ slowly dawning awareness of my freakout: glued into the narrative, until my brain starts screaming with momservation, and I turn and see that look on my kid’s face. Sitting in the darkened bedroom and shushing quietly why I rub a back, trying to quiet the tears. I watched “The Day After” all the way to the end much later, and it was zero to the bone how closely the post-nuclear landscape aligned to my nuclear dreams, how the visual language of my nightmares is cribbed from just the barest glimpse of the end of this film. My mind goes to rubble, to the shadows on the wall, in the cold sweat of nightmare. The zombie shambles out of this landscape, its ataxia like radiation burns.

In retrospect, my viewing not much later of “Night of the Living Dead” at a slumber party would only act as cement on my personal horror landscape, setting the bleak nuclear winter as my discontent. My dreams tend to redress the houses I have lived in as the set for both the tedious and the terrifying, so my terrors tend to be the familiar turned strange: a sink full of blood, a doorway half-shattered but holding, a hatch in the floor above me raining down debris as someone – something – treads the boards.

*This is stupid and doesn’t matter, but I’m having a hard time deciding how exactly to deal with television/movie/episode names. AP and Chicago style are at odds, so I’m going with Chicago because they actually say what to do with series television names vs. episode names.

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