Monday, April 11, 2022

"You Hated the Plastics and I Didn't" - The Aftermath (1982) - Film #227

There are many underappreciated film genres, and one of the most underappreciated is the middle-aged action here genre, which of course includes Low Blow (1986), reviewed here recently. Another classic of this genre, perhaps equal to Low Blow in excitement, and certainly surpassing it in terms of ambition, is actor/writer/director Steve Barkett's post-apocalyptic thriller The Aftermath (1982).

Of course, some of the revered critics of your universe misunderstand The Aftermath. Reviewer mhorg2018 writes, "It's a terrible little movie full of bad acting and has a contrived plot." Reviewer lordzedd-1 writes, "Saying this thing sucks is an understatement." And reviewer Terry-23 writes, "If you pick this up to watch a serious movie about life after a nuclear war, you'll give up on this in about 5 minutes." Of course, Terry-23 is entirely incorrect, as The Aftermath is the most realistic and educational post-apocalyptic film ever made. Please continue to read the truth...

A space shuttle flies toward Earth. The ship is populated by three balding, bearded gentlemen who cannot pick up any signs of life on the planet. “What the devil’s going on down there?” asks one of the crew.

The film cuts directly to what the devil IS going on down there: devastation.

Also, a group of innocent people (including an elderly man, a woman and her daughter, and a young woman apparently unable to find a brassiere) are chased by men with rifles, led by Sid Haig, and quickly abducted.

Sid Haig orders the women to be put in their pickup truck and the men to be unceremoniously shot, resulting in one of their heads being blown off.

Back in space, the three astronauts decide to land in the ocean outside of Los Angeles so they will at least be seen by the city’s residents even though they cannot communicate with anyone on Earth. This gambit, which results in fireworks exploding inside the cockpit, is mildly successful, in that one of the astronauts, Newman, survives. Unfortunately, nobody greets him as he stumbles out of the ocean. However, as he skirts the cliffs at the coastline, Newman finds a group of corpses on the beach.

“Whatever had killed these people,” Newman thinks in voice-over (inexplicably in past tense), “it had done it so quickly they had hardly been aware they were dying.”

Of course, Newman steals all their belongings, including a can helpfully labeled “KEROSENE.” He also finds a portable radio from the 1950s, though he can only pick up static.

Eventually, Newman finds another survivor, Matthews, in the surf. The two climb up some cliffs for a long time, then sit at a campfire. “I wonder if there’s any wild animals around,” Williams comments.

“Probably nothing dangerous,” Newman assumes.

The men fall asleep at the still-burning fire while shadows move around them. Suddenly, they are confronted by mutants with papier-mache faces, leading to a fight, accompanied by a flamboyant, percussive score. One of the mutants is casually set on fire and burns for quite some time before falling into the grass.

In the morning, the astronauts walk a few yards to the right and see the devastated city nearby.

“It had finally happened,” Newman narrates. “The last great war in which mankind had all but obliterated itself.”

Newman leads Matthews up to Mulholland Drive and a civil defense radio station, though Matthews’s leg is injured and he is unable to climb to the building. Once in the radio station, Newman finds a dead man (played by Eric Caidin, owner of the long-lived Hollywood Book and Poster Company) clutching a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Newman rewinds and plays the tape, which has recorded the dulcet tones of Dick Miller (though the dead man looks nothing like Dick Miller). “In a matter of only a few days, I watched as the world was ripped apart and its people destroyed. There’s no more food, no more water, no more help.” Mr. Miller adds, “Most who survived the initial blasts are mindless, battered monsters. They run in packs like wolves and feed themselves on anything they can find.”

Some days later, after both astronauts have shaved their beards and changed into different clothes (of unknown origin), Newman and Matthew’s find a nice mansion with a tile roof (interestingly, this mansion is the ‘castle’ of director Ted V. Mikels). They clean up the place and use it as a base of operations, a process that takes a little under a minute.

In the nice, clean house, Newman takes their safety as an opportunity to reveal some useful backstory. He tells Matthews, “Five years ago, when Jenny and my son died, I knew that no matter what was to happen in the future, nothing could be as horrible. And even now, in the midst of all this, that still holds true.”

“Look, pal,” Matthews says, “it’s been no big secret to me. You’ve hated the world in general for a long time. I understand why. The world lost a lot of its charm. We both grew  up and we saw a lot of the things that made life beautiful change and become plastic. You hated the plastic and I didn’t. It’s that simple.”

“No, not quite.”

Matthews accuses Newman of liking the new world, with its lack of taxes and apartment buildings. Then Newman leaves Matthews behind in the mansion. Newman walks out through the city, only to immediately be threatened by a radiation storm that turns the clouds red.

Newman takes shelter in a museum.  full of forced-perspective dinosaurs that include a pteranodon the size of a jetliner. He lies down and sleeps, dreaming of his son and his wife (another woman apparently unable to find a brassiere). The dream transitions into a nightmare in which his wife and son appear similar to the Knights Templar in the Blind Dead films.

Minutes later, Newman is startled by the appearance of a young boy named Chris (played by writer/director/Newman portrayer Steve Barkett’s son Christopher). The boy leads him to the curator of the museum, played by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman. Mr. Ackerman gives Newman a tour of the museum and makes an analogy between the Egyptian civilization and pre-apocalypse civilization. “Throughout history, man developed…many unique mechanical devices with which to destroy his fellow man,” Mr. Ackerman lectures. “The cannon, for instance.” Profoundly, Mr. Ackerman finds it ironic that it was not big weapons that destroyed the planet but the atom, so tiny it is invisible to the naked eye. “Destroyed by atoms and germs. What irony.”

Meanwhile, the young, brassiere-free woman previously menaced by Sid Haig is again menaced by Sid Haig. He begins to rape her, but she manages to use a broken bottle to get free. 

Back at the museum, Mr. Ackerman reveals he is mutating due to radiation sickness. Almost immediately, Newman volunteers to take care of the boy, Chris. Just as immediately, Mr. Ackerman has a heart attack, though this one is not quite fatal. “I’ll say goodbye now, Chris. Mr. Newman came along at just the right time.”

Mr. Ackerman takes his dramatic and final leave, while Newman and Chris lie down on a bed together and go to sleep, apparently not affected emotionally at all by the older man’s death. They drive a Jeep through the streets of Los Angeles, gathering pots and pans, until they are shot at by the woman who was attacked by Sid Haig, now holed up in a second-story room. She nearly foils Newman when he slips on a shell casing on the floor. The woman, Sarah, believes Newman is part of Sid Haig’s gang, but he sets her straight. Of course, she quickly joins Newman and Chris.

Outside, Chris is attacked by three mutants, but Newman and Sarah take care of them by shooting them and hitting them in the crotch with a two-by-four. They all escape in the Jeep (which was originally olive-green but is now bright red, for unknown reasons).

Back at the Ted V. Mikels mansion, in a vast blue bedroom, Sarah takes off her clothes and allows Newman to make love to her.

A few minutes later, Chris wakes up, scared of thunder. Newman (now dressed in a tank top and high-waisted checkered pajama bottoms) gives him a pep talk about being bullied as a child and fighting back until everyone was so covered with blood they didn’t know who was who. Then Newman tells Chris about his own dead wife and child. 

Within a day or two, Newman, Matthews, Sarah, and Chris devise a plan to attack Sid Haig’s compound, which they have been staking out, and rescue the mother and daughter who were abducted previously. At night, they carry out their plan, one which involves throwing rifles at each other, knocking out guards sitting on rocking chairs, and a score perfectly suited to a Tom and Jerry cartoon. During the thrilling attack, the rifles become laser rifles, allowing Sarah to blow up a shack full of explosives.

The heroes capture Sid Haig, but unfortunately he escapes immediately. Newman fires a pistol at him, but unfortunately it is not a laser pistol, so Mr. Haig escapes successfully.

The next day, as the heroes prepare to leave for a less dangerous climate, Mr. Haig’s men break into the mansion, knock Matthews out, and kill Sarah, the mother, and the daughter. Only Newman, Matthews, and Chris remain. Newman collects some guns and tells Chris he has to go after the villains even if they’re sure to kill him. “I don’t want to continue to live in a world where baby-killers walk around unpunished. It’s got to be done, Chris, no matter what the price.”

Of course, before he leaves the mansion to take revenge, Newman piles the bodies in the living room, soaks them with gasoline, and lights them on fire.

Newman takes the Jeep by himself and drives back to Mr. Haig’s compound (which, in the daytime, looks like a no-frills campground). Newman gets his revenge by driving the Jeep through the campground, shooting people with his (sadly non-laser) pistol as he drives. Eventually, he jumps out of the Jeep and carries on the shooting as he runs through the campground and hops daintily over obstacles. After a long, exciting sequence in which Newman kills what appears to be thousands of armed men, Newman is captured — only to be rescued seconds later by Matthews.

“Why did you come?” Newman asks.

“I just did,” Matthews replies.

Just as he speaks, Matthews is shot dead.

The fight spills over, somehow, from the desert to a city full of brick skyscrapers, where Newman combats a random thug on a rooftop before sliding a hunting knife into the man’s chest (the dialogue indicates this thug killed all the women, though it is unclear how Newman discovered this fact).

Newman returns to the burned wreckage of the mansion to collect Chris and drive back into the desert with the Jeep. In voice-over, after the Jeep has somehow turned into a bright blue VW minibus, Newman says he will find Sid Haig even if it takes the rest of his life. Then the film plays its most surprising card, as Mr. Haig shoots Newman in the chest. Chris runs and Mr. Haig shoots Newman in the shoulder. “I don’t underestimate anybody,” Mr. Haig explains, but at the last moment he too is shot — by Chris, proving his last words to be ironically incorrect.

“Newman, are you going to die?” the boy asks.

“I’m afraid so.”

“Newman, I don’t want you to die.”

“Don’t cry, son. You’ll be all right. We had some good times together, didn’t we?”


“I’ll miss you.” Then he says something else, but his last words are unfortunately too indistinct to make out. Chris steals Newman’s dinosaur necklace and simply walks away into the harsh, unforgiving, child-unfriendly, brassiere-free desert.

With a story co-written by Stanley Livingston of television's My Three Sons, The Aftermath is a classic not only because of its realistic depiction of an apocalypse caused by both nuclear and biological weapons, but also because it is a cinematic tour-de-force that brilliantly encompasses four decades of film history. The musical score, matte effects, and model work are clearly representative of 1950s science fiction cinema; the mutants and rapist biker gangs are clearly representative of 1960s exploitation cinema; the nihilistic ending and occasionally misanthropic antiheroes are clearly representative of 1970s cinema; and the road warrior aesthetics and pseudo-family-on-the-run adventures are clearly representatives of fantasy films of the 1980s. Steve Barkett, who began the film in 1978 and released it in 1982, is a master film historian, in addition to his yeoman's work as actor, co-writer, director, stuntman, and no doubt dozens of other titles. The world of fantastic cinema can do nothing but bow in the direction of Mr. Barkett, one of the true geniuses of cinematic fantasy and a man who showed us a realistic and bleak, but somehow hopeful, vision of a future where mutants and biker gangs maraud with impunity, children walk down desert roads alone and hopeless, men build laser rifles that only work for one scene, and women are tragically unable to find supportive undergarments. Thank you, Steve Barkett, for your service to all humanity.