Five survivors of a nuclear holocaust grope and grunt their way through a desolate urban landscape, reacquainting themselves with such basic human functions as eating, shitting, and fucking. While short on narrative propulsion, Yasuaki Nakajima’s low-budget, 72-minute After the Apocalypse turns out to be a surprisingly engaging ride.
Filmed in dusky black-and-white 16mm, with debris-strewn outer Brooklyn and Queens serving as anonymous location, the film makes the most of limited resources. As do its derelict protagonists. The opening scenes show a nameless man (played by the director) tremulously surveying the blasted junkscape, his gas mask emanating a death rattle. He improvises companionship by drawing the outline of a woman in the dirt and reclining next to it. As the man encounters other survivors, all of them mute and communicating through wild gesticulation, survival becomes a matter of cooperation. Finding food and staying warm assume monumental importance. With the introduction of a woman (Jacqueline Bowman), complicated emotions get thrown in the mix, with violent consequences. The complete absence of dialogue renders the action in broad histrionic strokes. If mankind has reverted to a Neanderthal primitiveness, cinema itself has been bombed back to the silent era.
The virtuoso cinematography evokes a stark, perpetual dawn. DP Carolyn McCartney overexposes the images slightly to suggest a faint but lingering radioactivity. As an entry into the post-apocalyptic disaster genre, Nakajima’s film is too schematic to generate much thematic power. But as an experiment in regressive playfulness, it delivers nicely, with inspiration coming from Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha. Nakajima’s interest in his silent characters is so detached it’s almost anthropological. Little attempt at emotional individuation is made. People are born, they live, and then they die. The film (and the world) goes on with or without them.