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Burn, Baby, Burn

The Discovery Channel's "Pompeii: The Last Day" is grisly fun.

11:00 PM, Jan 27, 2005 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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But it's not until later on the second day's morning--after 15 hours of volcanic eruption--that the biggest pyroclastic surge heads straight for Pompeii. The most horrifying deaths are described thus: "Hot ash blasted in through chinks in doors and windows, holes in roofs. It killed most of the remaining inhabitants of Pompeii, but death was not instantaneous. With the first breath, hot gas and ash were inhaled, causing the lungs to fill with fluid: it was like swallowing fire. The second breath took in more ash, which mixed with the fluid to create a wet cement in the lungs and windpipe. The third inhalation thickened the cement, causing the victims to gasp for breath--and suffocate."

If all this hasn't been grisly enough, there's more volcano-related fun at the apocalyptically named promotional site for the documentary, thelastdayiscoming.com, including a "build your own volcano" animation.

The special uses a documentary-style voiceover, with the stories of several fictional composites (and a few real historical figures) re-enacted in well-presented scenes. Occasionally the dialogue is a little weak, as when a pregnant woman bemoans her family's decision not to flee: "I hate being shut in," she says. "It won't be forever," her mother weightily replies. But for a documentary, the characters are positively three-dimensional and the actors are quite good at packing in a lot of emoting into their limited screen time.

When the documentary aired in Britain last October, it garnered 10 million viewers. A big advertising blitz in U.S. cities should result in similarly high viewership here. After all, who can ignore ads that show an enormous fire burst and ask, in menacing text, "Would You Survive?"

Though there was some evidence that they remembered Vesuvius had once been active, the people who lived at its base thought it was just an ordinary mountain. It had not erupted in 1,800 years.

With this in mind, the documentary ends on a sinister note: "Plinian eruptions of this scale only happen every 2,000 years. The next one is due."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter for The Weekly Standard.