Looking back at “The Day After”

posted by efriedmann on February 26, 2008 at 8:00 am

To be clear,“The Day After”, a horrifying story about nuclear destruction and the aftermath, was not released as a theatrical film (at least, not in the United States). Twenty-five years ago, during the Spring of 1983, it was broadcasted on ABC-TV. The next morning, viewers felt like they were pulverized with a sledgehammer.

The film was directed by Nicholas Myer (he also directed “Time after Time”, “Star Trek II” and “VI”) and starred noteworthy talents like Jason Robards, Jobeth Williams and Steve Guttenberg. The film opens with a world in political crisis as news of possible war spreads throughout the media. We don’t know why or which side is at fault; we only know that it’s going to happen. The film focuses on Kansas City, Missouri and its citizens coping (and dying) when the big one ultimately hits. There are scenes of death during the nuclear explosion that were considered very risky and very graphic for television at the time.

When people ask me what movie has ever scared me the most, my answer has always been “The Day After”. No other film has ever put such a dreaded knot in my stomach as this one has. One need only watch the scene just before the bomb hits, when the awful sound of that alarm is filling the streets and people are completely panic-striken. The camera pulls back from the city skyline and the blast hits, creating the ominous, almost beautiful mushroom cloud that follows. Those images have scared me a lot more than anything Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kruger will ever do on screen. What happens next is inevitable. What happens after that is simply, the day after.

When I watched this film on TV twenty-five years ago, I was just 16 years-old. When it was over, I found myself walking over to my bedroom window and pulling the shade back to catch a glimpse of the night sky and the street outside. I needed to see that it was still there. What happened after that, I swear on my wife and child, I am not making up – Ted Koppel appeared on TV for ABC’s “Nightline” and the very first thing he said was (paraphrasing), “Alright, you can all relax, it’s all still out there.” My God, I wasn’t the only one!

Looking back to when it first broadcasted, the subject and the horror of nuclear war may seem a bit dated now. In 1983, Ronald Reagan was president and the cold war with the Soviet Union still existed. And while it could not be compared to the nuclear paranoia of the 1950’s, the nuclear threat still hung over our heads. Today, the threat still exists, of course (I believe we call it “weapons of mass destruction”), but the eyes of the world have concerned itself more with global terrorism since the tragedies of September 11, 2001.

“The Day After” is available on DVD, but I would love to hear your memories about watching it on TV twenty-five years ago.

Comments (22)

ceasar on February 26, 2008 at 8:25 am

I saw that tv movie when I was in college. I watch the entire film and at the time I found it provocative. I had to get out of my apartment and walk in the cold for a while to ease my mind. Here’s another film along those same lines: Threads. It’s a BBC film that came out a year later over here. I watched the Day After again on Sci-FI and if you compare both films u would find similarites. But the British film Threads even covers life in post nuclear age in the United Kingdom. By the way I read the Wikipedia background on both films.
But the Day After made me think. But 9/11/01 made this movie look pale by today’s standards.

PeterApruzzese on February 26, 2008 at 8:44 am

It was an ok tv movie, though way too preachy and unsubtle.

The subject was better explored in “Threads” (as noted by caesar) and the movie “Testament”.

moviebuff82 on February 26, 2008 at 11:39 am

To this day, the idea of nuclear war still exists in the minds of TV producers. Look at the last season of “24”, in one of the episodes, a big explosion that eerily looks like something out of Hiroshima occurs. Even theatrical movies have used it, mostly in sci-fi movies set in the future, such as Terminator 2 and its TV series sequel, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. If the TV movie “The Day After” were remade for post 9/11 audiences, then the planes carrying the bombs will be from Iran but the city will still be the same.

efriedmann on February 26, 2008 at 11:56 am

That dream sequence from TERMINATOR 2 where Los Angeles and Sarah Connor erupts into flames still gives me the chills!

ceasar on February 26, 2008 at 12:10 pm

I know what you mean. The dream sequence from Termanitor2 was one of the best I’ve seen. But that scene got toppled with Independence Day when the city saucers destroyed the cities with one laser shot.

moviebuff82 on February 26, 2008 at 12:23 pm

yuppers. Out of all the cities, I like the one in which the ship blows up the white house.

efriedmann on February 26, 2008 at 12:37 pm

I remember in one of my high school classes the next day, a classroom discussion of THE DAY AFTER, which it seems everyone in class had watched.

ceasar on February 26, 2008 at 12:57 pm

As for me I was at the University of Southern Miss in Hattiesburg not far from the campus. We didn’t talk about it much. But since I was studying film at the time I was looking at technique and editing. I saw Threads and Testament a year later. I recently watch Threads on Youtube and Threads still had the more impact. I’m surprised it hasn’t been released in the states on dvd. Testament with Jane Alexander took a more intimate look after the nuclear bomb. Especially how Jane and her son and his friend face death.

RobertEndres on February 26, 2008 at 1:35 pm

I was the projectionist for the Premiere Screenings of “The Day After” in Lawrence, KS., the town where it was filmed. I had some time off from Radio City, and Larry Shaw of Boston Light & Sound was going out to set up their 35mm projection equipment in the University of Kansas Student Union auditorium. I jokingly said I thought it would be fun to see “Lawrence in Lawrence”. Since I did quite a bit of work for B.L. & S., Larry offered to pay my expenses out and back if I would be the operating projectionist.

It was a memorable experience. We did several screenings on the premiere day to accomodate the citizens of Lawrence, many of whom are seen in the film. I remember Nicolas Meyer, the director, being concerned that seeing themselves on the screen might cause the audience to “titter” and ruin the mood, so he asked for some restraint in his introductory comments. He needn’t have worried. While the audeinces did come in in a festive mood, the impressive scenes of the destruction of their home town displayed all too realistically on screen, left them in a far more somber state of mind. There was no “tittering” as the audiences filed out after the screenings!

I also vividly remember the scene of the missiles streaking up from their silos as seen from across the University of Kansas football field (the silos were actually there in real life). It was sobering to step out of the booth door onto the roof of the Student Union and see the football field from almost the identical angle to that of the scene in the film.

If you think the film is impressive viewing on a television screen, believe me — the sight of the watching the town you’re standing in
destroyed on a large screen as you’re standing there is both eerie and unforgettable!

JodarMovieFan on February 26, 2008 at 1:41 pm

I remember the hoopla surrounding this film for tv and that there was only one commercial shown during its airing. In school, our English teacher suggested us to view the program (unless one’s religous conviction prevented one from viewing it) and then write about it afterwards, so it was required viewing. Being that it was so long ago, I think the only moving moment for me was at the very end when Jason Robards' character weeps. It was kind of a Job (from the Bible) like moment given that like the Biblical character, he lost everything; possessions, family and friends.

The T2 depiction of a nuclear blast is a powerful one. I remember seeing it in both 70mm and in the one place (in the DC Metro area) that had the then new Cinema Digital Sound format (UA Bethesda, now Regal). I can still visualize the scene up to Sarah Conner’s burning, crisping flesh from the flashpoint to when she wakes up from the dream. Back then, the threat was the Soviet Union, today its virtually anybody given the post 9-11 proliferation of terrorists and suitcase-type enclosures that could deliver THE bomb.

ceasar on February 26, 2008 at 1:55 pm

Yes, the type nuke you’re referring too is a suitcase nuke. HBO did a documentry about them a few years ago.

efriedmann on February 26, 2008 at 2:14 pm

If any of you are fans of Pink Floyd, you’ve no doubt heard Roger Waters' solo album, RADIO KAOS, released in 1987. It is a strong concept album depicting the phantom destruction of England by a nuclear strike; an illusion manifested by a paraplegic young man who attempts to teach the world a lesson by staging the attack through computer and radio. As we were still in the throws of the cold war with the Soviets at the time, the album had considerable meaning (and it’s pretty darn good music, too.).

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on February 26, 2008 at 2:35 pm

I’ve never seen the Day After. But I did see Threads (mentioned in comments above). I was just a little kid at the time, and walked around for days after looking up at the sky and wondering when the bomb would drop.

TheaterBuff1 on February 27, 2008 at 12:18 am

Was THE DAY AFTER the movie that shows the postman continuing to make his rounds in full uniform, even though there’s no new mail to deliver? Or am I confusing it with TESTAMENT? For that one scene with the forlorn postman I’ll always remember!

efriedmann on February 28, 2008 at 2:35 pm

It would seem the year 1983 was the year for nuclear threat in films. Let’s not forget WARGAMES, released that summer.

moviebuff82 on February 28, 2008 at 2:56 pm

a year later, red dawn came out.

ChrisB on March 1, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Don’t forget NBC’s SPECIAL BULLETIN that aired the same year, about domestic terrorists who hold Charleston, SC hostage with a nuclear weapon; presented as how such a story would unfold on live TV. That was intense!

ceasar on March 1, 2008 at 10:14 pm

I remember that one too. I think Brian Williams played the anchor but not sure.

moviebuff82 on March 2, 2008 at 2:59 am

That year the bulletin came out, Tom Brokaw would become the new anchor of Nightly News months after the movie came out.

MPol on July 12, 2008 at 8:06 am

I remember watching “The Day After” on television back in 1983, too, and my co-workers and I agreed about one thing: It wasn’t scary enough.

dschmeink on December 13, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Whoa yeah, I remember watching this on TV when I was probably between 7 and 10 years old and it scared me to DEATH!! I’ve bought the DVD and watched it a few times. But, it was bone-chilling at the time to see/hear those nuclear explosions. Then when you saw the people insinerated and burned to death in the streets, and realizing it could happen some day, it sent chills down your spine….

MPol on June 3, 2011 at 12:00 am

I can see one being scared of something like that when they’re between the age of 7 and 10 years of age, because that’s still quite a vulnerable, tender and impressionable age. However, in the events of a real nuclear fall-out, there wouldn’t be people running around taking care of the sick.

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