The Day After

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The Day After is an American TV-movie aired in 1983 on the ABC network. The film presented a theoretical situation which led to nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and its consequences as felt by residents of Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. The film was written by Edward Hume and directed by Nicholas Meyer.

Situation Presented

The following is a chronology of the events, portrayed in The Day After, which lead to the fictional start of World War III. To this day, many military theorists have stated that the events portrayed were a very real possibility during the Cold War.

The film begins with a Soviet buildup in East Germany, as a method of intimidating the United States into releasing its claim on West Berlin. The United States does not comply, which leads to a Soviet blockade of West Berlin which is interpreted as an act of war by the United States.

As tension builds, the United States orders the Soviets to stand down the blockade of Berlin, which the Soviets refuse to do. The United States, from its bases in West Germany, invade East Germany to free Berlin.

The Soviet Union counters the United States invasion of Berlin by launching a major attack into West Germany, crossing the Fulda Gap. This invasion may have resulted in a nuclear explosion where Wiesbaden was destroyed. All countries of NATO counter the attack with military assistance to the West Germans. The Soviet Army reaches the Rhine, at which time the United States halts the assault by detonating several low yield nuclear bombs over advancing Soviet troops. Soviet forces countered by launching a nuclear attack at Europe's Regional NATO headquarters.

After the initial exchange of nuclear weapons in Germany, the United States enacts its "strike on warning" policy, meaning that it will launch a full scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union if indications are received that the Soviet Union is preparing to do the same against the United States. Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, full scale naval warfare erupts as U.S. and Soviet ships attack and sink each other.

The Soviet Air Force destroys an Airborne Early Warning station in England and another in California. Onboard the Strategic Air Command Airborne Command Center, the order comes in from the President of the United States to launch a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

It is never made clear in the film whether it was the Soviet Union or the United States who launched nuclear weapons first, and it is implied at one point that, after such an attack on both sides, questions of who started it would hardly matter. However, for the interested, it can be deduced that the Soviets launched first as their weapons hit soon after the Americans' were launched, and therefore would have already been in the air at the time of the Americans' launch. The end result is that most of America's major cities are destroyed, the military is decimated, and the United States becomes a fallout wasteland. It is implied that a similar effect has been enacted on the USSR. After the death and destruction has been allowed to occur, the President of the United States declares that a ceasefire exists between the USA and USSR.

All of this though is meant as background for an exposition on the plausibility of nuclear war, and its effects. Part of the goal of the film was to emphasize that "the day after" a nuclear attack did exist, countering the popular idea since the early 1950s that a nuclear war would result in a simple and instant end of the world. The Day After continues a tradition begun in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s of emphasizing the grisly details of radiation poisoning, the vast overwhelming of hospitals by victims, and the lack of cohesiveness in trying to organize post-attack governance and food supplies.

The film provoked political debate in the United States, as it was no doubt intended to do. Some argued that the film underscored the true horror of nuclear conflict, and that to prevent this possibility, the United States should both renounce the first use of nuclear weapons in conflict, which had been a cornerstone of NATO defense planning in Europe. Those arguing for a nuclear freeze also relied on the sheer horror depicted in the film for support.



The Day After became known for its realistic representation of nuclear war and groundbreaking special effects.

While the movie contains significant exposition to explain the onset of the war, the plot lies in the human struggles of the characters. The film follows several average citizens and the people they encounter through a nuclear attack on Kansas City, Missouri. Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards) lives in the well-to-do Brookside neighborhood of Kansas City with his wife (Georgann Johnson), and works in a hospital in downtown Kansas City. He is caught in traffic on a highway at the time of the attack (a high-altitude, non-lethal airburst for electromagnetic pulse effects, followed by a deadly ground burst) after meeting with his estranged daughter (Kyle Aletter), and heads toward the hospital after the attack to treat the wounded with Dr. Sam Hachiya (Calvin Jung), Nurse Bauer (JoBeth Williams), and other aid workers. Also represented is farmer Jim Dahlberg (John Cullum) and his family, who live in a rural area far outside the city limits, but very close to a field of missile silos. They are among the first to witness the initial missile launches signaling the start of a full-scale nuclear war. While those near the impact zone die or become sick quickly, the Dahlbergs develop symptoms of radiation sickness slowly, as they had prepared their basement as a makeshift fallout shelter. They also face the looting and chaos that come after the explosion.


The Day After was the idea of ABC Motion Picture Division president Brandon Stoddard, who commissioned veteran television writer Edward Hume to write the script in 1981. The American Broadcasting Company, who financed the production, was concerned about the graphic nature of the film and how to tastefully present such a situation. Hume went through several drafts until ABC accepted the plot and characters as acceptable to the viewing public.

Hollywood casting directors strolled through shopping malls in Kansas City looking for local people to fill small roles, while the daily newspaper in Lawrence ran an advertisement calling for local residents of all ages to sign up for jobs as a large number of extras in the film, and a professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas was hired to head up the local casting of the movie. Out of the 80 or so speaking parts, only 15 were cast in Los Angeles. The remaining roles were filled in Kansas City and Lawrence.

File:Kansas-City-Missouri-Downtown at Twighlight.jpg
Downtown Kansas City, Missouri, where The Day After was set and much of the miniseries was filmed.

Production began in late 1982 on location in Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas with feature film director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II) at the helm. One set in rural Lawrence, depicting a schoolhouse after a nuclear blast, was made in six days from fiberglass "skins." Local actors and extras were paid $75 to shave their heads bald, have latex scar tissue and burn-marks pasted on their faces, be plastered with coats of artifical mud, and be dressed in ragged and tattered clothes for various scenes of mass despair and radiation sickness after the nuclear blast. In a small park in downtown Lawrence on the bank of the Kansas River, ABC set up a grimy tent city for nuclear war survivors using many Kansas University students as extras. The next day, production moved to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where scenes of hundreds of radiation sickness victims crowding into a besieged hospital were filmed. ABC had the full cooperation and support of the city of Lawrence, for many local individuals and businesses participating in the filming and the city actually profited off of the use of thousands of local actors and extras. It was estimated in contemporary newspaper accounts that ABC spent $1 million in Lawrence, not all on the production. It was also during this time that Nicholas Meyer revealed his ambitions and goals for The Day After: The director wanted the film to not take political stands, but rather just spread the message and inform people that "nuclear war is a bad thing." He thought of the TV film not as a movie, but as a gigantic public service announcement. His main goal was to reach an audience of at least 20 million people through the TV showing, which would spread his message across to a larger and wider audience. His goal was eventually achieved.

In the last week of production, lead actor Jason Robards, the only well-known "star" in the film, arrived in Lawrence. In a block of businesses in downtown Lawrence, the filmmakers repainted the signs for several businesses, changing the names of the stores; the facades were stained with dark smudges of soot. The large windows were shattered into sharp teeth; bricks were scattered across the sidewalk admist scraps of lumber, and several junked cars were painted with clouds of black spray. Two industrial-sized yellow fans bolted to a flatbed trailer blew clouds of white flakes into the air. This fallout-matter was actually cornflakes painted white. Several quick scenes of devastation were shot, and the next day, thousands of local extras, most of them Kansas University students, were assembled in Allen Fieldhouse, a basketball court at the university, which, in the story, was the only place left on campus big enough to accommodate so many wounded. The extras were asked not to bathe for several days to make the scenes more realistic. The next day, a four-mile stretch on Kansas Highway 10 was closed for shooting highway scenes representing a mass exodus from the Kansas City area. Over the next few days, the filmmakers shot mostly pre-blast scenes in Kansas City, and on the last day of Midwest shooting, they filmed a scene where Jason Robards returns to what is left of Kansas City to find his home. ABC used the demolition site of an old hospital in an inner-city neighborhood in Kansas City as the set, populating the fields of rubble and bricks with fake corpses. Traffic on the nearby avenue slowed and passer-bys strained for a closer look as Robards, painted with makeup and partly scalped to make him look like a ghastly radiation sickness victim, lifting the arm of a body stuck under fallen debris --- just the arm, severed at the shoulder. It was at this site that the moving final scene, where an affected family taking up residence as squatters in Robards' home, has a confrontation with Robards, and the father of the family, played by a Kansas City actor, crawls out to hug Robards, was filmed.

The filmmakers returned to Los Angeles to shoot interior hospital scenes with Robards and co-star JoBeth Williams and complete post-production work. Many scientific advisors from various fields were on set to ensure the accuracy of the explosion, its effects, and its victims. The government, nervous of how it would be portrayed, didn't allow the production to use stock footage of nuclear explosions in the film, so ABC hired some of the best special effects creators to work on the film. The result was a frighteningly real explosion and iconic "mushroom cloud" (created by injecting colored dye in small tanks of vegetable oil).

The Day After received one of the largest promotional campaigns prior to its broadcast. Commercials aired several months in advance, ABC distributed half a million "viewer's guides," which discussed the dangers of nuclear war and prepared the viewer for the graphic scenes of mushroom clouds and radiation burn victims. Discussion groups were also formed nationwide.


On the day of its television broadcast, on November 20 1983, ABC opened several 1-800 hotlines to have counselors available to calm viewers. After the film's broadcast ABC also aired a live discourse between scientist Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley, Jr.. During the heated debate Sagan introduced the concept of nuclear winter, the global climatic change that was theorized to come following nuclear war.

The film garnered both praise and criticism upon its release. Depending on their view on politics, critics tended to claim the film was either sensationalizing nuclear war or was too tame regarding the subject. Technically speaking, however, the film was praised for its use of special effects and realistic portrayal of nuclear war and its victims. The film received twelve Emmy nominations and won two Emmy awards.

Nearly 100 million Americans watched The Day After on its first broadcast, making the film one of the most successful television broadcasts. MGM picked up distributive rights to the film, and released the film theatrically around the world to great success.

Some critics argued that the film's message was misplaced. Commentator Ben Stein, who was critical of the movie's message (i.e., that the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction would lead to a war,) wrote an article in the Herald Examiner asking what life might be like in an America under Soviet occupation. This article provided the inspiration for the TV miniseries Amerika, about life in America ten years after its conquest and occupation by the U.S.S.R..

While the story is possibly apocryphal, it is said that U.S. president Ronald Reagan burst into tears after watching the movie at a private screening (Gerald Degroot, The Bomb: A Life, 2005). In 1987 during the era of Mikhail_Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika reforms, the film was shown on Soviet television.


Striving for a more documentary-styled film, casting director Hank McMann cast mostly newcomers and more obscure actors. At the time, Jason Robards was the only well-known actor in the production, having been a veteran of stage and screen. Steve Guttenberg, who would go on to become a successful comedian and actor later in the decade, was only known for the Barry Levinson comedy Diner, released in 1982. George Petrie, best known as a stock player on several incarnations of Jackie Gleason's television series, had a small but effective role as a doctor at the hospital where Robards' character worked. While many of the principal cast would go on to have successful careers and notable films (John Lithgow and Amy Madigan), at the time they were relatively unknown to the audience. This allowed audiences to become attached to the characters without the baggage of preconceived notions.

The Oakes

Jason Robards as Dr. Russell Oakes
Georgann Johnson as Helen Oakes
Kyle Aletter as Marilyn Oakes

The Dahlbergs

John Cullum as Jim Dahlberg
Bibi Besch as Eve Dahlberg
Lori Lethin as Denise Dahlberg
Doug Scott as Danny Dahlberg
Ellen Anthony as Joleen Dahlberg
Steve Guttenberg as Stephen Klein

Hospital Staff

JoBeth Williams as Nurse Nancy Bauer
Calvin Jung as Dr. Sam Hachiya
Lin McCarthy as Dr. Austin
Rosanna Huffman as Dr. Wallenberg
George Petrie as Dr. Landowska
Jonathan Estrin as Julian French


John Lithgow as Joe Huxley
Amy Madigan as Alison Ransom
William Allen Young as Airman Billy McCoy
Jeff East as Bruce Gallatin
Dennis Lipscomb as Reverend Walker
Clayton Day as Dennis Hendry
Antonie Becker as Ellen Hendry
Stephen Furst as Aldo
Arliss Howard as Tom Cooper
Stan Wilson as Vinnie Conrad


Emmy Awards Won

Emmy Award Nominations

  • Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling
  • Outstanding Achievement in Makeup
  • Outstanding Art Direction for a Limited Series or a Special
  • Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or a Special (Gayne Rescher)
  • Outstanding Directing in a Limited Series or a Special (Nicholas Meyer)
  • Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special (Robert Papazian)
  • Outstanding Film Editing for a Limited Series or a Special (William Dornisch and Robert Florio)
  • Outstanding Film Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or a Special
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special (John Lithgow)
  • Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series or a Special (Edward Hume)


External link

See also

Related articles

Films depicting nuclear war

Books and other works regarding nuclear war

Works with similar names

de:Der Tag danach