If you were of TV-watching age in 1983, you probably watched “The Day After.” The FX show “The Americans” devoted an entire episode to it, and given the plot of that show, it would have been impossible not to. The Cold War was rooted in fear – fear of the Soviet Union and fear of nuclear war. “The Day After” embraced that fear. The 2-hour, $7-million movie aired on ABC and showed what life would be like in Kansas City following a nuclear attack.
The project was risky. The topic of nuclear war was starkly politicized, with various politicians arguing for or against nuclear disarmament. Weeks before the movie aired, journalists and pundits debated whether or not ABC should go through with it. What would be the consequences? Advertisers balked at all the negative attention, so ABC eventually offered limited spots at a low price during the first hour. The second half of the film was commercial-free.
That was what the director originally wanted. Nicholas Meyer, who had directed The Wrath of Khan, could have done just about any movie he wanted, but he felt he had a moral responsibility to film “The Day After.” The original cut of the film was three-hours long, and Meyer wanted to stretch it out to two nights without commercials. His vision was simply too disturbing, however, and it was cut down to 2 hours.
Even with the changes, ABC knew the movie would be fraught with controversy. They released a “Viewer’s Guide” complete with discussion questions and exercises for families who watched it, as well as a 1-800 line for anyone who needed a mental-health professional to talk to.
On November 20th, 1983, “The Day After” aired. The first hour is relatively slow, showing Kansas City residents going about their usual days. Actors like John Lithgow and Steve Guttenburg appear. Then, once the bombs go off, everything changes. Characters caught outside during the blast are instantly vaporized. The ones that survive begin to suffer from severe radiation poisoning. Their teeth and hair begin to fall out as they survey the damage. Animal corpses litter the ground.
The film ends (spoilers) just as bleakly. One of the characters, a doctor, leaves the hospital he was working at in despair. He makes his way back to his destroyed house and finds a family taking shelter in the ruins. He orders them to leave while they look at him, concerned. After the doctor collapses, one of the men hesitantly approaches him, and they embrace. As the screen goes black and the credits roll, another character can be heard speaking into a radio, asking, “Is anybody there?” Silence.
Estimates tell that 100 million people watched “The Day After” the night it aired. Ronald Reagan had been sent a copy and watched it earlier, and wrote about it in his journal. People close to the president reported that Reagan was noticeably depressed for the next few days, lost in thought. Five years later, he signed a nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union. Nicholas Meyer then received a telegram that read, “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”
You can watch the full movie on Youtube. The effects may look a bit dated to some, but when people in 1983 saw it, it would have been extremely disturbing. They lived in a world where their children performed nuclear war drills at school. With just the push of a button, “The Day After” could become reality.
Biological warfare is another attack that keeps many up at night. Read about it here.