The Day After (1983) review

The Day After DVD coverDirector: Nicholas Meyer

Starring: Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg

DR OAKES – “Do you have any idea what’s going on in this world?”
DR LANDOWSKA – “Yeah. Stupidity. It has a habit of getting its way.”

The threat of nuclear attack is something that has remained ever-present for the past 70 years. The technology may keep improving, and the potential enemy may keep changing, but whether it’s the Japanese, the North Koreans, the Americans, the Cubans, the Iraqis (ha!) or – in the case of The Day After – the Russians who are the would-be obliterators, much of the world lives its day-to-day life with the constant underlying knowledge that at any point another pissed-off country could press a button and that’d be that.

The Day After was an ambitious and brave TV movie that attempted to convince all who watched it that nuclear war shouldn’t be the ultimate answer (which sort of goes without saying, but some people are a bit daft). It shows the build-up, the result and the aftermath of a fictional nuclear attack on Kansas City.

Looks like the pies are ready
Looks like the pies are ready

Curious to know how shit goes down? Here’s the basics – Russia doesn’t like the fact that America has troops in West Berlin (this is when the Berlin Wall was still up, remember), so it starts sending troops to East Germany to try and pressure America into leaving. America tells Russia to keep its snout out of it, and East German troops start getting arsey so Russia blockades West Berlin. America tells Russia that if it doesn’t back down it’ll consider it an act of war, but when NATO sends troops in to sort things out Russia starts killing them, so America starts threatening nuclear action.

This promotional photo shows how the filmmakers transformed the real-life Lawrence, Kansas.
This promotional photo shows how the filmmakers transformed the real-life Lawrence, Kansas.

As this fictional story is set up (usually through TV and radio broadcasts in the background) we’re introduced to a selection of Kansas residents, each going about their lives unaware of what’s about to happen. There’s the farmer’s daughter who’s ready to get married the next day, there’s the doctor preparing to give a lecture to a group of students at the University of Kansas hospital, and there’s Steve Guttenberg, playing Steven (must have been a huge leap, that), a medical student trying to get home.

When the bomb eventually goes off (it happens around 40 minutes into this two-hour film), the special effects are unsurprisingly modest for a TV movie made in the ’80s. Stock footage of nuclear explosions is mixed with wholly unconvincing shots of fake mushroom clouds (they were apparently created by injecting colored oil plumes into a tank of water) and shots of people with cheesy X-ray effects overlaid to make it look as if the radiation is showing their skeletons. I haven’t been hit by many nuclear bombs in my time but I’d imagine I’d be turned to dust before anyone got a sneaky peek at my ribcage.

The aftermath is significantly more convincing. The filmmakers co-operated with the city of Lawrence in Kansas who willingly allowed its streets to be ‘decorated’ with smashed windows and upturned, burnt-out cars for a few weeks, and the result is an effective post-apocalyptic environment that may be a little understated (a message at the end of the film explains that the real devastation would probably be far greater), but still manages to depress.

Apparently, when it was originally shown on TV in the US, no sponsors bought commercial time for any scenes after the bomb goes off, meaning the final hour of the film was free of commercial breaks – just as well, because it would have really ruined the mood.

The Police Academy wrap party left Steve looking rather rough the next morning
The Police Academy wrap party left Steve looking rather rough the next morning

The make-up effects are disturbing at times, with hair loss and charred flesh on display. The odd dead cow or burnt-out body are grotesque cherries atop a cake cooked at gas mark 70,000.

At times The Day After dabbles with social commentary. The campus hospital at the nearby university starts running out of staff and supplies and considers taking the morally dubious stance of locking the doors to any more patients who turn up. When aid arrives only some is given to the hordes of starving people, and when the aid workers explain it’s because they have to move on to the next townand help them too, the people revolt. Another scene shows members of the public being executed without trial.

This is undeniably bleak, but it isn’t really necessary and only serves to keep things interesting. The real story is the devastation caused by the bombs and how it affects both the environment and the normal people we were introduced to beforehand.

The legalisation of skeleton marriage was seen as a huge step forward for skeleton rights
The legalisation of skeleton marriage was seen as a huge step forward for skeleton rights

The Day After deliberately goes out of its way to make it unclear who fired first. The only thing we’re told for sure is that both decide to do so,and through radio reports it’s heard that Moscow has suffered similar devastation. The Day After is not a film in which America are the goodies and Russia are the bomb-dropping baddies. It’s a film in which the only enemy is the nuclear bomb and the only victim is the human race, regardless of nationality. Because of this it remains relevant, effective viewing and is well worth a watch.

Besides, Steve Guttenberg’s in it.


The Day After is only available on DVD in both the UK and US. Here’s the UK version and here’s the US version. There’s no Blu-ray version yet, which is a shame because it’s clear a lot of attention to detail went into making the Kansas streets look thoroughly devastated and it would be nice to see it more clearly. Not that ‘nice’ is the best word to use, of course.

One thought on “The Day After (1983) review

  1. I remember watching this on the Sci-fi Channel here in the UK on a sunday. It was shown around lunchtime amazingly which put a downer on the rest of the day. I thought it was brutal but having now seen Threads I think it is a bit tame by comparison although I suspect that Threads had more of an impact on me because it is a British version

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