In 1983, Nearly 100 Million American's Witnessed What a Nuclear War Would Look Like
Stephen Klein promised their father he’d see them across the wasteland. It’s slow going. His carriage is bumpy, the horse is scared and the landscape is full of death and danger.
Klein doesn’t know what’s wrong with Denise—she bled uncontrollably during church a few days ago. Gauze covers Danny’s head. He’s Denise’s little brother.
The boy was staring at the bomb when it went off. It was the last thing he ever saw. Klein told their father he’d get them to a hospital or die trying.
“What do you see?” Danny asks Steve.
“Oh,” Klein says. “Cows, telephone poles. The usual stuff.”
The camera pulls back to reveal that there are no cows or telephone poles, just men in masks throwing dead bodies onto the back of a truck. A fine white powder covers everything.
This is Kansas in the ’80s, and America is an irradiated, nuclear hellscape. Welcome to The Day After, a TV movie ABC aired during prime-time in 1983. The film was so effective that it depressed Pres. Ronald Reagan.
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He wrote about it in his diary, and some biographers speculated it had a direct effect on Reagan’s desire to end nuclear proliferation during the back half of his presidency.
The Day After is about a world in which the unthinkable happens—the U.S. and Russia finally launch all their nukes and ruin the world.
The film is set in and around Kansas City, and follows several families and individuals as they struggle to survive in America’s heartland.
Steve Guttenberg plays Klein, a college student who was hitching a ride to see his parents when war broke out. He joins up with the Dahlbergs, a farming family in Kansas. Jason Robards stars as Russell Oaks, a kindly older doctor who loses his entire family in the opening moments of the war.
ABC spent $7 million to create The Day After, and it’s a rare and wonderful thing—a TV movie that doesn’t suck.
Even 30 years later, it still holds up. The filmmakers effectively render the horrors of nuclear war without falling into cliche or melodrama.
An ABC executive came up with the idea for the movie after watching the 1979 film The China Syndrome, which tells the story of a nuclear power plant accident. He wanted to do something similar, but explore what the aftermath of full-scale nuclear war might actually look like.
Edward Hume—a veteran TV writer—churned out the script. ABC tapped Nicholas Meyer to direct. Meyer is most famous for directing the best Star Trek films. He wrote and directed both The Wrath of Kahn and The Undiscovered Country.
The original cut of The Day After was three hours long, and the ABC executives cried after watching it. Meyer thought he’d delivered a masterpiece, and wanted it to air across two nights without commercials.
But Meyer misunderstood the suits’ emotional outpouring. They felt the film was too raw, too disturbing and too hard to sell to advertisers. They weren’t wrong.
Dr. Oaks was driving down the highway when the bombs went off. Electromagnetic pulses from atomic bombs detonated in the atmosphere fried his car battery.
He shuffled back to his hospital on foot, put on his scrubs and did what he’d always done—tended to the sick and dying.
One of his patients is a pregnant woman who came to the hospital to have her baby just days before the nukes landed. It’s been weeks since fallout blanketed the region, and she still hasn’t given birth.
Oaks accuses of her stalling. She says she’s hesitant to bring a child into a world full of poison and pain. “Give me a reason,” she says. “Tell me about hope. Tell me why you work so hard in here.”
Oaks waits a moment. The wails of the dying fill the room. “I don’t know,” he says.
The Day After is full of emotional punches like this.
Denise—the older Dahlberg daughter—was just a few days away from marriage at the beginning of the film. Her fiance was outside during the blast and died.
After a week of hiding in the basement of her family’s home, she loses it. “It’s only been five days,” she screams. “And I can’t remember what Bruce looks like.”
The Day After’s human drama is far more effective than the gore and violence—of where this is plenty. Flesh bubbles on blackened skin, hair falls out in clumps and people burn alive.
It’s easy to see why ABC felt they couldn’t market film to advertisers. The suits wanted to trim and tame the film. Meyer and his editor fought with them about the cut, and ABC fired the editor.
Meyer walked away, and broadcast censors cut and recut the movie. After months of fighting, Meyer and the studio settled on a two-hour version.
They sent it to the White House.
“I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air on Nov. 20,” Reagan wrote in his diary on Oct. 10, 1983. “It’s called The Day After. It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done, all $7 million worth.”