Alison Ransom: Hope for what?! What do you think's going to happen out there? You think we're going to sweep up the dead and fill in a couple of holes and build some supermarkets? You think all those people left alive out there are going to say, "Oh, I'm sorry, it wasn't my fault! Let's kiss and make up!" ... We knew the score. We knew all about bombs, we knew all about fallout. We knew this could happen for forty years. Nobody was interested.
The Day After is a 1983 Made-for-TV Movie directed by Nicholas Meyer, made just after he filmed Star Trek II.The film takes place in and around Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas, which are in the geographic center of the United States. At first, the film follows the daily lives of a number of locals; a Kansas City physician (Dr. Russell Oakes) and his wife (Helen Oakes), a University of Kansas professor (Joe Huxley), one of the students there (Stephen Klein), a family of farmers from Harrisonville, Missouri (the Dahlbergs), and a soldier (Billy McCoy) stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, home to a number of Minuteman III missile silos.Things don't stay normal for long. The Soviet Union commences a military buildup in East Germany to intimidate the U.S. and NATO into withdrawing from West Berlin. The situation deteriorates rapidly, with unheeded ultimatums erupting into a shooting war that rampages across Western Europe, then quickly goes all-out nuclear after tactical nuclear weapons are employed.The final caption of the movie is "The catastrophic events you have witnessed are, in all likelihood, lesssevere than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States."This film employs many of the same tropes as its UK counterpart, Threads, which was produced in response to The Day After.Not to be confused with The Day After Tomorrow.
"The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States. It is hoped that the images of this film will inspire the nations of this earth, their peoples and leaders, to find the means to avert the fateful day."
The beautiful thing is, the filmmakers actually achieved the goal (at least so far) stated in the disclaimer.
Apocalypse How: Definitely a Class 1 (Societal Disruption), likely a Class 2 (Societal Collapse) due to the Inferred Holocaust (see below). In a televised debate after the film was first aired on TV, Carl Sagan first publicly introduced the concept of nuclear winter (which at that point had been briefly discussed in a pamphlet Sagan published that year, The Nuclear Winter). With this in mind, the events of The Day After could easily develop into a Class 4 (Total Extinction; Threads, produced a year later, takes into account nuclear winter's effects).
The sound of the explosion and the blast reach Dr. Oakes at the same time as the light, despite the fact that he's thirty miles from Ground Zero.
Marilyn's death by vaporization is shown to occur much slower than it would have in Real Life. In the movie it takes two or three seconds, which allows viewers to see the sequence of fireball, clothing catching on fire, vaporization of flesh, and vaporization of bone. In Real Life it would have taken a thousandth of a second or less, and the character wouldn't have had time to feel anything, let alone react.
Backed by the Pentagon: Almost. They had to get by with using footage from the documentary First Strike after the military backers insisted it be made clear that the Soviets had started the war. Meyer naturally refused, as a big part of the film's message was that it didn't matter who fired first; everyone would still be dead. A more practical reason is suggested by Threads a Soviet first strike would most likely happen in the early morning hours. A nuclear strike at three in the morning would cause difficulties in filming it. Not enough light... well, for about thirty minutes.
Billing Displacement: At the time The Day After was released, everyone except Jason Robards (and possibly John Lithgow, a recent Oscar nominee) was a relatively obscure actor cast intentionally to avoid having easily-recognizable actors take away from the performance. Jason Robards was only cast because ABC had arranged for theatrical release of the film in Europe and insisted on one "name" actor for marketability. Now, however, most of the actors have become famous for later roles. It's not uncommon for modern viewers to claim that The Day After was intentionally "crammed full of stars."
Bowdlerize: Whiteman Air Force Base is actually located near the town of Knob Noster, Missouri. It's described here as being near Sedalia because the word "knob" has a rude meaning in British English, and the network was hoping to release the movie theatrically in the UK.
This may be true; however, Knob Noster (and Whiteman Air Force Base) are quite close to Sedalia (~20 miles west). In the event of a general nuclear exchange, this distance would have afforded zero protection; Sedalia was at the time surrounded by Minuteman missile silos and related facilities on all sides.
Bystander Syndrome: Cynthia argues with her fellow students that the U.S. would never launch nukes to defend Europe, even as news unfolds of rapidly escalating conflict in Germany.
Cynthia: Look! Did we help the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Afghans, or the Poles? Well, we're not gonna nuke the Russians to save the Germans! I mean, if you were talking oil in Saudi Arabia, then I'd be real worried!
Captain Oblivious: The Hendrys are completely oblivious to the oncoming war, so much so that the husband talks over an EBS alert to tell his wife that they need a good day's rain before the harvest. The couple also sneak upstairs to have sex while their kids watch news reports that nuclear war has broken out. The first clue they have of the war is the launching of a nearby ICBM. Their attempts to flee come too late and the family is engulfed by a fireball and incinerated.
Cruel and Unusual Death: Radiation Sickness—survivors of the nuclear war exposed to too much fallout can still wind up dying up to a month later. Victims slowly waste away, losing hair, bruising and hemorrhaging the whole time. The most horrifying thing is just how common it becomes. Four of the film's protagonists succumb to it.note In Real Life, survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could develop radiation sickness decades afterward.
The Soviet Union has begun a military buildup in East Germany in an attempt to bully the United States into giving up West Berlin, followed by the Soviets sending armored divisions to the borders of East and West Germany after the Americans refused to back down. Some time on Friday, September 15th, reports of "widespread rebellion" in the East German forces force the Red Army to blockade West Berlin. The American President issues his ultimatum: either the Soviet Union back off and lift the blockade by 6:00 AM the following morning, or their actions will be interpreted as an act of war. The Soviets refuse, and the President puts all U.S. military forces around the world on DEFCON 2 alert.
The following day, NATO forces invade East Germany via the Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing, but the Soviets hold the corridor while inflicting heavy losses on the invading forces. At the same time, two Soviet fighter jets bomb a NATO munitions facility (and inadvertently hitting a hospital and a school in the process). Moscow is later evacuated, while in the U.S., a mass exodus is also taking place in the main cities. Unconfirmed reports of nuclear weapons used in Wiesbaden and Frankfurt soon follow. In the Persian Gulf, naval warfare commences between the Soviet and American navies with losses on both sides.
Once the Red Army reaches the Rhine River, NATO forces airburst three low-yield nukes over the troops in an attempt to keep the Soviets from invading France and the rest of Western Europe. The Soviets retaliate by launching a nuclear strike at NATO's Brussels headquarters. The American forces scramble B-52 bombers and enacts the "launch-on-warning" policy (meaning that if they receive reports of the Russians launching their nukes at America, then the U.S. will do the same). The Soviet Air Force then destroy two BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning Stations) at RAF Fylingdales and Beale Air Force Base respectively.
The order from the President is swift: a full nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, while at the same time, an Air Force officer receives word that a massive Soviet nuclear strike has been launched against the United states, with "32 targets in track, with 10 impacting points," and another airman receives word that over 300 Soviet ICBMs are inbound. In the film, it is deliberately unclear over who fires first.
Dead Hand Shot: Numerous bodies sticking out of rubble, many blackened. Most of it is seen toward the end of the movie when Dr. Oakes, dying of radiation sickness, goes to see what's left of Kansas City before he dies.
Death from Above: Plenty of this is exchanged between the West and East via ICBMs.
Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Averted. The nukes aren't presented as cool, and not enough of the war is seen to make the fighting look awesome. Most of the film just shows misery, destruction, people slowly dying one by one, and the probable end of civilization. Only an apocalyptic nutcase would want to see this movie's turn of events come true.
Emergency Broadcast: The Emergency Broadcast System cuts into programming numerous times during the few hours before the strike, but nobody pays attention. Moreover, at no time is an Emergency Action Notification broadcast. As the sirens are blaring in Kansas City and panic is gripping the residents, a FEMA agent is calmly suggesting on the radio that travellers in the metropolitan area take a moment to locate a nearby shelter, "although there is no direct threat to the Kansas City area". This was quite deliberate on the part of the writer and director, who visited a FEMA office as part of their research only to discover that the agency was more interested in publishing obscure pamphlets than in actually preparing for nuclear war.
The End of the World as We Know It: One of the points of the film is to show that a nuclear strike would not destroy everything quickly and cleanly; there would be a long, painful aftermath.
Everybody's Dead, Dave: Once he starts to succumb to radiation sickness, Dr. Oakes has a fever dream in which he remembers all of his friends and family who have died.
Fate Worse Than Death: As time goes on, Jim Dahlberg finds survival less lucky compared to those who died instantly from the nukes.
Dr. Landowska: There is a rumor that they are evacuating Moscow. There are people even leaving Kansas City because of the missile base. Now I ask you: To where does one go from Kansas City? The Yukon? Tahiti? We are not talking about Hiroshima anymore. Hiroshima was...was peanuts!
Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Alluded to with shots of a pale white horse during the "calm before the storm" moment before the U.S. launches its ICBMs, and after the missiles are launched.
Infant Immortality: Averted, as children are seen trampled and vaporized, and the murder of the youngest Dahlberg child (with her mother) by squatters is implied.
Inferred Holocaust: Aside from the actual holocaust depicted on screen, there's also the fact that most of the country's, and presumably the world's, farmland is now irradiated to the point of total uselessness (as is most of the seed), all of the livestock is dead (say goodbye to meat and dairy products), and many farmers, fishermen, and animal husbandry experts are now dead or dying. Those who survived the original attack will have done so only to die of starvation later.
Fortunately, in real life this Fridge Horror inspired the "Doomsday" Seed Vault — a seed vault hidden away in the furthest reaches of Arctic, just a stone's throw from the north pole. Now if we all die from nuclear fallout, our grandchildren might just have a chance.
The food situation is briefly touched upon in the film itself. One farmer, providing instructions from the government, tells the surviving farmers that in order to make their farms usable again, they'll need to burn their plants and remove the irradiated topsoil to get to the untouched ground beneath. Jim Dahlberg immediately shoots this idea down, asking just where they plan to put about 3 million cubic feet of dirt per farm while pointing out that once the top soil is removed, it's going to be the dust bowl all over again.
After the End: Most of the film deals with life after the nuclear exchange.
Man on Fire: One is seen briefly during the nuclear attack. The Hendrys are also seen being engulfed by a fireball.
Middle-of-Nowhere Street: Bruce invokes this while listening to a discussion on the possibility of a nuclear attack at a barber shop. Huxley provides him with a healthy dose of Reality Ensues—
Bruce Gallatin: What do you really think the chances of something like that happening way the hell out here in the middle of nowhere?
Professor Huxley:Nowhere? (laughs) There's no "nowhere" anymore. You're sitting right next to the Whiteman Air Force Base right now. That's about ... 150 Minuteman Missile silos spread halfway down the State of Missouri. That's ... an awful lot of bulls-eyes.
No Celebrities Were Harmed: In the original broadcast, the President's speech to the nation was done by a voice that many assumed to be Ronald Reagan. However, the script says the voice is supposed to be that of George H.W. Bush, implying that Reagan was a casualty of the war (since Bush was Reagan's vice president back then). Later broadcasts and home releases redubbed the speech with a more generic, stereotypically presidential voice.
A Nuclear Error: Averted; the film deliberately does not depict who launched the first strike. In fact, the clips of footage taken from the documentary First Strike are deliberately used out of order to leave it vague who fired first.
Shortly before the bombs fall Airman McCoy tells his colleagues that Beale AFB has been destroyed, but in the next scene the men aboard the EC-135 Looking Glass are advised by Beale AFB of incoming ICBMs. Some reviewers took that as evidence that the war was caused either by an American communications error or Soviet disinformation. The director later stated that the juxtaposition was a simple continuity error: the scenes from First Strike were spliced in after the scene featuring McCoy was filmed, and nobody noticed the contradiction.
When the sirens sound above Kansas City, everybody panics.
"This is not an exercise!"
Principles Zealot: In his post-war address, the President of the United States assures the American public that "there has been no surrender, no retreat, from the principles of liberty and democracy, for which the free world looks to us for leadership!" All set to a montage of the suffering scant survivors of the nuclear war, as well as the dying and the dead.
The "calm before the storm" scene, with Stephen Klein walking down a farm road just before Whiteman AFB launches its nukes. Also applies to a number of other scenes after the nuclear attack.
Also done with respect to the music—although there isn't much music to begin with, almost all of it is heard before the nuclear exchange. What follows afterward is mostly ominous ambiance.
The Radio Dies First: The first bomb is an airburst that creates an EMP, knocking out everything electrical, including all communications equipment.
Repeating Ad: This and other commercial tropes were soundly averted in the original broadcast; despite airing during November sweeps, it did not have any commercials after the attack sequence—depending on who you talk to, either the network couldn't sell any of those ad slots, or due to both moral (it would seem to be the height of bad taste to sell McDonald's burgers just after showing people being graphically vaporized) and artistic (to keep the Willing Suspension of Disbelief intact) qualms, both ABC and the producers decided to write off the costs of that second hour and refused to sell ads.
Riddle for the Ages: Who launched their nukes first, the United States or the Soviet Union? The point of not answering this seems to be to ask, "does it matter?"
Sanity Slippage: Everybody breaks down, some even before the bombs start dropping. For many characters, it is a race if they would fall into the deep end before the radiation sickness gets to them.
Shoot the Dog: Jim Dahlberg left the family dog, Rusty, out of the shelter because they wouldn't be able to spare food and water for him.
Shout-Out: The writer echoes Philip Wylie's Tomorrow! in having one family (the Dahlbergs) ready and prepared for nuclear war and another (the Hendrys) unprepared and in denial. In Wylie's book, the unprepared family is destroyed while the prepared family thrives; in The Day After, the unprepared family simply dies faster and with less suffering.
Stock Footage: Much of the missile launch and detonation scenes make use of footage from actual tests of ICBMs and nuclear warheads. All the footage involving Air Force Space Command (the PAVE PAWS staff) and Strategic Air Command forces (the B-52 bombers, the missile silo staff preparing to launch, and the command crew aboard the EC-135 Looking Glass) are taken from a 1979 PBS documentary produced by the United States Air Force, First Strike, which hypothesized the possibility of the Soviet Union performing a decapitating surprise attack on America's own nuclear forces. The people in those scenes were the real men and women of the USAF—even the commanding officers.
X-Ray Sparks: Used to depict the fortunate victims who were close enough to get vaporized by the nukes. That said, technology not available to 1983 audiences allwos the viewer to slow down the section and realize that most of the images used to show the vaporization don't make much sense. Seconds earlier, Kansas City was descending into panic as air raid sirens blare and terrified citizens run haphazardly through the streets. Yet the vaporization scenes show people enjoying a day at the park, sitting in bars and coffee shops, quietly reading books in easy chairs, playing in the school band, etc. (Many are stills recycled from the beginning of the movie - three days ago in movie time.) The only victim of vaporization with any awareness of the events under way is Marilyn Oakes, the first victim. SF Debris claimed it could be used to metaphorically show that in that instant, that was the end of regular human life; once the nukes detonated, nothing would be the same such as those mentioned shots.