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The Day After

by Glenn Erickson Jul 21, 2018

 

A hundred million viewers tuned in to ABC back in ’83 to find out if the world would end with a bang or a whimper. Edward Hume and Nicholas Meyer’s daring docudrama reacquainted Americans with their status as hostages in a global game of nuclear roulette. Gruesome nuclear annihilation visuals complement fine performances led by Jason Robards. The tense, thoughtful show is presented in separate TV and theatrical versions.

 

The Day After
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1983 / Color / 1:78 widescreen & 1:33 flat TV / 122 & 127 min. / Street Date August 7, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, Jim Dahlberg, John Lithgow, Bibi Besch, Lori Lethin, Amy Madigan, Jeff East, Georgann Johnson, William Allen Young, Calvin Jung, Lin McCarthy, Dennis Lipscomb.
Cinematography: Gayne Rescher
Film Editor: William Paul Dornisch, Robert Florio
Original Music: David Raksin
Special Effects: Robert Blalack
Written by Edward Hume
Produced by Robert A. Papazian
Directed by
Nicholas Meyer

 

How did the most-seen (100 million viewers) TV movie of all time come about? An ABC executive wanted to follow up up the ‘hot topic’ trend of his network’s miniseries Roots, so a topical Nuclear Attack movie was proposed. The project fell into the hands of the dependable director Nicholas Meyer, who would keep faith with the original concept even against the network’s ‘Standards and Practices’ lawyers. The name star Jason Robards signed on for the controversial show “because it’s better than signing a petition.” And even though the network buried their presentation in disclaimers and apologies, they broadcast it fairly uncut and unadulterated. Cue the morbid nuclear horrors, to shake up America.

Ronald Reagan certainly helped 1983’s The Day After into the TV phenomenon it became. The President’s more aggressive stance against the Soviet Union had both ‘Olive Branch’ and Strategic Defense Initiative components and he asked to have White House screenings before the broadcast on November 20. I remember having to listen to conservative businessmen debate the film’s issues in my neighborhood barbershop. The depressing opinions ranged all the way from, ‘the movie will weaken America’s defense,’ to ‘the moviemakers are traitors.’

The Day After was the right film for the time. In the late 1970s TV movies were becoming a conduit for mostly liberal-themed ‘event’ productions. Judging by the volume of letters to newspapers, miniseries about slavery and Nazi crimes proved that average Americans could be counted on to be woefully uninformed about most any important social topic at hand. Above and beyond the jokes about ‘disease of the week’ shows, TV movies about AIDS, spousal abuse, drug issues, child molestation, etc. were touted as performing an important public service.

In 1983 we still had an independent PBS TV system; in Los Angeles entire evenings were occasionally devoted to films about big issues, like the Holocaust and the nuclear threat. KCET is where I got my first exposure to original death camp docus, and Peter Watkins’ must-see suppressed BBC docudrama classic The War Game.

Of all the earlier ‘nuke threat’ movies, ABC’s The Day After is modeled most on The War Game. By 1983 Kubrick’s black comedy Doctor Strangelove was likely the doomsday drama most remembered by filmgoers. But it and the annihilation soap opera On The Beach were over two decades removed from the scene. It’s safe to say that the amorphous public at large was so uninformed on the nuke threat, that when Ronald Reagan in March of 1983 proposed a fantasy missile defense program, actually dubbed ‘Star Wars’ by the press, he got an easy pass.

Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach spread the (debated) notion that a nuclear war would exterminate mankind. Strangelove floated the idea that human nature is so unreliable, just having the weapons in hand was a suicidal game of Russian Roulette. Watkins’ The War Game accused the UK government of promoting an absurdly useless civil defense program, so as to lull the population into complacency. The Day After combines aspects of Beach and Game. Its media-savvy soap opera / survivalist ordeal is a convincing scenario of what might happen should a breakdown between NATO and East Germany result in an all-out nuclear exchange.

With little in the way of government cooperation, ABC licensed completed documentaries to depict the military action on the day WWIII begins. Scenes put us inside a missile silo and with the crew of an airborne command jet that prepares to attack the Soviets during an international crisis. We meet a number of Americans in Kansas City and the college town of Lawrence, sixty miles away. Not only is a military air base in the vicinity, the surrounding farmland is also dotted with dozens of missile silos, all of which are prime attack targets. People try to go about their daily routines. K.C. resident Doctor Russell Oakes (Jason Robards) thinks about his daughter Marilyn (Kyle Aletter) and his wife Helen (Georgeann Johnson) on his way to Lawrence’s college hospital to give a seminar. K.C. student Stephen Klein (Steve Guttenberg) decides to go home during the crisis. The Hendry family farm is directly adjacent to a silo, where Airman Billy McCoy (William Allen Young) finds his leave cancelled when his unit goes on alert. We see the farm family the Dahlbergs in more detail. Jim and Eve Dahlberg (John Cullum & Bibi Besch) will be marrying off their daughter Denise (Lori Lethin) in just a few days, and are concerned that she’s jumping the gun by staying out all night with her student boyfriend Bruce (Jeff East). Preoccupied by the TV news, Jim does what he can to prepare for an attack. Eve remains in denial of the facts — nuclear war is just too unthinkable.

 

The attack comes before the halfway point of the two-hour picture. As everybody but William F. Buckley readily admitted, the outcome is not rosy. Multiple thermonuclear bombs fall in the Kansas area, and the city is obliterated. Returning to Lawrence, Dr. Oakes tries to help nurse Nancy Bauer (JoBeth Williams) and Dr. Sam Hachiya (Calvin Jung) at the school hospital, which is without power and supplies, with thousands of wounded arriving. Lost on the roads, Stephen Klein is taken into the Dahlberg shelter. Jim’s son was blinded by the blast, and Denise cannot handle the likelihood that her boyfriend Bruce is gone forever. Maddened by life in the dark cellar, she runs outside, and by the time Stephen brings her back they’re both covered in deadly dust. Billy McCoy joins refugees walking to Lawrence. He’s told that every other town, including his home in Salinas, has been wiped out.

Over in the Lawrence science lab, teacher Joe Huxley (John Lithgow) confirms that the EMP Effect has neutralized all electronics. They patch together an old tube radio but pick up no signals at first. As the days roll on, those exposed to the open air before the radiation levels dropped begin to suffer from lethal radiation sickness. Exhaustion causes Dr. Oakes to collapse. At a meeting of farmers that have survived, Jim Dahlberg finds that the official requirements to begin radiation-free agriculture are completely impractical. By now, lawless scavengers are turning to the countryside in search of whatever food can be found.

Half of the cast of characters make an abrupt exit in the attack, and now others begin dropping out of sight, their deaths unrecorded. In the bleak finish, we’re left little in the way of hope. Expectant mother Alison Ransom (Amy Madigan) delivers her baby in a crowded room, not knowing what sort of future it can expect. When we last see the Dahlberg women, they’re hearing gunfire from somewhere on their farm.

The Day After accomplishes its goal of demonstrating that nuclear war would at the very least deprive us of our semi-civilized existence. As the personalities of vital, caring people disintegrate, we wonder if those instantly vaporized were luckier than the survivors. Robards, Guttenberg, Lori Lethin and William Allen Young succumb to horrid radiation effects. The show gives viewers four minutes of violent attack scenes, and then another hour of people we care about suffering in their homes, trying to give aid to others, or drifting on the roads soaking up radiation from the nuclear fallout.

The production is epic in scope. Producer Robert Papazian secured enormous cooperation from Lawrence, Kansas, which allowed streets to be blocked for action scenes and dressed for post-bomb devastation. A stretch of divided highway was shut down for the excellently visualized scenes of Dr. Oakes caught on the freeway between cities. Thousands of Lawrentians (?) took part in a Gone With the Wind- like crane shot that reveals the floor of a large indoor arena completely covered with the sick, injured and dying. Even though most of the film just shows small rooms crowded with people, the film never feels like a discount ‘end of the world’ picture. The misery is spread across a lot of faces.

 

The special effects offered are brutally affecting, despite not being state of the art. Working with a very limited budget, optical expert Robert Blalock came up with graphic depictions of multiple fireball explosions and mushroom clouds, stylistically bleaching the screen in high-contrast imagery to suggest great heat and light. Every available launch stock shot is sourced for a montage of scores of missiles rising from silos and vaulting into the sky. They appear to be dependable products, made in America. Director Meyer stages impressive scenes of panic on the ground, leaving space for telling glimpses of old war memorials, and a symbolic slow-motion white horse, as in ‘behold a pale horse.’

The creative effects are more expressive than realistic. Shots of exploding buildings and skies of fire are culled from every stock library within reach. Flashes of newsreel conflagrations are intercut with movie special effects, even a shot of a soldier dodging flames from the old The War of the Worlds. To depict the moment when downtown Kansas City is hit point-blank by a thermonuclear blast, the film resorts to a complete abstraction. When New York was bombed in Fail-Safe, editor Ralph Rosenblum confected a ‘time freeze’ effect with smash zooms and freeze-frames. The Day After makes time stand still as well, for a montage of X-Ray obliterations. Individuals and groups of people, caught in everyday situations, are instantly vaporized. What apparently would happen in a micro-second becomes a flurry of extinctions, complete with sound effects of screams. It’s nightmarishly effective — the victims are for a few frames revealed as skeletons, an effect once associated with funny cartoons depicting electric shock. It’s not funny here.

Director Meyer nails dozens of dramatic images. Missiles arc into the air over a Lawrence sports stadium — how many of the spectators were really aware that their town was surrounded by such weaponry? The Hendry children watch awestruck as a rocket launches only a few hundred feet away from their home. The once good-looking Stephen lifts the cap from his now-bald head; both he, Denise and Billy McCoy could now pass for refugees from a zombie movie. Just a few days after the attack, Denise finds her farmyard coated in lethal white ash and littered with dead animals. The strongest image-thought in the whole picture is the sight of housewife Eve Dahlberg screaming in protest as her husband forcibly drags her downstairs. The film eventually makes a genre connection with the more commercial, exploitative Mad Max franchise when Jim Dahlberg finds a group of sullen, near-feral scavengers feeding on one of his last living cows. Minus the high-powered automobiles, we can easily imagine that the landscape may for a time be populated by ruthless warlords.

The English follow-up Threads (1984) is practically an apology for the national ban on The War Game. Transposing the exact same scenario to a British industrial town, with local adjustments: its young romance crosses economic lines. The much longer post-attack story sees a pitiful attempt by civil authorities to do good, when they’re basically buried in their underground bunker. The young bride’s story is projected much farther into the future. A few years later, the thread of human civilization has simply been broken off — her child will live the life of a grub-seeking animal.

The Day After was shown on one night in a three-hour time slot. As if fearful that viewers might take the film’s message to heart, ABC followed the broadcast with a major discussion led by Nightline’s Ted Koppel, with a VIP panel of experts: scientist Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, Robert McNamara, General Brent Scowcroft and William F. Buckley, Jr.. Buckley refuted the film’s pessimism, simply saying that nuclear deterrence would prevent any such war.

Sagan brought up the concept of Nuclear Winter in this very public arena. Nicholas Meyer would later say that his production team was unaware of the theorized phenomenon, which plays a major role in the gloomy and cold future of the survivors of Threads.

The list of must-see morbid nuclear peril pictures isn’t very long; they rattle some viewers but excite others that welcome the scenario as just another opportunity for post-apocalyptic thrills. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 features a spectacularly fearsome nuclear attack on downtown Los Angeles as a sidebar rumination. The disturbing nightmare becomes just another titillating violent action set piece. Interestingly, the most compellingly heartbreaking nuclear terror picture of this time is Lynne Littman’s Testament, which was produced for TV but instead released theatrically on November 4, 1983, just a couple of weeks before The Day After’s airdate. In Testament a small California town is spared any direct attack effects, but slowly dies as the radiation levels rise.

The miniseries is now often recalled in connection with Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Some suggest that it swayed the President toward an arms treaty but others say he simply stepped up his ‘Star Wars’ rhetoric. Reagan began as a radio broadcaster back in the 1930s. His detractors like to remember his August 11, 1984 weekly Saturday Address on National Public Radio, where he made an off-air joke about happily destroying Russia. It was, of course, just a joke, and Reagan was a fairly responsible guardian of the nuclear attack codes.

A happy recognition effect. The actress who plays Jason Robards’ wife, Georgeann Johnson, also plays the unforgettable ‘polite woman’ Jon Voight tries to pick up on 5th Avenue in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Ms. Johnson has an instantly likable, warm smile.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Day After does right by ABC’s famed TV movie, which was previously released in 2004, on an okay plain-wrap MGM DVD. The new HD release has two separate discs. The first carries the flat-formatted TV cut, and the second disc has the theatrical cut, which is five minutes longer. The show looks attractive in both cuts. A closer look may find more differences, but I mostly saw scenes re-arranged, not re-edited. The attack scene is identical in both cuts, exactly three minutes and fifty seconds from the first detonation to the fade-out. I suspect that material was just dropped — the TV version opens with the main titles while the theatrical cut begins with a documentary scene inside the Air Force command & control jet.

The theatrical cut is formatted for widescreen, which I found more pleasing but others may not. The movie’s images are in good shape but they are not pretty — with the combination of docu and real-life footage, and somewhat variable special effects, the show has an agreeably patchy feel. There’s not a lot of music, but the tension rises sharply when ominous rhythms join the buildup to the attack sequence. Agrarian ‘Americana’ themes representing the farmland were adapted from Virgil Thompson’s symphony score for Pare Lorentz’s The River.

A lively Lee Gambin and Tristan Jones commentary is on the Theatrical cut. The scattershot discussion starts with TV movies and often veers far afield to include long talks about only tangentially- related movies and people — a full rundown on Kings Row and wild references to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  They announce early on that they’ll be talking about cut material. I listened faithfully but think I missed it; wikipedia alludes to dropped scenes depicting a child’s nightmare. They do have good a handle on post-Apocalyptic films, and we agree with their apt linkup between The Day After and the Mad Max franchise. The Australian commentators also talk about parts of their country left uninhabitable due to UK nuke testing.

On the TV cut a new interview with JoBeth Williams gives us twelve minutes of her candid thoughts about the production, getting to work with Jason Robards, etc. She becomes emotional at the end, and almost angry, when referring to our current President’s nuclear dare rhetoric with the dictator of North Korea. We note that the network news consistently illustrates the Korea showdown with Day After- like images of multiple Korean rocket launch tests.

Director Nicholas Meyer’s 29-minute interview piece is splendid stuff. He covers his entire experience on the show, including his negotiations with ABC’s Standards and Practices over scenes that center on Denise’s diaphragm device, without ever showing it or calling it by name. Meyer still looks young, and has a sharp mind. He says that doing the show as a ‘banal’ TV movie about ordinary people was the right way to communicate to America. Writing a book about nuclear war isn’t effective because the people you want to reach don’t read books… but they’ll watch a soap opera.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Day After
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Lee Gambin and Tristan Jones; new interviews with JoBeth Williams and Nicholas Meyer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 18, 2018
(5779day)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.