Release Date(s)1983 (August 8, 2018)
Studio(s)ABC Circle Films/ABC Television (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: C
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
The Day After is a TV movie that garnered an audience of 39 million households, or 62% of the viewing public, on its original presentation by the ABC Network on November 20, 1983. Made before the fall of the Berlin wall, when the Cold War was still a major concern of American defenses, the movie imagines a war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries that escalates into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, towns that are targeted because of their proximity to a battery of nuclear missile silos. The cast includes Jason Robards, John Cullum, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, and Amy Madigan.
To personalize the drama, director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) introduces us to an assortment of people in the first hour. They include farm families, military personnel, a doctor, and other average Americans who will be caught up in a nightmare apocalypse. As they go about their daily routines, foreboding news reports announce Soviet troop build-up in East Germany and American military preparations. Some residents dismiss the news complacently, others fear imminent nuclear confrontation, and the military ramps up its readiness for all-out war.
These scenes should be building suspense but, surprisingly, they are directed like a typical TV movie of the time — slow going with sluggish pacing. In the theatrical version contained along with the original TV cut, the narrative is smoother, though it still lacks adequate suspense.
The only suspenseful moments occur when American missiles are fired, making it clear to those witnessing the launches that the unimaginable is now real. The missiles on their way to their targets in Russia and the faces of local residents watching their trajectory provide chilling moments. It’s never made clear whether the Soviet Union fired first or the United States was launching a pre-emptive attack. In either case, there will be staggering losses.
The actual attack is shown in a five-minute sequence drawn partly from stock footage of nuclear devastation as well as not-great special effects of people and animals being turned into skeletons and vaporized. Two mushroom clouds rising ominously are a grim picture of Armageddon. Special effects are in no way comparable to what’s possible today. This was before computer-generated imagery. Budgetary limitations likely contributed to the disappointing effects.
The final hour is devoted to the aftermath of the nuclear attack, and provides the most devastating images of the movie. Those who weren’t killed instantly wander about with shell-shocked expressions as they search for shelter and edible food. Many, riddled with radiation poisoning, are dying a slow, painful death. The images are stark, graphic, and unsettling.Performances vary, but Robards as a doctor overwhelmed by the quantity of injured and sick people he treats; John Cullum as a local farmer trying to protect his family when the attack leads to other, immediate dangers; John Lithgow as a science professor who rallies his students to monitor the level of radiation in the air; and Steve Guttenberg as a University of Kansas student, are especially effective.
Picture quality is grainy probably because of the film’s age, but it still doesn’t live up to what we’ve come to expect from Blu-ray releases. Sound quality is muddy, particularly when nuclear explosions occur.
The unrated Blu-ray release contains both the 122-minute TV version in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the 127-minute theatrical cut in 1.78:1 widescreen format. Bonus materials include audio commentary by film historian Lee Gabin and comic artist/writer Tristan Jones; interview with actor JoBeth Williams; interview with director Nicholas Meyer; and original theatrical trailers.
- Dennis Seuling