From We Belong Dead, Issue 31, published 2022
If you live in a place like New York or Tokyo, you’re used to seeing your hometown destroyed on screen. It’s a slow year if the Statue of Liberty isn’t decapitated in at least one movie.
I’ve spent most of my life in Kansas City, a mellow Midwestern town that’s often overlooked in popular culture. Except that one time in 1983, when we got obliterated in a nuclear war.
Viewers around the country were traumatized when The Day After aired on ABC that November. Here in the heartland, the response was a mix of existential horror and “Hey, there’s the Plaza!”. Seeing local landmarks on national television was a rare treat, especially after all the hype over the film’s production, mostly in nearby Lawrence, Kansas. Hundreds of residents dressed in rags and covered themselves in ash and debris for a chance to experience the “magic” of Hollywood. People were finally noticing us, and it was legitimately exciting.
But this was a movie about the end of the world, and it showed – in wrenching detail – the end of our world. Not just the city, but the college town everyone visited, the farmland we drove past regularly, the military bases where people we knew were stationed. All of it blown to smithereens.
Nearly 40 years later, The Day After doesn’t pack quite the same wallop, even in its cinematic backyard. There are factual errors that only locals would notice (we don’t really say “Missour-uh”). The special effects haven’t held up and the editing is choppy. It’s impossible to take future Police Academy star Steve Guttenberg (billed here as Steven) seriously as a dramatic actor.
Even so, Nicholas Meyer’s bleak, bitter vision is a pivotal entry in the canon of late Cold War melodrama. Fresh off the success of 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Meyer was ready to toss aside the Federation’s positive futurism for the exact opposite. Teaming with network executive Brandon Stoddard and screenwriter Edward Hume, Meyer set out to warn the world about the foolishness of mutually assured destruction.
The first half of The Day After sets a tone of fragile banality. The opening credits play over postcard-ready images, accompanied by KC native Virgil Thomson’s stirring Americana music (he was a contemporary of Aaron Copland, and you can tell). Officers in the Strategic Air Command go through seemingly routine checks. A doctor (Jason Robards) spends time with his family. A young engaged couple (Lori Lethin and Jeff East) prepares for the wedding day. A student (Guttenberg) joins the crowd registering for classes at the University of Kansas. The crisis unfolds in the background, in news reports about Eastern Bloc conflict and sabre-rattling between the US and the Soviet Union. At first, it just seems like the usual tension that characterized the era, and no one expects things to escalate all the way to oblivion. It’s too insane to contemplate.
But escalate it does, with shocking rapidity. The missile silos that dot the plains landscape suddenly come to life, reminding everyone that being far from the world’s major cities offers no protection. Disbelief becomes denial, then fear, then terrible resignation. No one even knows who started the conflict, a brilliant and deliberate creative decision by the filmmakers. When death is launched into the sky, it won’t matter whose government pushed the first button.
Originally planned as a mini-series, The Day After hit multiple roadblocks on its way to the airwaves. ABC’s standards and practices department objected to Hume’s graphic, heavily-researched screenplay, which originally featured melting eyeballs and the like. Advertisers also balked at the content, and the network eventually cut Meyer’s four-hour version down to just over two hours, airing the last half without ads at all.
This relative restraint is probably for the best, as what remains is still pretty rough for ‘80s television. The attack sequence runs for several minutes, using stock footage of nuclear blasts and pre-digital effects shots of people being vaporized. It’s harrowing in its length and intensity, making it clear that the victims of the initial attack are the lucky ones. You don’t want to live through this.
Most of the post-bombing action occurs on the university campus in Lawrence, where Robards’ Dr. Russell Oakes tries to run a hospital while succumbing to his own radiation exposure. His only outside contact is Joe Huxley (John Lithgow), a science professor who has taken refuge with some students in a basement, where they rig up a working radio (an EMP has taken out most other technology). Members of the Dahlberg family (including Lethin, John Cullum, and Bibi Besch) take refuge in the cellar at their farm in Harrisonville, Missouri, riding out the worst before emerging into a world that may not be worth saving.
Other survivors hit the road. Stephen Klein (Guttenerg) tries to get to family in southern Missouri, but ends up sheltering with the Dahlbergs. Soldier Billy McCoy (William Allen Young) leaves his post to search for his wife and son. They join the confused, dull-eyed masses, who are more walking dead than anyone in a zombie film.
Thanks to the heavy editing, plotlines are dropped and characters disappear, their fates unshown and unsettled. That would be frustrating in a more conventional film, but in this one, it adds one more layer of unsparing realism. All their stories will have the same ending, anyway. Do we need to see the details?
The closest thing to resolution comes in contrasting scenes involving Jim Dahlberg (Cullum) and Dr. Oakes. The Dahlberg farm is still standing, and Jim tries to rejoin what’s left of his community. Everyone is sick and no one knows how to grow food in irradiated soil, but they’re trying to go through the motions. They even attend church, seeking solace in the last institution that’s still (sort of) standing.
One evening, Jim finds squatters on his property, and calmly tells them this is his home. One of the men, equally calmly, grabs a shotgun and kills him. It’s a sick punchline to that inspiring credit sequence, reminding characters and viewers alike that this is no longer a place for the small-town values we so love to idealize. Faith is useless, family is dying, freedom just means deciding how fast you’ll go.
Dr. Oakes is more realistic about his prospects as the radiation poisoning takes hold. He makes his way back to his Kansas City neighborhood, where nothing is left but piles of rubble and his wife’s watch sticking out of the debris. He, too, confronts a family that has set up camp near his old home, and he’s visibly angrier and more desperate than Dahlberg. No longer able to distract himself with hospital work, Oakes realizes the sheer enormity of the situation and collapses, sobbing. Instead of attacking, one of the squatters comes over to comfort him. No one here thinks anything is coming back. All they have now is each other, if only for a little while.
As the camera pulls away, we hear Huxley’s voice, continuing to seek a response to his radio transmission. A disclaimer appears to remind us that a real nuclear attack would be much worse than what we just saw. But the lasting image – the one that stuck with me for decades – is of a ravaged, dying Jason Robards, being held by a stranger as he kneels in the ruins of his city. My city. Any city.
You’d have to be made of stone to be unmoved, and even some gung-ho pro-nuclear types were caught off guard. The most notable was President Ronald Reagan himself, who noted in his diary that The Day After was “very effective and left me greatly depressed.” Within a few years, non-proliferation treaties were being signed, and the idea that countries should stockpile nukes was losing favor fast. The extent of the movie’s influence on geopolitics has probably been exaggerated, but there’s no doubt it got the attention of important people. By the end of the decade, it had even aired on Soviet television.
There were similar films released during the era, including Testament and the British drama Threads, which packed emotional punches of their own. It was a trifecta of nihilistic storytelling, and helps explain why people who came of age in that era became so cynical. We knew the score, and we could watch these movies, then go dancing to Prince’s “1999.” Better to die at a party than live in a wasteland.
Somehow, the world made it out of the ‘80s, and promptly set about creating new threats to worry everyone. None have been quite as existential as the total, incomprehensible devastation of nuclear war. The Day After helped us comprehend it a little better. It may even have helped prevent it. – Loey Lockerby