The Day After, a dramatisation of the effects of a hypothetical nuclear attack on the United States (after a Soviet attack on Germany sparks World War III) was one of the biggest media events of the 1980s.
Screened by ABC on Sunday, 20 November 1983, The Day After was watched by half the adult population of the USA, the largest audience ever for a made-for-TV movie to that time.
The movie was broadcast after weeks of advance publicity, fuelled by White House nervousness about its anti-nuclear bias.
ABC had distributed a half-million “viewer’s guides,” and discussion groups were organised around the country. A studio discussion, in which Secretary of State George Schultz participated, was conducted following the programme.
The advance publicity was unprecedented in scale. It centred on the slogan “The Day After – Beyond Imagining: The starkly realistic drama of nuclear confrontation and its devastating effect on a group of average American citizens”.
The brainchild of Brandon Stoddard, then president of ABC Motion Picture Division, and directed by Nicholas Meyer, The Day After went on to be either broadcast or released as a theatrical feature in over 40 countries.
In Britain, for example, an edited version was shown three weeks later on the ITV commercial network and accompanied by a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament recruitment drive.
The delicate issue of identification with victims and survivors was handled by setting the catastrophe in a real town with ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) silos and by using a large cast of relatively unknown actors – though John Lithgow, playing a scientist, would become more famous – and a horde of extras (3,000 extras played corpses).
Time magazine opined that “much of the power came from the quasi-documentary idea that nuclear destruction had been visited upon the real town of Lawrence, Kansas, rather than upon some back lot of Warner Brothers.”
Following the blinding light of the nuclear strike, bodies are frozen in mid-motion, lit up by X-rays and then incinerated.
While the immediate blast effect is horrible, it’s the wasteland in the aftermath that really shows the intensity of nuclear war. The survivors form lawless groups, picking through rubble and looting to stay alive before dying of either radiation poisoning or starvation and misery.
The destruction had involved the careful arrangement of twenty truckloads of construction rubble and sackfuls of soot, flour and ashes blown by wind machines.
Consequently, the blasted buildings and the citizens – covered in white fallout dust, dead or dying, red-eyed and going bald, looting and killing, some digging mass graves before radiation sickness struck them too – were a disturbing sight.
Scriptwriter Edward Hume decided to fudge the World War III scenario: “It’s not about politics or politicians or military decision-makers. It is simply about you and me – doctors, farmers, teachers, students, brothers and kid sisters engaged in the usual love and labour of life in the month of September”.
Production proceeded without the cooperation of the Defence Department, which had wanted the script to make it clear the Soviets started the war.
Despite occasional trappings of actuality, the plot develops in soap opera fashion, with two families about to be united by marriage. But it evolves to an image of a community that survives the nuclear family, centred on what is left of the local university and based on the model of a medieval monastery.
The film broke two cardinal rules previously held sacrosanct by US television networks and the Hollywood movie industry – never leave viewers politically aroused and never leave them emotionally depressed. In another television first in the US, there were no commercial breaks after the bomb fell.
Some critics found it too tame in its depiction of the effects of nuclear attack (abroad, this was sometimes attributed to American naiveté about war) – a reproach anticipated in the final caption; “The catastrophic events you have 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”.
Dr Russell Oakes
William Allen Young
Dr Sam Hachiya