The film portrays a fictional nuclear war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact that rapidly escalates into a full scale exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, focusing on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, as well as several family farms situated next to nearby nuclear missile silos. The film was written by Edward Hume and directed by Nicholas Meyer. The film was released on DVD on May 18 2004.
During the late hours of Friday, September 15, news broadcasts report of a depicted "wide-spread rebellion among several divisions of the East German Army"; as a result the Soviets blockade West Berlin. As tensions mount, the United States issues an ultimatum that the Soviets stand down from the blockade by 6:00 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time the next day, or it will be interpreted as an act of war. The Soviets eventually refuse. The President of the United States puts all U.S. military personnel around the world on "Stage 2" alert.
On Saturday, September 16, the film states that NATO forces in West Germany invade East Germany through the Helmstedt checkpoint to free Berlin. The Soviets hold the Marienborn corridor and inflict heavy casualties on NATO troops. Two Soviet-built MiG-25s fly over West German airspace and bomb a NATO munitions storage facility, but also hit a school and a hospital. Through a radio news broadcast, viewers learn that the Soviet capital, Moscow, is being evacuated, and at this point people in major U.S. cities are shown to begin mass evacuations. Soviet forces counter the NATO advance by invading West Germany through the Fulda Gap; NATO counterattacks and comes to the assistance of West Germany. There follow unconfirmed reports that nuclear weapons are used in Wiesbaden and in the outskirts of Frankfurt. Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, naval warfare erupts, as radio reports tell of ship sinkings on both sides.
Viewers then learn that the Soviet Army has reached the Rhine. Not wanting Soviet forces to invade France and the rest of Western Europe, the U.S. halts the Soviet advance by airbursting three low-yield nuclear bombs over advancing Soviet troops. Soviet forces counter by launching a nuclear attack on NATO's European headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. In response, the United States Strategic Air Command begins scrambling some of its B-52 bombers.
After the initial nuclear exchange in Europe, the United States is shown to enact its "launch on warning" policy: it will launch a full-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union if the U.S. receives indication that the Soviet Union is preparing to do the same against the United States.
The Soviet Air Force then destroys an Airborne Early Warning station in England (likely a reference to the BMEWS station RAF Fylingdales) and another at Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, California. Meanwhile, on board the Strategic Air Command Airborne Command Center, the order comes in from the President of the United States for a full nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Almost simultaneously, an Air Force officer receives a report that a massive Soviet nuclear assault against the United States has been launched, stating "32 targets in track, with 10 impacting points." Another airman receives a report that over 300 ICBMs are inbound.
It is deliberately unclear in the film whether the Soviet Union or the United States launches the main nuclear attack first.
The first salvo of the attack on the central United States (as shown from the point of view of the residents of Kansas and western Missouri) occurs at 3:38 pm, Central Daylight Time, when a large yield nuclear weapon is air burst at a high altitude over Kansas City, Missouri in order to generate an electromagnetic pulse, disabling any defensive weapons covering nearby Minuteman III missile silos. Thirty seconds later, incoming Soviet ICBMs begin to impact military and population targets (including Kansas City). Sedalia, Missouri all the way south to Eldorado Springs, Missouri is blanketed with ground burst nuclear weapons in an attempt to destroy any remaining American ICBMs still in their silos. As a result of the attack, America's major cities, military facilities, and industrial sites are all destroyed or heavily damaged, and the military is decimated. The aftermath depicts the central United States as a fallout wasteland of burned-out cities filled with radiation/burn victims. The Soviets' situation is reportedly comparable. Eventually, the American President gives a radio address, in which he declares that there is a ceasefire between the United States and the Soviet Union.
All of this, though, is background. The key theme is the effects of nuclear war on families and individuals. The film did emphasize that "the day after" a nuclear attack could, in fact, exist, countering the idea popular since the early 1950s that a nuclear war would result in a simple and instant end of the world. The Day After continues a tradition dating from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s which emphasized the grisly details of radiation poisoning, the vast numbers of casualties overwhelming hospitals, and the hopelessness of post-war governance, farming, medical aid, food supplies, etc.
Originally, the film was based more around and in Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City was not bombed in the original script, although Whiteman Air Force Base was, making Kansas City suffer shock waves and the horde of survivors staggering into town. There was no Lawrence, Kansas in the story, although there was a small Kansas town called "Hampton". While Hume was writing the script, he and producer Robert Papazian, who had great experience in on-location shooting, took several trips to Kansas City to scout locations, and met with officials from the Kansas film commission and from the Kansas tourist offices to search for a suitable location for "Hampton." It came down to a choice of either Warrensburg, Missouri, and Lawrence, Kansas, both college towns — Warrensburg was home of Central Missouri State University and was near Whiteman Air Force Base, and Lawrence was home of the University of Kansas and was near Kansas City. Hume and Papazian ended up selecting Lawrence, due to the access to a number of good locations: a university, a hospital, football and basketball venues, farms, beautiful countryside. The Lawrence people were urging ABC to change the name "Hampton" to "Lawrence" in the script.
Back in Los Angeles, the idea of making a TV movie showing the true effects of nuclear war on average American citizens was still stirring up controversy. ABC, Hume, and Papazian realized that for the scene depicting the nuclear blast, they would have to use state-of-the-art special effects, and they took the first step by hiring some of the best special effects people in the business to draw up some storyboards for the complicated blast scene. Then, ABC hired Robert Butler to direct the project. For several months, this group worked on drawing up storyboards and revising the script again and again; then, in the spring of 1982, Butler was forced to leave The Day After because of other contractual commitments. ABC then offered the project to two other directors, who both turned it down. Finally, in May, ABC hired feature film director Nicholas Meyer, who had just completed the blockbuster Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Meyer was apprehensive at first and doubted ABC would get away with making a television film on nuclear war without the censors diminishing its effect. However, after reading the script, Meyer agreed to direct The Day After.
However, Meyer wanted to make sure he would film the script he was offered. He didn't want the censors to chop up the film, nor did he want the film to be a regular Hollywood disaster movie from the start. Meyer figured the more The Day After resembled such a film, the less effective it would be. Meyer just wanted to dump the facts on nuclear war in people's laps. So first of all he made it clear to ABC that no TV or film stars should be in The Day After. ABC agreed, although they wanted to have one star to help attract European audiences to the film when it would be shown theatrically there. Later, while flying to visit his parents in New York City, Meyer happened to be on the same plane with Jason Robards, and asked the star to join the cast.
Meyer plunged into several months of nuclear research, which made him quite pessimistic about the future. Every day, Meyer would come home feeling ill. He soon realized that what he was learning was making him sick. Meyer and Papazian also made trips to the ABC censors, and to the United States Department of Defense during this time. There were conflicts with both. Meyer had many heated arguments over elements in the script, both little and big, that the network censors wanted cut out of the film. The Department of Defense said they would cooperate with ABC if it was made clear in the script that the Soviet Union launched their missiles first, something Meyer and Papazian were at pains not to do.
In any case, Meyer, Papazian, Hume, and several casting directors spent most of July 1982 taking numerous trips to Kansas City. In between casting in Los Angeles, where they stuck mostly to unknowns, they would fly to the Kansas City area to interview local actors and scenery. They were hoping to find some real Midwesterners for smaller roles. Hollywood casting directors strolled through shopping malls in Kansas City looking for local people to fill small and supporting roles, while the daily newspaper in Lawrence ran an advertisement calling for local residents of all ages to sign up for jobs as a large number of extras in the film, and a professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas was hired to head up the local casting of the movie. Out of the eighty or so speaking parts, only fifteen were cast in Los Angeles. The remaining roles were filled in Kansas City and Lawrence. While in Kansas City, Meyer and Papazian toured the Federal Emergency Management Agency offices in Kansas City. When asked what their plans for surviving nuclear war were, a FEMA official replied that they were experimenting with putting evacuation instructions in telephone books in New England. "In about six years, everyone should have them." This meeting led Meyer to later refer to FEMA as "a complete joke." It was during this time that the decision was made to change "Hampton" in the script to "Lawrence." Meyer and Hume figured since Lawrence was a real town, that it would be more believable, and besides, Lawrence was a perfect choice to be a representative of Middle America. The town boasted a "socio-cultural mix", sat near the exact geographic center of the continental U.S., and Hume and Meyer's research told them that Lawrence was a prime missile target because 150 Minuteman missile silos stood nearby. Lawrence had some great locations, and the people there were more supportive of the project. Suddenly, less emphasis was put on Kansas City, the decision was made to have the city completely annihilated in the script, and Lawrence was made the primary location in the film.
Production began on Monday, August 16, 1982, on location at a farm just west of Lawrence. The ABC crew had needed sunshine, and it turned out to be a dreadfully overcast day. The set required a floodlight for shooting. That day, the crew set fire to the farm's big red barn for one scene during the blast sequence (it was eventually cut). The owner of the farm was not paid by ABC for the use of his property, but ABC did compensate by building him an all-new barn in place of the one they destroyed. The crew spent most of the next week and a half filming on various farm sets near Lawrence. One set in rural Lawrence, depicting a schoolhouse after a nuclear blast, was made in six days from fiberglass "skins". On Monday, August 30, 1982, ABC shut down Rusty's IGA supermarket in Lawrence's Hillcrest Shopping Center from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. to shoot a scene representing the rush to grocery stores for provisions when a nuclear attack appears likely. While the crew was shooting, a local man and his infant son walked up to the supermarket. Apparently, they had not gotten the word that ABC was filming a movie there. The man saw the complete chaos inside his neighborhood grocery, over 100 extras rushing about, pushing and shoving and hoarding food, and ran back into his car in fear.
Local extras were paid US$75 to shave their heads bald, have latex scar tissue and burn-marks pasted on their faces, be plastered with coats of artificial mud, and be dressed in ragged and tattered clothes for various scenes of mass despair and radiation sickness after the nuclear blast. In a small park in downtown Lawrence on the bank of the Kansas River, ABC set up a grimy shantytown to serve as the home for survivors of the nuclear attack in the film. It was known as "Tent City". From the afternoon of Friday, September 3, 1982, well into the evening, the cameras rolled, recording the chaos and mass despair, using many University of Kansas students as actors and extras. The next day, Saturday, September 4, 1982, lead actor Jason Robards, the only well-known "star" in the film, had arrived in Lawrence and production moved to Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where scenes of hundreds of radiation sickness victims crowding into a besieged hospital were filmed. Nicholas Meyer and the ABC crew were amazed by the amount of cooperation they received from the citizens of Lawrence. Many local individuals and businesses participating in the filming and the city profited of the use of local actors and extras. It was estimated in contemporaneous newspaper accounts that ABC spent $1 million in Lawrence, not all on the production. It was also during this time that Nicholas Meyer revealed his ambitions and goals for The Day After: The director wanted the film not to take political stands, but rather just spread the message and inform people that "nuclear war is a bad thing." He thought of the TV film not as a movie, but as a gigantic public service announcement. His main goal was to reach an audience of at least 20 million people through the TV showing, which would spread his message across to a larger and wider audience. This was eventually achieved.
On Monday, September 6, 1982, in a block of businesses in downtown Lawrence, the filmmakers repainted the signs for several businesses, changing the names of the stores; the facades were stained with dark smudges of soot. The large windows were shattered into sharp teeth; bricks were scattered across the sidewalk amidst scraps of lumber, and several junked cars were painted with clouds of black spray. Two industrial-sized yellow fans bolted to a flatbed trailer blew clouds of white flakes into the air. This fallout-matter was actually cornflakes painted white. Several quick scenes of devastation were shot, and the next day, Tuesday, September 7, 1982, thousands of local extras, most of them University of Kansas students, poured into Allen Fieldhouse, the basketball stadium at the university, which, in the story, was the only place left on campus big enough to accommodate so many wounded. A scene representing class registration was filmed in an upstairs hallway before noon, but the large crowd scene on the basketball court, with thousands of radiation victims stretched out on cots and mattresses on the court floor, did not get under way until after 2 p.m. The extras were asked not to bathe for several days to make the scenes more realistic. The next day, on Wednesday, September 8, 1982, a four-mile stretch on K-10 between the Edgerton Road exit and the DeSoto interchange at former K-285 (now Lexington Avenue) was closed for shooting highway scenes representing a mass exodus from the Kansas City area on Interstate 70. Over the next few days, the filmmakers shot mostly pre-blast scenes in Kansas City, and on Friday, September 10, 1982, they filmed a scene where Jason Robards returns to what is left of Kansas City to find his home. ABC used the demolition site of an old hospital in an inner-city neighborhood in Kansas City as the set. They had found this location a few months before, and paid the city to halt demolition for a month so the crew could film scenes of destruction there. However, when the crew arrived, more demolition had apparently taken place. Director Meyer was angry beyond belief, but then realized he could populate the area with fake corpses and junked cars, "and then I got real happy". Robards, however, never became happy. He had had to get to makeup at 6 a.m. that morning so he could be made out to look like a radiation poisoning victim. The makeup took three hours to apply. Finally, around 9:30 a.m., shooting began. Traffic on the nearby avenue slowed and passer-bys strained for a closer look as Robards lifted the arm of a body stuck under fallen debris — just the arm, severed at the shoulder. It was at this site that the moving final scene, where Dr. Oakes confronts a family of squatters in the rubble of his home, and the father of the family, played by a Kansas City actor, crawls out to hug the dying Oakes, was filmed.
There were more problems in Kansas City the next day, Saturday, September 11, 1982. Nicholas Meyer had scouted and desperately wanted the Liberty Memorial, a tall war memorial in Penn Valley Park overlooking downtown Kansas City, for two scenes: postcard-perfect shots of Kansas City near the beginning, and a scene of Robards stumbling through the ruins of the Memorial at the end. The Memorial was to function as a symbol for some of the messages in the film. However, one of the directors of the local parks department did not want the crew to film there for a number of reasons. He was trying to avoid letting city parks be used for commercial purposes, and he was concerned that ABC would somehow damage the Memorial. Also, the director was caught off guard when ABC asked for permission to use the site one day before they planned to shoot there. But in any case, movie officials met with city officials, there was much flattery and cajoling, and that next day ABC had the Liberty Memorial. By using fiberglass, they were able to make it look as if the Liberty Memorial had been reduced to rubble (they would use special effects later to make it look even more realistic: the ruins below stretching to the distance were composited from an actual photo of Hiroshima taken by U. S. occupation troops after the Japanese surrender). Robards stumbled through debris once again, and then they shot the post-card scenes. That evening, the cast and crew flew back home to Los Angeles.
Upon return to LA, the filmmakers shot the interior hospital scenes with Robards and co-star JoBeth Williams and complete post-production work. While shooting in Los Angeles, Meyer noted that extras there weren't as helpful and cooperative as those in Lawrence. "You tell them you want them to grunt and they say, 'Hey, that's a word. That's money,'" Meyer complained. Many scientific advisors from various fields were on set to ensure the accuracy of the explosion, its effects, and its victims. The government, nervous of how it would be portrayed, didn't allow the production to use stock footage of nuclear explosions in the film, so ABC hired some of the best special effects creators to work on the film. The result was a frighteningly real explosion and iconic "mushroom cloud" created by injecting oil-based paints and inks downward into a water tank with a piston, filmed at high speed with the camera mounted upside down. The image was then optically color- and contrast-inverted. The water tank used for the "mushroom clouds" was the same water tank used to create the "Mutara Nebula" special effect in The Wrath of Khan.
The Day After also relied heavily on footage borrowed from both other movies and declassified government films. During the attack, extensive use of stock footage was interspersed with special effects of the mushroom clouds. While the majority of the missile launches came from United States Department of Defense footage of ICBM missile tests (mainly Minuteman IIIs from Vandenberg Air Force Base adjacent to Lompoc, California), all of the stock footage of missile launches were acquired from declassified DoD film libraries, and showed some missiles (specifically "Titan" missiles), that by 1982 had been decommissioned and out of service for up to fifteen years. The scenes of Air Force personnel aboard the Airborne Command Post, in the command center receiving news of the incoming attack, and in the silo launching their missiles, are footage of actual military personnel during a drill, and had been aired several years earlier in a 1979 CBS documentary series, "First Strike". In the original footage, the silo is "destroyed" by an incoming "attack" just moments before launching its missiles, which is why the final seconds of the launch countdown are not seen in this movie.
Further stock footage was taken from news events (fires and explosions), and the 1979 theatrical film Meteor (such as a bridge collapsing and the destruction of a tall office building originally used to depict the destruction of the World Trade Center in that film). Brief scenes of stampeding crowds were also borrowed from the disaster film Two-Minute Warning (1976). Other footage had been previously used in theatrical films such as Superman and Damnation Alley.
The editing of The Day After was one of the most nerve-wracking processes ABC had ever gone through in post-production of any of their films. There were many meetings with the censors, and Nicholas Meyer was enraged and confused because the network actually cut out many scenes due to what it considered slow pacing, not because they were too controversial or too graphic. Originally conceived as a 4-hour miniseries, the film was reluctantly taken away from Meyer by Samuels at the request of Stoddard so that it could be cut to a shorter, faster-paced format. (In April 1983, Meyer wrote a letter to Brandon Stoddard stating that he was resigning from The Day After and that he would petition the Directors Guild of America to have his name removed from the credits. Apparently, Meyer changed his mind and the letter was never sent.)
It was originally planned The Day After would be aired in May, but it was pushed back to November to allow for the post-production work that would reduce the film's length. The first major cut was made to the film that could be called "censorship": censors forced ABC to cut an entire scene of a child having a nightmare about nuclear holocaust and then sitting up, screaming. A psychiatrist told ABC that this would disturb children. "This strikes me as ludicrous", Meyer wrote in TV Guide at the time. "Not only in relation to the rest of the film, but also when contrasted with the huge doses of violence to be found on any average evening of TV viewing." In any case, a few more cuts were made, including to a scene where Denise is shown to possess a diaphragm, and another scene where a hospital patient abruptly sits up screaming (this was excised from the original television broadcast, but then restored for home video releases). Meyer persuaded ABC to dedicate the film to the citizens of Lawrence, and also to put a disclaimer at the end of the film, following the credits, letting the viewer know that The Day After downplayed the true effects of nuclear war so they would be able to have a story. The disclaimer also included a list of books the viewer can read to find out more on the subject. When the film was finished, Meyer vowed never to work in television again.
The Day After received one of the largest promotional campaigns prior to its broadcast. Commercials aired several months in advance, ABC distributed half a million "viewer's guides", which discussed the dangers of nuclear war and prepared the viewer for the graphic scenes of mushroom clouds and radiation burn victims. Discussion groups were also formed nationwide. Some schools required their students to watch it as a homework assignment and discuss it the next morning in class, while others encouraged parents not to allow their children to view the film at all.
ABC censors severely toned down numerous graphic scenes in order to reduce the body count of corpses and severe burn victims. Director Meyer refused to remove some key scenes (such as the "lady in the bathtub" near the film's end), but there are reportedly some 8½ minutes of excised footage which still exist, significantly more graphic in their depiction of the effects of a nuclear attack. Some of this edited footage was later reinstated for the film's release on home video. JoBeth Williams' character of Nurse Bower was originally scripted to have a death scene where she asks whether the living do in fact envy the dead in a nuclear war's aftermath. This scene was cut when the film was reduced to 2½ hours. In the released version, Nurse Bower's death occurs off-camera, and is mentioned by Dr. Hachiya as having been due to meningitis; the dialogue was so garbled, however, that most viewers failed to hear the cause of death on the first viewing.
One cut scene shows a battle between groups of surviving students at the University of Kansas over the remaining food stocks. The two sides were to be the school's athletes versus the science students under the guidance of Professor Huxley. Another brief scene filmed but later cut relates to the firing squad near the end, where two U. S. soldiers are blindfolded and executed. The cut scene has an officer reading the charges, verdict, and sentence, as a bandaged chaplain reads the Last Rites. The soldiers were guilty of looting. A very similar sequence occurs in the 1965 UK-produced faux documentary, The War Game. In the original broadcast, when the President addressed the nation, the voice was an imitation of then-President Ronald Reagan. However, in subsequent broadcasts that voice was overdubbed using a stock actor.
Meyer and company cast several local actors and actresses from Kansas City and Lawrence to fill the smaller supporting roles. Jeff East, who played Bruce Gallatin, was a local Kansas City actor despite some work in television and feature films, and auditioned for the role of Bruce in Kansas City. Doug Scott and Ellen Anthony, who played the younger Dahlberg children, were both found in Lawrence (Anthony was the daughter of the film's Kansas casting director Jack Wright). Arliss Howard (who played one of the young airmen) went on to a well-known film acting career, but at the time was a local thespian found in Kansas City. Charles Oldfather, Herk Harvey, and Charles Whitman (all of whom at the time or soon afterwards were professors or teachers at the University of Kansas) were all cast in Lawrence as farmers in the agricultural meeting scene towards the end of the film.
While many of the principal cast went on to have successful careers and star in notable films (i.e., John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams and Amy Madigan), at the time they were relatively unknown. The Oakes:
Emmy Award nominations: