Retro Review: The Day After (1983)

Made at a time when the Cold War was still part of everyday life, this film supposes a real nuclear conflict between the Western powers, and the Soviet Union. The entire first half deals with the introduction of various characters, whose fate we will follow throughout. Set in Kansas, USA, it shows us a slice of everyday life in the cities of Lawrence and Kansas City, as well as the surrounding agricultural countryside. We are also made aware that the area is home to Air Force bases, including the storage of lots of nuclear missiles in underground bunkers close to many homes.

The tension in Europe is well done, as families read newspapers and watch TV News broadcasts, relating events following the East German seizure of West Berlin. Strategic Air Command is on alert, and down in the missile silos, the air force personnel go through their drills. As real combat breaks out in Germany, Soviet troops flood into the western half of that country, and the NATO allies issue an ultimatum, which goes unheeded. Next, we hear reports of a ‘limited’ nuclear attack against Soviet army units, and the government begins to broadcast dire warnings, and advice to the people about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack on the USA.

The different characters receive this news in various ways. Some go into denial, believing it will never happen, others begin to stockpile food, and move emergency supplies into the cellar. One starts to hitch-hike home to be with his parents, and another leaves his job at the underground missile base in the hope of finding his wife and child. Then one morning, people see missiles launching from the tubes nearby. Everyday life stands still, as they watch the dozens of huge rockets heading skyward. The unthinkable has happened, and an all-out nuclear war is taking place. Thirty minutes later, the Soviet missiles arrive on the mainland of America.

Given the age of this film, you can forgive the rather ‘obvious’ special effects. That said, the air-burst detonation of two missiles over the cities in Kansas is exceptionally well done, and the immediate results of the flash and blast are suitably disturbing. But the film is called The Day After, and the second half begins with the aftermath of the strikes. It then follows the post-apocalyptic scenarios we have all seen in many other films since. Dead animals, ash raining down, and widespread destruction. Ruined buildings and vehicles, people frantic to escape, and others wandering around badly injured, or dying. Radiation sickness takes hold fast. There is no power, little water, and the infrastructure of society has ceased to exist.

Our characters are picked up soon after, and we follow each in turn. Some trying to survive locked in the basement of their farm, one doctor returning to what is left of his hospital, to help where he can, and others wandering aimlessly on roads clogged with bewildered survivors. Law and order breaks down, people fight over food and water, and the remaining authorities are unable to offer any relief or constructive advice. One of the best things about this film is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of a modern nuclear war. Whilst some of the scenes are undoubtedly sentimental, and betray the ‘made for TV’ roots, there is no magic wand, no flag waving, and little hope in sight.

The cast do their best with a gloomy script, and obviously distressing scenes. Jason Robards is the kindly doctor, Steve Guttenberg the young hitch-hiker and JoBeth Williams features as a hard-working nurse. Other famous names include John Lithgow and Amy Madigan, and even the smallest parts feature familiar faces. They don’t make films like this anymore, though you may be familiar with ‘Threads’, made the following year in Britain, as well as much earlier examples like ‘The War Game’, and ‘Fail Safe’. Since the collapse of The Soviet Union, film-makers have turned to terrorism for disaster epics, but recent events make me think that a modern film with this theme is long overdue.

The world could do with another warning.

47 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Day After (1983)

    1. Given the advances in special effects, I reckon they could make such warnings even more realistic and terrifying. With the current unstable world situation, they need to keep reminding us of the consequences of folly.
      Best wishes, Pete. xx

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  1. Great review 🙂 It has been a while since I have seen The Day After so I will have to check that out again. I know I told you this before but speaking of Threads, that was quite a chilling film. I remember that director Mick Jackson recalled in a interview that his previous BBC films were always met with praise from friends and workers, but in the case of Threads, it was anything but. Nevertheless, screenwriter Barry Hines received a letter of praise from then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock (who served from 1983-1992). I got all of this information from this link below in case you are interested. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threads#Reception

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, John. I have read a fair bit about ‘Threads’, and despite its low budget, I consider it to be slightly better than this film. That may be because the familiar locations bring it home to me more.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As I read your second paragraph, I put it in the contest of reading newspapers today, watching television today of tension caused by the twit at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in DC. Just as scary as I remember the film being when I watched it.
    Warmest regards, Theo

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  3. Pete, I have not seen this TV movie, but lived in Kansas City, Missouri at the time, and remember reading that it was being filmed locally. There is also a Kansas City, Kansas, but the filming apparently took place on the Missouri side of the border. I know Lawrence, Kansas quite well, and it has been the film location for a number of movies.

    Interestingly, you’ve previously reviewed “Prime Cut” (1972), whose filming locations also included Kansas City, Missouri and Lawrence, Kansas.

    As a long-time resident of K.C., I remember when “Article 99” and Robert Altman’s “Kansas City” were being filmed in town, and during filming of “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” (1990), I got to see Paul Newman twice (once in the front yard of the house, and once outside the Savoy Grill, both of which were active film sets).

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    1. It may well have been Kansas City, Missouri, David. I was unaware of the two cities of the same name. One of the characters is heading to Joplin, so that kind of confirms it. I mainly know of Lawrence from the civil war connection, and the notorious raid by Quantrill’s troops, which was shown in the film ‘Ride With The Devil’.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds compelling. I never saw it. They used to make some very good television movies. Some of them were big events and even became classics. If I get the chance I’ll watch. I’m a Jason Robards fan. I always think of him as Cheyenne in “Once Upon a Time in the West”.

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  5. Sorry I have been a bit absent the past few days Pete. I had a pretty nasty flu and am finally a bit on the mend again (luckily I now have a three week vacation, so there is that 😊).
    I have heard of this film, and seen the trailer, but never the actual film. Just one of those movies that seemed to have slipped through I guess. And you are so right, the world could do with another warning…sad as that seems 😢

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is indeed. But it has been possible since the 1950s, so we should have such warnings I think.
      I noticed it is doing the rounds on TPTV, Freeview 81, if you want to see it. That jogged my memory for this review.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

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