A look back at The Day After

The Day After was a 1983 TV movie about nuclear war. Other than the final episode of M*A*S*H*, it may still be the biggest TV event of all time, with reportedly a hundred million people tuning in to see it.

Directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also gave us the sci-fi classics Time after Time and Star Trek 2, The Day After was pretty grim stuff in its time when the threat of nuclear war between Russia and the United States was a very real possibility.

It’s nowhere near as disturbing to watch today, but parts of it still resonate, and in a nostalgic sense I can still remember how much people braced themselves to watch it, and the civic responsibility people felt to tune in when it aired on November 20, 1983.


The Day After is essentially a disaster film, and it was penned by Edward Hume, who wrote regularly for TV shows like Cannon and Barnaby Jones, and who also wrote the sniper in a football stadium disaster flick Two Minute Warning with Charlton Heston. Like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno, The Day After follows the lives of a number of characters as their lives intertwine before and after a major nuclear strike in Lawrence, Kansas.


As the Conelrad.Blogspot relates, The Day After began after the president of ABC Motion Pictures saw The China Syndrome, which hit theaters around the same time as the infamous meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. 

As Nicholas Meyer told TV Guide at the time, “I cannot live with myself if I don’t make this movie.” He also didn’t want to make it as a theatrical feature, and felt a TV movie would reach a lot more people instead of preaching to the converted.


The Day After was initially going to be a two-night, four-hour “event,” but as Meyer said, “No one is going to tune in to two nights of Armageddon.” The Day After was also a much more toned down version of a nuclear holocaust because as make-up artist Michael Westmore said, “We wanted to create reality, but not horror. My purpose was not to make viewers sick.”


As Conelrad.Blogspot feels, today The Day After is “in parts a rather pedestrian 1970s TV disaster film – the polar opposite of Nicholas Meyer’s declared intention, riddled with cliches” although there were moments that always stayed with me, like the segment where countless people are vaporized, and the woman giving birth at the end, bringing a healthy child into a dying world. (Several performances in The Day After, including John Cullum as the head of the Hendry family, are also still very good).


While you never know what’s going to hold up in the future, I can still recall the impact very clearly, as well as the need for a TV movie like The Day After in the early 80’s. And again, in its time, it was pretty powerful viewing, and I could still remember certain scenes for many years after.