The Day After is an American television film that first aired on November 20, 1983, on the ABC television network. More than 100 million people, in nearly 39 million households, watched the program during its initial broadcast. With a 46 rating and a 62% share of the viewing audience during its initial broadcast, it was the seventh-highest-rated non-sports show up to that time and set a record as the highest-rated television film in history—a record it still held as recently as 2009.
The film postulates a fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries that rapidly escalates into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action itself focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas, Kansas City, Missouri, and of several family farms near nuclear missile silos.
The cast includes JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Cullum, Jason Robards, and John Lithgow. The film was written by Edward Hume, produced by Robert Papazian, and directed by Nicholas Meyer. It was released on DVD on May 18, 2004, by MGM.
Uniquely for a Western movie made during the Cold War, it was broadcast on the Soviet Union's state TV in 1987.
Military tensions rise between the two Cold War powers led by the Soviet Union and the United States. Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact forces build on the border between East Germany and West Germany, and West Berlin is blockaded. A NATO attempt to break the blockade results in heavy casualties. Airman First Class Billy McCoy (William Allen Young) lives at Whiteman Air Force Base near Sedalia, Missouri. He is called to alert status at the Minuteman launch site he is stationed at in Sweetsage, Missouri, 20 miles from Kansas City. The Hendry family lives on a farm adjoining McCoy's launch site.
The Dahlberg family lives on their farm twenty miles away from the Sweetsage launch site, in Harrisonville, Missouri, 40 miles from Kansas City. The Dahlbergs' eldest daughter Denise (Lori Lethin) is set to be married in days to a student at the University of Kansas, and they perform their wedding dress rehearsal.
The next day, the military conflict in Europe rapidly escalates. Tactical nuclear weapons are detonated by NATO to stop a Soviet Union advance into West Germany, and each side attacks naval targets in the Persian Gulf. Dr. Russell Oakes (Jason Robards), a doctor in Kansas City, Missouri, travels to Lawrence, Kansas by car to teach a class at the University of Kansas hospital there. Pre-med University of Kansas student Stephen Klein (Steve Guttenberg), receives a physical at the hospital, hears the news from Europe, and decides to hitchhike toward home in Joplin, Missouri.
As the threat of large-scale nuclear attack grows, hoarding begins, and so does evacuation of major cities in both the Soviet Union and United States. Frequent Emergency Broadcast System warnings are sent over television and radio, and Kansas City begins to empty, outbound freeways clogged. Dr. Oakes is among the many stuck in the traffic jam as he drives toward Lawrence, but, after hearing an EBS alert and realizing the danger to Kansas City and his family living there, decides to turn around and head home.
Minutes apart, the United States launches its Minuteman missiles, and United States military personnel aboard the EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft track inbound Soviet nuclear missiles. The film deliberately leaves unclear who fired theirs first. Billy McCoy flees the site he was stationed at now that its Minuteman missile has been launched, intending to locate his wife and child. As air raid sirens go off, widespread panic grips Kansas City as most people frantically seek fallout shelters and other protection from the imminent Soviet nuclear attack.
High-yield nuclear weapons detonate over numerous locations, including downtown Kansas City, Sedalia, and Sweetsage. The explosions cause electromagnetic pulses, disabling vehicles and destroying the electrical grid, moments before heat and blast waves destroy and vaporize everything nearby. The Hendry family, having initially ignored the crisis, is killed when they try to flee. McCoy takes refuge in a truck trailer, and Klein, who had hitchhiked as far as Harrisonville, finds the Dahlberg home and begs for protection in the family's basement. Dr. Oakes, who witnessed the nuclear explosion over Kansas City, walks to the hospital in Lawrence and begins treating patients.
Nuclear fallout and its deadly effects are felt everywhere in the region. McCoy and Oakes, both outside immediately after the explosions, have been exposed without their knowledge to lethal doses of radiation. Denise Dahlberg, frantic after days in the family's basement shelter, runs outside, and Klein, who vows to her father that he'll bring her back, does so, but not before both have been exposed to very high doses of radiation. McCoy learns in his travels that Sedalia and many other cities have been obliterated. Food and water are in very short supply, and looting and other criminal activity leads to the imposition of martial law. Klein takes Denise and her brother Danny, who was blinded by one of the nuclear explosions, to the hospital in Lawrence for treatment. McCoy also travels there, where he dies of radiation poisoning. Denise and Danny Dahlberg, and Klein, finally leave for Harrisonville and the Dahlberg farm, when it becomes clear to them they can't be treated medically for their injuries.
Jim Dahlberg, returning home from a municipal meeting about agricultural techniques that may work to grow food in the new circumstances, finds squatters on the farm. He explains that it is his land, and asks them to leave, at which point one of the squatters shoots and kills him without any sign of remorse.
Dr. Oakes, at last aware he has sustained lethal exposure to radiation, returns to Kansas City on foot to see the site of his home before he dies. He finds squatters there, attempts to drive them off, and is instead offered food. Oakes collapses, weeps, and one of the squatters comforts him.
The film ends with Lawrence science faculty head Joe Huxley repeatedly tries to contact other survivors with a shortwave radio. There is no response.
Sound Effects Used
- H-B SCI-FI, ROCKET BY, NOISY (Used for the Nuclear explosion.)
- Hollywoodedge, Gusts Heavy Cold Wind PE031601 (Debut, Note: This film, along with the music video of Michael Jackson's Thriller are the only two things that both make a debut.)
- Sound Ideas, CRASH, JUNK - JUNK FALL AND CRASH
- Sound Ideas, THUNDER - BIG THUNDER CLAP AND RUMBLE, WEATHER 02
- Valentino, Air Raid Sirens