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How 'The Day After' terrified Americans 40 years ago: 'Nuclear war on a good day'

An estimated 100 million people watched Nicholas Meyer's apocalyptic TV movie when it premiered in 1983.

Nicholas Meyer's seminal TV movie The Day After dramatized the fallout after a nuclear bomb blast. (Photo: ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Nicholas Meyer's seminal 1983 TV movie The Day After dramatizes the beginning and aftermath of a nuclear war. (Photo: ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, the TV schedule is generally reserved for uplifting fare, whether that's football, parades or Charlie Brown animated specials. Forty years ago, though, millions of Americans prepared for Turkey Day by watching a frightening glimpse of their possible future. On Nov. 20, 1983, ABC aired the two-hour television movie The Day After, which depicts an escalating conflict between the Soviet Union and the U.S. that crosses the point of no return when both countries fire nuclear missiles at each other.

The film's nightmare-inducing centerpiece sequence depicts American cities and landscapes being leveled by the ensuing blasts, and includes actual footage of nuclear bomb tests conducted in the Nevada desert. The last hour of the film depicts the survivors — played by a cast that included Jason Robards, Steve Guttenberg and JoBeth Williams — struggling to rebuild society amidst the ruins of a vanished world.

An estimated 100 million people watched The Day After when it premiered, and a signification portion of that was young children. At the time, experts advised against parents letting their children watch the film. And The Day After director, Nicholas Meyer, remains unsettled by the knowledge that millions of kids were part of that initial audience.

"If I had had my kids at the time, I would not have shown them the movie — certainly not if they were younger than 14," Meyer told Yahoo Entertainment in 2022. "And yet evidently people did let kids watch it and many were infinitely distressed by what they encountered. I didn't want them to experience it: I didn't see the benefits of that."

Born in New York City on Dec. 24, 1945 — four months after the U.S. detonated nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II — Meyer grew up in the shadow of the bomb. "I remember being a kid and having to wear dog tags and ducking under desks," he recalls. "I also remember worrying every time that a low-flying plane went over Manhattan. I would think: 'Is this the one carrying the bomb?' I guess I was an imaginative child!"

As an adult, Meyer put that imagination to work as an author and filmmaker, penning bestsellers like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and helming blockbusters like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The success of that 1982 film brought him to the attention of The Day After team at ABC, although he resisted the job opportunity at first suspecting that the network would get cold feet... which they inevitably did.

"The network was against this movie being made," he said. "Everyone believed that no sponsors would come near it, and they were right. It was largely done commercial-free." In fact, ABC's wariness of The Day After continues today. While the film has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, it's not currently available to stream on Hulu, which is owned by the network's parent company, Walt Disney. "They haven't talked to me about it," Meyer noted, adding that he'd like to see The Day After on a major streaming platform.

GERARDMER, FRANCE - JANUARY 26: Guest of honor Nicholas Meyer attends the opening ceremony during the Gerardmer Fantastic Film Festival on January 26, 2022 in Gerardmer, France. (Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)
The Day After director Nicholas Meyer attends the opening ceremony of the Gerardmer Fantastic Film Festival on Jan. 26, 2022 (Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)

While the children who watched The Day After live were understandably horrified, their nightmares could have been much worse had ABC aired some of the more graphic material that Meyer filmed for his planned three-hour cut. Those excised scenes include more footage of the radiation-ravaged victims and post-blast violence. "I remember a scene of a girl screaming in a hospital bed that featured a close-up shot of a cockroach — the idea being that the only thing that was going to survive the radiation was cockroaches," Meyer said. "It wasn't X-rated graphic, it was just hitting nails devastatingly on the head and was deemed to be too much."

Besides children, the audience that was perhaps most profoundly affected by The Day After were government officials, including President Ronald Reagan. Having entered the Oval Office as a staunch opponent of nuclear arms control, the former actor underwent a profound transformation on the issue during his two-term administration, ultimately forging an alliance with Gorbachev that resulted in the signing of a landmark 1987 disarmament treaty. As Meyer eventually came to learn, The Day After helped instigate that policy reversal, although — contrary to rumor — he never heard from Reagan directly.

"There are a number of sources about what happened after he saw the movie," Meyer observed, pointing to Reagan's own diaries, as well as the writings of his official biographer, Edmund Morris. "[Morris] said the only time he ever saw Ronald Reagan flip out was after screening The Day After."

Survivors gather in a bombed-out church in the TV movie, The Day After. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Survivors gather in a bombed-out church in the TV movie The Day After. (Courtesy Everett Collection)

In his 2009 memoir, The View From the Bridge, Meyer recalled being accused by Reagan's more conservative supporters of spreading Soviet propaganda. But in our interview, the director reiterated that he never set out to criticize the president directly. "It's not my recollection that we were ever trying to get Reagan," he said, fact-checking the rumor that the president heard in the film is supposed to be a Reagan stand-in. "That was never our intention: We just wanted a presidential voice."

"Remember, The Day After is not a movie about the military, politics or policy," Meyer continued. "It's about us doing what we do. It may have had a propagandistic effect, but it was not made as propaganda. It just said, 'What would happen and what would it be like?' People have trouble visualizing that, and the movie visualized it for them. That's why people like Reagan were so affected."

Successive administrations, however, seem less concerned by the implications of nuclear war. In 2018, former president Donald Trump withdrew from that 1987 treaty and Russian leader Vladimir Putin followed suit stoking fears of a renewed arms race. For his part, Meyer suspected that "close calls" with nuclear blasts — think of the famous 1980 socket wrench incident in Arkansas — were being increasingly hushed up by those in power.

Late U.S. President Ronald Reagan (R) and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in the White House, December 8, 1987.
President Ronald Reagan (R) and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in the White House, Dec. 8, 1987. (Getty Images)

"Whether there were close calls or not in the Trump administration, we got by by the skin of our teeth," Meyer said. "Meanwhile [he] rearranged the world, legitimized fascism and did a whole bunch of other things. Will we ever recover from that? I don't know. Right now this country is totally split."

Even the current Oval Office occupant isn't immune from missteps. In March 2022 following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden departed from his prepared remarks and said that Vladimir Putin "cannot remain in power" — leading some to speculate whether he was calling for regime change. (He later walked those statements back, saying it was a "personal feeling" and not a policy shift.) Last year, Meyer said he was willing to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

"I'm an admirer of his, but I think he sometimes puts his foot in his mouth. I don't think it's anything compared to Donald Trump! It's a walking gaffe every time he opens his mouth. But Biden is certainly guilty of gaffes, and I think he shouldn't have opened his mouth [to say] 'this guy has got to go' because it was bound to be interpreted by some eager beavers who were fans or detractors as a statement of policy. It was just an ill-advised remark."

The Day After ends on an ambiguous note that doesn't tip its hand one way or the other about the prospects of humanity's long-term survival. Meyer declined to share his own feelings about the endgame of that specific post-nuclear scenario, but did say the film presents "nuclear war on a good day as opposed to what the reality is likely to be." The director also acknowledged that we live in "scary times" where the public seems to live in willful denial about the possibility what might happen if nukes start flying.

Jason Robards in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse in The Day After. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Jason Robards in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse in The Day After. (Courtesy Everett Collection)

"The news that is too unpalatable, most of us refuse to process at all. For example, nobody wants to deal with the reality of climate change, so it's very easy for people to fall into the arms of those who tell you that it's all a hoax. And up until the invasion actually began, the citizens of Ukraine didn't think it was gong to happen, whereas a lot of other people, including me, thought, 'Well yeah, [Putin's] going to do this.' The only thing that's different now is that things happen so fast, and then we're onto the next thing." (Russia and Ukraine are still at war a year later, with no immediate end in sight.)

Having taken the rising temperature of the times, Meyer said that he and his producing partner, Frank Spotnitz, were pitching a "global version" of The Day After to streaming services in the hopes of expanding on the impact of the 1983 film. So far, though, the duo have struggled to find any takers.

"I guess streamers are worried that the controversy surrounding a proposal to do something like this will alienate, if not sponsors, then certainly subscribers, but I don't know if that really holds," he noted. "The people who thought that nobody was going to watch The Day After turned out to be wildly wrong. I still get letters and e-mails about that movie every day."

The Day After isn't currently available to stream, but can be purchased on Blu-ray and DVD.

This post was originally published on April 8, 2022. It has been updated to reflect recent events.