The Sobering Horror of THE DAY AFTER

The Cold War vision of nuclear devastation comes to Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics

The Day After is available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Note this article uses a combination of 4:3 and 16:9 screenshots; these are to give representation to both the television and theatrical versions of the film.

Made-for-television movies are making a comeback — of sorts — thanks to original programming on video platforms like Netflix and Amazon, operating outside the traditional studio model. It’s an interesting turnaround for the medium, a near-relic of entertainment history that was left behind by innovations in home video and cable television. But there was a time when only a few networks operated and TV movies were a big deal, and none was a bigger deal than 1983’s The Day After.

The bleak, apocalyptic vision of America’s Heartland suffering post-nuke is perhaps best remembered for its massive impact on culture and even reportedly on American foreign policy, causing an audience of 100 million viewers to consider the terrifying reality of nuclear devastation.

But it’s also more simply a magnificent film.

The film’s first half establishes the climate of escalating global conflict and fear as tensions mount and America finds herself on the brink of nuclear war. The film follows a handful of different narratives including a rural family whose oldest daughter is preparing for her wedding, a KU student who decides to hitchhike home to see his family, a pregnant woman about to give birth, and a small garrison of soldiers of ordered to operate and defend a missile silo.

The narrative is split evenly into pre- and post-nuke halves — had it run in two parts as intended, the falling of the bombs would’ve ended the first, and the devastation of aftermath opened the second.

While there are a few different threads showing the lives of several different characters, Jason Robards is the primary lead as a Kansas City doctor who narrowly survives the city’s decimation while working in the nearby town of Lawrence, KS. He suddenly finds himself in charge of KU’s campus hospital, running without electricity or even room to move — as patients and asylum seekers descend upon it, suffering from injuries, radiation sickness, and displacement.

I’ve come to really appreciate Robards in the last few years, catching his incredible performances in Hour of the Gun and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. He’s a magnificent actor — smart, charming, relatable, and possessing a unique voice — who doesn’t really get his due, and The Day After is another performance of the same caliber as the harried, aging physician who doesn’t even get the chance to process or mourn the assumed deaths of his wife and daughter before facing the maelstrom.

I have a personal connection with the film that influences my feelings about it but also, I hope, enhances my insight on it. The film takes place in and around Kansas City, where I live. The opening shots, establishing the location, are a montage of places I know and recognize: the sports complexes where the Royals and Chiefs play. The J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain at The Plaza. Union Station and the Liberty Memorial. When I watch this film, it’s not just characters on the screen. It’s my family, my friends, my home.

Similarly, several nearby towns are referenced and most of the film’s back half takes place in the city of Lawrence, best known as the home of the University of Kansas which figures prominently. It’s a place I’m very familiar with, and the home of some of our closest friends. And aside from a mispronunciation of “El Dorado Springs” (a local would say “Do-ray-do”) this depiction of America’s Heartland is an authentic one, and feels recognizable even 35 years later.

It’s hard to convince someone to watch something that’s bleak or depressing. That carries the implication that the reason for doing so is that it’s “important”. And on that count, yes, it is. But moreover, this is a truly incredible film — a provocative, insightful, and moving experience. The Day After is not a celebration of the strength of the human spirit or the resilience of Americans, but a glimpse of the devastation of mutually assured destruction.

The Package

The Day After is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber’s KL Studio Classics line. The physical package includes a reversible cover and 2 discs showcasing the film in dual versions:

  • 122-Minute Original TV Version (1.33:1)
  • 127-Minute Theatrical Version (1.78:1)

This inclusion is interesting in that not only is the “Theatrical” Cut a few minutes longer and slightly reordered, but also reframed in 1.78 widescreen. It’s more cinematic of course, but the uncropped TV version image naturally includes more of the full frame and is of superior clarity. I was surprised to see it boasts better color as well.

Left: Television Version / Right: Theatrical Version

I sampled and enjoyed both versions but ultimately watched the theatrical disc, not only for the additional content but also because it included subtitles (which are omitted on the TV version).

Special Features and Extras

  • “Silence in Heaven: Looking Back on The Day After” (28:06)
    Lengthy interview with director Nicholas Meyer outlining the history of the project, his involvement, and the significant difficulty in bringing his vision to the screen for the television model (read: maximum ad revenue), constantly fighting executives and dealing with significant political and production pressures
  • “Shelter: Remembering The Day After” (12:41)
    JoBeth Williams discusses her role in the film, experiences on set, and the film’s surprising performance as a massive television hit
  • Audio Commentary by Film Historian Lee Gambin and Comic Artist/Writer Tristan Jones

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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