The Day AfterOverview -
On the night of November 20th, 1983 audiences tuning into ABC would experience the most terrifying film ever made - Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After. Not a monster or creature of the night, the film is the horrifying spectacle of surviving nuclear armageddon in rural America. KLSC gives this classic made-for-tv film the ace treatment offering both cuts, two aspect ratios, and some worthwhile extra features. Recommended
The countdown has begun! Against the real-life backdrop of the US deployment of WMDs in Europe during the escalating cold war,this dramatically involving and agonizingly graphic film about nuclear holocaust detonated a direct hit into the heartland of America. Starring Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Cullum and John Lithgow, this controversial, potent drama remains one of the most talked-about programs in television history. When cold-war tensions reach the ultimate boiling point, the inhabitants of a small town in Kansas learn — along with the rest of America — that they have less than 30 minutes before 300 Soviet warheads begin to appear overhead! Can anyone survive this ultimate nightmare...or the nuclear winter that is sure to follow?
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
It was like any other day in America… until the sirens went off. Dr. Russell Oaks (Jason Robards) was checking into his hospital and starting his rounds. Jim Dahlberg (John Cullum) is looking over his farm while his wife plans their daughter’s wedding reception. With everything seemingly normal, the rest of the world is on fire as the Western Allies and the Soviets spar over blockading West Berlin as nuclear weapons are mobilized as a deterrent. But the deterrent fails, and the missiles launch, and it’ll be up to regular folks to figure out how to survive in this new world.
Being all of a year old at the time this film aired on television, I was too young to see it or at least remember The Day After - but I remember my folks talking about it! Nicholas Meyer’s follow-up to his hit Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a viscerally devastating look at the horrors of nuclear war. Not the burnt-out buildings and massive mushroom cloud we see in Terminator 2: Judgement Day but the slow suffering of the survivors in neighboring areas as the deadly radiation fallout rains down upon them.
The film was so impactful, it was recut from its original television event film format to 127 minutes for a run in international theaters. The five-minute difference in overall runtime expands some story beats and materials, but the most notable differences come in the form of pacing and editing. Television films have a specific edit cadence for ad breaks. Breaks are relatively few for the first half but then once act two really ramps up and into act three, the ad breaks come in faster and faster. They have your attention now so the network can run more ads right when things are getting exciting.
The Theatrical Cut largely smooths out those ad break edits and allows it to flow with a little more determination and speed while adding some alternate footage. Supposedly a workprint of the originally intended 170-minute two-night broadcast version exists, but so far as I’m aware it’s never been released. While I’d be curious to see what else Meryer shot, there’s already enough suffering in this film I can’t imagine what else could be thrown at the audience that’d be meaningful. Apparently, Meyer was already bothered with how much padding was in the script anyway. Both cuts work but I’d have to tip my hat to the original Television Cut, those classic commercial fade-outs kind of give you a moment to take a breath before jumping back into the horror.
On top of being an impressive production with a large scope with some terrifying visual effects and makeup, it has a phenomenal cast. In addition to the previously mentioned Jason Robards and John Cullum, the film features terrific performances from Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, Jobeth and Williams. In smaller roles you can spot Wayne Knight, Amy Madigan, Bibi Besch, and George Petrie among numerous others. The Day After would pick up 12 Emmy nominations including nods for Meyer, writer Edward Hume, and Best Drama/Comedy Special, Lithgow would be the only actor nominated.
Now there are a lot of legends about how The Day After impacted the Reagan administration and inspired the drawdown in the nuclear arms race, among other stories. Most of that is probably all hooey but it’s a nice story. One thing is for sure this film was a game changer for made-for-television filmmaking. It skirted television censorship to deliver a genuinely horrifying tale of survival under the worst circumstances imaginable. 40 years later the film hasn’t lost its punch. For more light irradiated viewing, check out 1983’s Testament - now on Blu-ray from Imprint Films.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Day After falls onto Blu-ray in a two-disc set from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The original Television Cut falls on a Region A BD-50 disc with the Theatrical Cut showing on a Region A BD-25 disc. The discs are housed in a standard two-disc case with reversible insert artwork. The discs load to static image main menus with traditional navigation options.
For The Day After the Television Cut was apparently given a new scan and some restoration TLC while the Theatrical Cut is pulled from an older master and the differences are quite noticeable. The Television Cut is cleaner without any serious scratches or speckling. The image also has much stronger and cleaner details with a healthier grain structure. Colors are bold and crisp with some beautiful primaries and black levels are relatively solid with nice shadows for the creepy hospital hallways.
On the flip side, the Theatrical Cut has more instances of damage and debris. It’s also a bit more faded looking without the sharp and clear details in facial features, costuming, production design, and the horrific radiation poisoning makeup that you can see in the Television Cut. Black levels are also a bit thicker almost approaching crush with notably muted colors. Since this was a version cut for international markets, it just hasn’t seen the same love over the years.
Television Cut 4/5
Theatrical Cut 3/5
Both cuts of the film offer up an effective DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track to enjoy. Dialog is clean and clear throughout without issues. Sound effects can feel narrow for much of the film but for big event sequences like the bombing or when the survivors start coming into the city for medical aid, the mix feels nice and open with an actively engaged soundscape. Scoring is pretty minimal but the cues come through nicely and buttress a lot of the key emotionally impactful moments. There is some slight hiss but it’s not enough to be distracting.
Bonus features aren’t the most plentiful for this film, but what we’re getting is a nice overall package. To kick things off, on the Theatrical Cut disc there’s a nice audio commentary featuring film historian Lee Gambin and artist/writer Tristan Jones that’s well worth giving a spin. On the Television Cut disc we pick up two new interviews with actress JoBeth Williams and Nicholas Meyer each giving a lot of insight into the production and their takeaways from the film
Television Cut Disc
- Interview with Nicholas Meyer (HD 28:06)
- Interview with JoBeth Williams (HD 12:41)
Theatrical Cut Disc
- Audio Commentary featuring Lee Gambin and Tristan Jones
The Day After wasn’t the first or only film to detail the horrors of average people surviving a nuclear war, but it was one of the most shocking. Drawing nearly 100 million pairs of eyes during its first broadcast, the film was a sensation and still resonates forty years later. Now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, physical media fans can enjoy both cuts of the film on disc - the Television Cut scoring the better overall A/V presentation, but the Theatrical Cut is certainly worth checking out. Highly Recommended
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