I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, part of the setting of the film The Day After. The film aired on ABC the day before my seventh birthday. The crew filmed scenes in and around Lawrence over a week or so in 1982, a few scenes in Kansas City, a few scenes on a farm, and the rest (interiors, a few exteriors) in Los Angeles. The film is most known for its use of a stock film from the Army and nuclear stock footage as an integral part of the story, weaved into the script with the staged action.

The Day After, as director Nicholas Meyer put it, is the optimistic view of nuclear war. The bombs destroy Kansas City. The fallout poisons Lawrence. Many people die, but many people survive. What the picture hoped to achieve was a depiction of ordinary American life, with normal problems and normal stories, while a far-away cold war suddenly becomes hot over a 24-hour period. Even when it's clear a national emergency is in progress, the characters are in denial. It is background noise for the first half of the film.

"There is no nowhere anymore."

Eve Dahlberg still makes beds, even after the missiles launched.

The bombing sequence itself is a mixture of stock footage and staged action. The special effects team created the mushroom clouds with ink squirted into vats of liquid. It's a sobering thought to see people turned into living x-rays for a brief moment before they die. We are never told who fired first, just that both sides fired hundreds of missiles.

We only see a week or so of the aftermath, as survivors walk to Lawrence, where a university hospital barely functions. People succumb to radiation sickness and other maladies at different rates. The concept of nuclear winter is essentially introduced in this film, as it had not been published yet.


Although the filmmakers thanked Lawrence for its contributions to the film, you don't see much of the town. Most non-stock interiors were shot in Los Angeles. The crew actually found a condemned Los Angeles hospital for the hospital scenes. The high school football practice is shot somewhere in Los Angeles. The phone booth and a few urban driving shots appear to be in Los Angeles. Some scenes where the deserting airman is wandering the landscape wrapped in a blanket were shot in a wildfire-damaged canyon north of Los Angeles.

The two farm families, the Dahlbergs and Hendrys, are both said to live in Missouri. But I think the same farm (the Palmateer farm near Lawrence) is used for both. The crew used black construction paper to simulate the broken windows for the farm.

Kansas Highway 10 (K-10), between Eudora and De Soto 9th and Massachusetts Bank of Kansas River
Allen Fieldhouse IGA at 9th and Iowa

Other sites including the Amyx barber shop in downtown Lawrence, Spencer Art Museum and Memorial Stadium. In one scene where Steve Guttenberg is walking along the highway before the attack, a Missouri Highway 7 sign is visible. The rural schoolhouse is not real. It's just a facade built by the crew. The same is true of the missile silo, nothing more than a fence, a building facade, and some props to simulate a bunker entrance.

In Kansas City, aside from the establishing beauty shots, shooting took place in two locations. The crew shot a few scenes at the Liberty Memorial, both before the bombs, and after the attack. Fiberglass props depict the destruction of the monument, and a matte of the Hiroshima aftermath is used to represent the view of downtown Kansas City. The director used a dump site at Linwood and Prospect for the final scene of the movie, where Robards' character returns to the remains of his house. However, Nicholas Meyer re-shot the scene in Los Angeles as well, and used the L.A. version in the final cut.

Comparison with other nuclear war movies

Because of the timing of its release, The Day After will always be compared to the similar British film Threads. Whereas The Day After featured special effects and recognizable actors (Jason Robards, Jobeth Williams, John Cullum, John Lithgow, Steve Guttenberg, etc.), Threads relied on dialogue and despair in place of a big budget. Threads follows families too, in the industrial city of Sheffield. Threads goes farther, depicting life more than a decade after the bombs. Survivors attempt to restart food production with primitive farming capabilities. Crops are scarce. Language deteriorates; without a formal education system, the children speak in grunts and invented words. Adults work with cataracts and succumb to cancers in the coming months and years. Ruth, the main female character, is pregnant at the time of the attack and gives birth in the months afterward. Ruth drops dead ten years later whilst working in a primitive farm. Her daughter is raped three years later and in the film's final horrifying scene, gives birth.

Testament is another nuclear war movie, shot around the same time. Rather than depicting a long, fancy attack, it focuses on a single town coping with the aftermath of a broken civilization. The same is true of the television series Jericho. 1959's On The Beach (based on the book) features a number of major movie stars, depicting life in Melbourne, Australia, the last major city, waiting on its eventual death from the results of a northern hemisphere nuclear war.

If anything can be derived from any of those films, it is ambiguity of the first strike. No one ever explicitly explains who shot first. It doesn't matter. The war is over within seconds, and humanity is doomed along with it.