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Controversy surrounds ABC's apocalyptic 'Day After'

By Arthur Unger / November 16, 1983

One of the most controversial entertainment television shows of the decade airs on ABC Nov. 20, amid an almost unprecedented mixture of advance hosannas, denunciations, threats, and warnings.

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After some three years in development and production (including some very recent deletions of material judged to be too political), the 21/4-hour, $6 million film The Day After (ABC, Sunday, 8-10:15 Eastern standard and Pacific time, 7-9:15 Western and Rocky Mountain time) is finally making it to your local TV station. Maybe.

Better check local listings to make certain, since some stations are reacting to the controversies surrounding the film and may opt to air substitute programming - just as many potential advertisers have opted to sponsor other shows.

''The Day After'' dramatizes the devastating effects of nuclear war on a group of average Americans. In the course of dramatizing a catastrophic yet seemingly limited nuclear confrontation, the film depicts the total destruction of Kansas City, Mo., and its environs, and the aftermath.

Slowly . . . intimately . . . the film involves the viewer in the day-to-day activities of a wide-ranging group of Americans, making them understandable, even lovable. Then, bang! The sun seems to explode as the bombs begin falling - as a result of a vaguely described Soviet-American disagreement. The viewer learns of the war just as an average citizen would - through incomplete news flashes on television and radio. Who actually started it doesn't seem very important. The destruction has begun.

In a six-minute bombing sequence, people are devoured by fireballs, burned, blinded, irradiated, turned to nothing or, even worse, skeletons. An electromagnetic pulse disrupts electricity and car engines. The only people who escape temporarily until the effects of radiation hit them are those who scamper into bomb shelters. Only cockroaches seem to be impervious to the effects of the bombs.

Survivors fight to gain entrance to hospitals and to sealed shelters. Somebody quotes Albert Einstein's prophetic words: ''I don't know how we are going to fight WWIII, but WWIV - with sticks and stones.''

The film succeeds in what it set out to do: horrify and scare people. It does not matter that the post-bomb problems of the fictional survivors seem to be irrelevant. That is both a strength and a weakness of the film - no individual concerns that arise after the bombs fall seem to be important anymore. It doesn't really matter what happens to characters played by Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steven Guttenberg, John Cullum, John Lithgow, Bibi Besch, et al., although the roles are played perfectly and are totally believable. After all, civilization as we know it is coming to an end . . . the trivial activities of the temporary survivors simply pale into insignificance.

One simple touch, perhaps, symbolizes the whole film and the point it is trying to make. ''Hello . . . hello . . . ,'' a voice crackles over the radio. ''Is anybody there?'' There is no answer.

Why has this film provoked such controversy? Certainly there have been other movies, such as ''On the Beach,'' which long ago depicted the results of nuclear war. And since Hiroshima there have been many documentaries about the horrible effects of nuclear bombs. But this show is an effective dramatization, coming at a time when the antinuke movement seems to be having a great impact on people around the world. And it is on TV . . . in your own living room . . . liable to have as much effect upon the people who watch as the evening news coverage of the Vietnam war seemed to have on viewers in the 1960s and '70s.

Both antinuke and pro-deterrent forces have been using the film to serve their own purposes. But whether one believes that full disclosure of the probable aftermath of even a limited nuclear conflict will encourage or, instead , discourage nuclear disarmament, the airing of this film is having a tremendous effect on the public's nuclear debate. ABC has scheduled a 90-minute ''Viewpoint'' special to follow the show, with top scientific and political figures discussing political alternatives to nuclear buildup.