Actually starting to look at it, The Day After wasn't the movie I was thinking of... It was Testament.
Two anti-war films were released in 1983: The Day After and TESTAMENT. The former, released in the US as a made-for-TV movie, was visually sensational: missile launches, mushroom clouds, disfigured survivors, urban landscapes turned debris fields. However, the latter illustrates the notion that an understatement can sometimes be more compelling.
In TESTAMENT, Jane Alexander plays Carol Wetherly, the wife and mother of a 5-member family living in rural suburbia somewhere near Central California's Bay Area. Husband William Devane is off in San Francisco, never to return, the day the Soviet H-bomb falls upon it. Jane's character is left to manage alone the family's survival as their community, otherwise untouched directly by blast damage, copes with post-Holocaust disintegration. While some friends and neighbors leave the area for parts unknown, the Wetherlys remain.
TESTAMENT is not graphic in its depiction of nuclear war's devastation. What makes it absolutely compelling is the vision of a community, much like mine and possibly yours, and a particular family, everyday folks like you and me, facing the insidious effects of starvation and radiation sickness as they descend into the darkness necessarily to follow a nuclear exchange between superpowers. Ms. Alexander's performance is soul-wrenching and powerful, as when she cries out for God's damnation of those politicians that have reduced her world to an endless horror.
TESTAMENT is not a feel-good film, but certainly a great one. It's an exercise in bleak despair, and one which ultimately focuses on nothing more than the basic human instinct to survive - the final tribute to a species that has engineered the means for its own destruction.