An incident on the East German border triggers a superpower showdown. Tensions mount, options fall away. Doomsday nears, the button is pushed. American and Soviet nuclear missiles crisscross in the atmosphere. In a blinding flash, Kansas City and its suburbs are obliterated. People are vaporized. The irradiated survivors moan in the inferno; lawlessness and savagery overtake all but the strongest.

That, without frills, is the plot of ABC's controversial two-hour-plus TV movie, The Day After, which airs this Sunday. It is not a pretty picture. Yet compared with the stupefying horror that a real nuclear exchange would bring (see box, page 50), it's kid-glove treatment. As director Nicholas (Star Trek II) Meyer explains, "We scaled down the destruction because in a real nuclear war there would be no day after."

The Day After pales in other ways, too. Despite notable performances by Jason Robards and John Cullum, characterization is weak and the pace wobbles. Still, what comes through is nightmare enough. Lauraine Mulally, 63, who lives in Lawrence, Kans., where ABC shot the TV movie last summer, attended a screening the network held in the town (the 1,500 free tickets were snapped up in 35 minutes). "While the movie was on, I knew what was going to happen, so it didn't bother me," says Lauraine, a grandmother of 10. "But when I got outside and saw the beautiful scenery, I thought, 'Oh my, how terrible it would be if this thing happened,' and I burst into tears."

The movie's capacity to wrench the gut became clear this summer when nuclear-freeze groups began screening pirated cassettes to promote their cause and expand their coffers. One viewer, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), co-sponsor of a House freeze resolution, says, "All other issues combined do not equal the importance of this issue. I believe the emotional response [to the movie] will be translated into direct political action."

That is not what the producers and ABC say they had in mind. The Day After "simply says nuclear war is horrible," maintains Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Motion Pictures, who launched the project. Adds director Meyer, "It's not propaganda at all. It's just an attempt to match pictures with words we read in the newspapers: megaton, shock wave, fallout."

The political shock waves have rolled on nonetheless. Ground Zero, an antinuclear organization, is mailing some 300,000 viewing guides urging people to watch the movie. From the right, John Fisher of the American Security Council, a bipartisan "peace through strength" group, saw the film and said, "After better understanding how serious nuclear war can be, I'd rather build a defense system."

For some time there has been nervousness that the film would affect American attitudes about the deployment of Pershing II missiles in West Germany and Great Britain, scheduled for mid-December. To cool that possible political hot potato, ABC deleted a reference in the movie to "Pershing II missile launchers," remaining neutral as to which superpower provoked the ultimate World War. Perhaps even more than the controversy, the film's grim subject matter has caused commercials—originally priced at a stiff $135,000 per half minute—to sell sluggishly. ABC hopes to compensate, however, with huge ratings during the crucial November Nielsen sweeps.

Whether or not The Day After scores explosive ratings, making the film had an immeasurable impact on the townspeople of Lawrence (pop. 53,000) who performed as atomic holocaust victims. Never before had the specter of nuclear annihilation seemed more vivid. The moviemakers picked Lawrence, 32 miles west of Kansas City, because it is a pastoral and photogenic college town (the University of Kansas) and because "it is the cross hairs of the U.S., a strategic military point with missile bases all around," producer Robert Papazian explains.

With Lawrence's eager approval, ABC rolled into town like a bizarre circus in July 1982. In a diesel caravan, the company brought 20 truckloads of construction rubble and sacks of ashes, soot and flour to strew around, wind machines, hundreds of tattered costumes and a catering service on wheels. They pitched camp at the Holiday Inn. During the next 24 days the crew demolished and rebuilt an entire city block, turned backyards into mock missile silos, blackened acres of farmland with food dye and shelled out $1.1 million in hotel and restaurant bills, fees, rentals and donations.

Some 2,500 locals let themselves be transformed into disfigured corpses. Some earned between $35 and union scale. All were rewarded with a hot lunch and an ABC T-shirt. For an extra $75, Naomi Mensch, 65, a retired gaspumper, agreed to have half her hair cut into wisps. "I had a wig at home and I wanted to buy my grandson a musical car horn with the $75," she explains. "But I didn't tell my husband and I don't dare repeat what he said when I got home." Extras showed up at 6 a.m. in their Sunday worst. Makeup teams then shredded their garments, greased their hair with Dippity-Do, batted them with soot-filled socks and ordered them to roll in mud. "How do I look?" Dick Mulally, 66, asked one makeup man. "He replied, 'Not bad enough,' and proceeded to spray dust all over me."

Other experts applied gelatin blisters and wounds made of latex, which some extras saved as souvenirs. University of Kansas junior Cheryl Hawley, 21, reports that among her friends "it was real popular to have oozing sores." The town took on a surreal and ghoulish cast as residents rose from their death poses to hurry through errands during breaks in the shooting.

Everyone was called, but not everyone was chosen. Mayor David Longhurst, 40, thinking his wholesome good looks would land him a part, arrived at the casting office, picked up a box of scripts and split his pants. "I was mortified," he says. "My dreams of stardom were shot. I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there."

Others found making the grade a dubious honor. Retirees Ross and Margaret Wulfkhule moved into the basement of their farmhouse while the filmmakers redecorated their first floor and shot scenes there. "I said, 'Now wait a minute, don't be hammering nails into my walls,' " Ross reports, "and they said, 'Don't you worry, Ross, we'll fix it.' Then they wanted to blow up my barn. I said, 'Fine.' I was going to tear it down anyway." Adds Margaret, "I wasn't sure I liked the director at first. He was so confident and kept dropping names that didn't mean anything to me." To compensate the Wulfkhules for all their troubles, ABC built them a brand-new cow shed.

As the townspeople weathered 15-hour shooting days in the near-100° summer heat, the fun dissolved. Few regretted participating, but in small ways the meaning of their roles started to sink in. Cheryl Hawley remembers worrying that closeups would show her breathing in her role as a corpse. "They dragged me across the field and I had to pretend I was limp." Another corpse, Judy Walburn, who has five children, was ordered to lie atop a stuffed deer carcass with her eyes open for three hours. "The most upsetting part was when they broke for lunch and forgot to tell me," she says. "It was as if they really thought I was dead." That evening, Walburn remembers, "When my 8-year-old son Scott saw me he was so frightened he wouldn't come out of his room. He just screamed."

Louise Hanson's 18-year-old daughter, Katie, also shrieked when she bumped into her mud-caked mother at home. With her husband, Allan, an anthropology professor, Hanson later organized an antinuke group, Let Lawrence Live. She says making the movie "was very debilitating. It caused people to think even more seriously about what was happening. I was very depressed by the experience. After I got home, I took three showers, crying the whole time."

For most townsfolk, feelings remained inchoate until ABC held its screenings last month. Then the floodgates opened. "I feel like I've come from a funeral," said supermarket owner Jim Lewis, who let 150 locals loot his store in one scene. Lauraine Mulally's husband, Dick, a retired postman who gives cha-cha lessons with his wife at the senior citizens center, confessed, "I didn't want to be in the movie at first because I'd been through World War II and it would have brought the memories back. But my memories are nothing like what I saw. After the Bomb there would be just chaos. The only way people can stop nuclear arms is to write to Congress and tell them to quit making these things." Judy Walburn isn't at all sure she wants her five children to see the show. "You can't tell a child," she says, "that it's just a horror movie and could never really happen."

Following the movie on Sunday night, ABC's Ted Koppel will moderate a debate on nuclear weapons in a special edition of Viewpoint, while in Lawrence, citizens plan to hold a candlelight gathering on the university campus. Since the Civil War, when Lawrence was set ablaze by marauders, the town's symbol has been a phoenix rising from the ashes, and a motto on a plaque at city hall carries a line from the poet Langston Hughes: "We have tomorrow bright before us like a flame." Somehow the symbol, and the line, strikes everybody in town as singularly appropriate.