Saturday, May 21, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

"Now, you stay on the back roads. And you keep your gun handy. Our country is still full of thieving, murdering patriots."

- Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

Just a few short months before the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a boil, actor Ray Milland's directorial effort, Panic in Year Zero! (1962) played in American theaters. 

This low-budget, black-and-white, post-apocalyptic movie involves the destruction of cities across the globe by nuclear missiles, and the response of one U.S. family, the Baldwins, who flee the Los Angeles area as nuclear warfare breaks out.

Unlike many post-apocalyptic movies of more recent vintage, Panic in Year Zero! doesn't showcase views of bombed-out city streets, busy military control rooms, or overcrowded rescue centers and shelters.  Instead, this cinematic effort takes place mostly on the open road as the Baldwins attempt to learn what has happened to their home and family, gather supplies -- food and gasoline -- for a possibly indefinite stay in the wild, and reckon with looters, thugs and other unpredictable elements dangerous to the continued existence of the "nuclear" family unit.

Panic in Year Zero! has been termed (by critic Michael Atkinson at The Village Voice) the "most expressive on-the-ground nightmare of the Cold War era," and that's because director Ray Milland and scenarists John Morton, Jay Sims and Ward Moore have successfully transformed weakness into strength.  With very little budget in which to showcase the end of the world, they have instead focused their efforts on the moral condition of man following the apocalypse.  Accordingly, Panic in Year Zero! isn't about the end of the world.  Rather, it's about the way that human beings deals with the end of the world.

Ray Milland's patriarch, Harry Baldwin, in particular, faces some difficult decisions in this drama.  Early in the film, he snaps into a sort of permanent "survival mode" and knowingly leaves the niceties and rules of civilization behind.  This abrupt, serious change in his demeanor frightens and upsets his wife, Ann (Jean Hagen), but Harry understands immediately how bad things could get in a world without law and order. 

"Survival is going to have to be on an individual basis," Harry tells his wife.

The crux of the issue is worth debating, and Panic in Year Zero! doesn't shy away from the discussion.  In a desperate world, is it right to use the tactics of the looters and thugs to achieve a positive end for your own family?  What's the line in the sand that should not be crossed when the future of your loved ones rides on every choice you make?   

And finally, if you make your own family's survival your one and only priority, aren't you putting yourself on a collision course with others who have, for the same reasons, done exactly the same thing?

There's nothing like eating under the open sky... even if it is radioactive.

As Panic in Year Zero! commences, the Baldwins have just departed Los Angeles with their camper in tow.  Their weekend vacation quickly turns to horror, however, when they witness flashes of light in the distance.  They see a mushroom cloud over Los Angeles, and instantaneously, all the radio stations and phone lines are down.  

The Baldwins soon meet another traveler on the highway who reports: "I heard Los Angeles being torn apart, and saw it being tossed into the air."  The apocalypse has come.

As the main road begins to fill up with cars fleeing the nuclear fall-out in L.A. in a "second exodus," as Harry calls it," the Baldwins head to a small town to acquire supplies.  At  Hogan's Grocery Store they buy everything they can to assure their survival, including candles, soap, matches, and canned goods.  Then they head to a Johnson's Hardware Store to purchase guns.  Short on cash, Harry asks Ed Johnson (Richard Gardland) to take a check for the guns.  When Ed refuses to let Harry leave with the guns, Harry resorts to violence to take the weapons, and flees the store.  The breakdown of civilization is occurring rapidly, and Harry is part of it.  "My family must survive," he insists.

Soon, Harry, his wife Ann, and two children -- Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchell)  -- make it safely to the mountains.  They destroy a small bridge after they traverse it, so they cannot be found.  Then they hide the trailer and take up residence in a large cave. 

Here -- in their new home -- the Baldwins spend their first night of the "Year Zero," a term designated by the U.N. to describe the post-war world.  Meanwhile, on the radio, the President of the United States reports that "there are no civilians," that "we are all at war."

Harry rigorously maintains his survival mode despite Ann's objections, and refuses to permit Ed Johnson (the hardware store owner...) and his wife to join up with his family in the cave.  Later, Harry finds the Johnson's dead, murdered by three young thugs in a local farmhouse; thugs with whom Harry had an earlier altercation. 

After these men attempt to rape Karen, Harry and Rick arm themselves and attack the farmhouse.  There, they discover that the men have been keeping the home's rightful owner, a young woman named Marilyn (Joan Freeman), as a hostage and apparent sex slave.  After Harry kills two of the men in cold blood, he and Rick rescue Marilyn.  The third thug, Carl (Richard Bakalyan) is nowhere to be found...

Back at the homestead, Harry debates his actions with the Johnsons and the strangers.  "I looked for the worst in others and I found it in myself," he tells Ann.  When Carl shows up and badly wounds Rick, Harry realizes he must risk trusting someone if his son is to survive the night.

Save us from the dangers and perils of this night...

Panic in Year Zero! is an inelegantly-crafted genre film, yet one with tremendous visceral impact.  The film's editing isn't always very good -- or even coherent -- particularly during the many  "traffic" highway scenes. 

In these all-too-frequent moments, the film cuts almost  randomly to cars speeding by the camera, and there's no sign of the Baldwin's camper anywhere.  And worse, these kind of moments are repeated over and over again, with successively less impact.  At times, these "traffic" scenes seem injected into the narrative from another movie all-together.

But  budgetary and editing problems aside, Panic in Year Zero! very smartly and ably focuses on the small, the intimate.  The audience is asked to consider each of Harry's decisions and weigh how well he is "maintaining his values" in the face of all-out societal breakdown.  Harry's wife, Ann, doesn't cope well with Harry's decision to arm his young adult son, for instance.  Nor is she happy that he turns away the Johnsons when they most need companionship and supplies.  Ann also objects to the fact that Harry has "turned his back" on the civilized world, and desperately wants for there to be something better for her children. 

"I know I should be grateful we're still alive, but... I love you, Harry, but not more than a future without hope," she explains. 'I've got to have hope to go on. I've got to know there are other people like us, like our children. People who are better than just animals!"

The problem, of course, is that a "hope" in the goodness of mankind is one hell of a gamble in a situation like the one faced by the Baldwins. 

Unwarranted trust could cost everyone their lives, and Harry realizes this fact too well.  Harry even refuses to trust Marilyn at first, after she has (apparently...) been raped by the thugs, and after the thugs have attempted to do the same to his daughter.  In protecting his family from real dangers, Harry has lost his capacity to judge people at all.  he sees only fear and death where, in many cases, he could make allies and friends, and lessen his difficult load.

Harry's dilemma seems particularly realistic, even today.  In a similar situation, how many of us would act in the same fashion; refusing to trust "strangers" until we knew that the danger was passed?   It's a noble impulse to protect one's own family, and yet, at another level, we're all part of the human family too

Civilization, in the final analysis, is defined by man's willingness to do something positive for the survival of his fellow man; for somebody else's family.  Harry realizes this, I believe, by film's end, when he finally needs help for his family; when Rick is shot and requires a doctor's attention.  Now, Harry is suddenly in Ed Johnson's shoes, needing help from someone else.

Harry's inability to trust his fellow man is made even more poignant, actually, by the apocalyptic events of the film.  Nobody who really cared about the "other guy's" family would ever launch a nuclear war in the first place.  The world as depicted in Panic in Year Zero! is about the absence of trust in the global human community, even when things are good; even when people are -- by and large -- safe.  It's a breach so bad that people would rather destroy the planet than "hope" and believe in the goodness of people they don't quite understand or don't share their ideology.  Harry's experience on the road, protecting his family, is thus a microcosm for the very paradigm that gave rise to nuclear holocaust. 

On some level -- and this is devastating to him -- Harry realizes that he is no better than the looters and thieves.  He has stolen guns and gasoline, refused to share his supplies with a family in need, and committed cold-blooded murder.  He has damaged and destroyed property, even setting fire to cars on the highway to make an opening in the traffic pattern.   His intentions are always good ones: the survival of his family.  But still, Harry's intentions aren't quite good enough: the survival of law and order, and of civilization in general.  This is made abundantly clear to Harry when he meets the good-hearted doctor, who is staying behind in his wrecked town to care for any of "his" people (his town-fok) who should return.  This is a man who -- at great personal danger -- has not forgotten his role and importance in the community.

Panic in Year Zero is a little strange and "off" at times.  The musical score by Les Baxter is jazzy and upbeat when it should be disturbing or portentous.  The weird, multiitudinous shots of cars speeding down the road are jarring, and take one out right of the Baldwin's existentialist dilemma.  But outside these weird flourishes, the film remains, indeed an expressive and intimate tale about what it means to truly be civilized.

Civilization, it turns out, is even more necessary when the world has gone to Hell.  If man loses civilization, he'll be back to scrawling pictures on cave walls, huddling forever in darkness and fear. 

The Baldwins escape that fate in Panic in Year Zero!...but just barely.


  1. I remember this one well from childhood, John. I watched things like this (ON THE BEACH, FAIL SAFE, DR. STRANGELOVE, etc.) regularly -- it almost seemed a rite of passage for kids like me born in the 50s. The ever present Cold War had that effect. You note its strengths and weaknesses well, John. Ray Milland did have some directing credits under his belt before this one, and did a decent job I think for the budget constrained AIP picture. It's one of those films I recall easily because how effective it was at getting its point across and placing you in the character's shoes, even if you were just a youth at the time. Another excellent addition to your apocalypse series, my friend. Thanks.

  2. Hi Le0pard13:

    Thanks for pointing out that Ray Milland had directed films before Panic. I hadn't realized that, and just changed the mistake in the above post. Thanks, Michael!

    I agree with you that Panic was good at getting its point across, and placing you in the charcter's shoes. The film works, despite the budget constraints, as you say, and you can't take your eyes off it.

    Thank you for a great comment,


  3. Hi JKM;

    I kind of like the offbeat touches like the score, which give a weirdness to the movie that is one of the things that makes it stand out from its more mainstream rivals like On the Beach.

    Reading your review this morning makes an interesting companion piece to the movie we watched last night, Peter Weir's mystifyingly under-noticed The Way Back, which deals with many of the same themes of survival vs. human/community values albeit in a non-genre manner (though I understand the was a Yeti in the book).

  4. Hi DLR:

    I found the score for the film strange, but interesting. You accurately said it -- "offbeat" is a good word. And yes, it is something that stands out. At least twice, the jazzy score is accompanied by close-up views of the Baldwin's car radio, as if the music is coming in there, but I'm not sure how that fits in overall with the film's themes.

    I have never scene "The Way Back" but I'm a huge Peter Weir fan, so must rectify that oversight. Do you recommend the film?