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.
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.
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.
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?
The apocalypse has come.
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.
When Carl shows up and badly wounds Rick, Harry realizes he must risk trusting someone if his son is to survive the night.
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.
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.
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, multitudinous shots of cars speeding down the road are jarring, and take one out right of the Baldwins' existentialist dilemma. But outside these weird flourishes, the film remains 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.