Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.
I’m a fan of apocalyptic films of most varieties. As someone who came of age in the ‘80s, the apocalypse variety that was most prevalent in my own imagination was not the zombie variety, but the nuclear one. The Day After was a formative film for a lot of us, and Threads is perhaps the most disturbing nuclear holocaust film ever made. There’s something about a good apocalypse movie that makes me feel like I’m coming home. These films got gorier and more graphic as the years rolled on, so finding a movie from the ‘60s like Panic in Year Zero! was a lot of fun.
Since this is a nuclear apocalypse film, you know where this is going right away. The Baldwin family, Harry (Ray Milland, who also directed this movie) and his wife Ann (Jean Hagen) along with kids Rick (Frankie Avalon), and Karen (Mary Mitchel) are leaving home for a camping vacation. As they leave, they see a huge flash behind them, and soon find out that Los Angeles has been hit with some sort of atomic weapon. Over the next few hours, Harry comes to the realization that the world is going to become much less civilized over the coming days. He heads off the highway to find a grocery store in the middle of nowhere before anyone else has been there. At a nearby hardware store, Harry runs out of money and essentially holds up the owner of the store for the guns he wants to buy, promising to pay him when he can. At a gas station, the attendant tries to gouge Harry by multiplying the price of the gas by 10, and Harry, realizing that civilization is breaking down faster than he thought it would, assaults the man, leaves him the cash for the real price, and the family heads off once again.
Harry is naturally concerned with keeping his family safe by any means necessary. When the are accosted by a trio of thugs, Rick gets to take a shot at them, and seems to like it a little too much. Eventually, the family reaches their destination, hoping to cut themselves off from civilization completely. In fact, Harry and Rick destroy the small bridge to their family campsite. Instead of staying there, they instead move into a nearby cave.
Eventually, the family is going to run into the owner of the hardware store again, as well as the thugs from earlier. Panic in Year Zero! is going to get very dark in places, with suggestions of Karen being raped by two of the thugs. Eventually, when Harry and Rick go to take revenge, they discover a young captive woman named Marilyn (Joan Freeman), who has clearly be kept as a sex slave. This is never stated outright, but is heavily implied, which is pretty racy stuff for a mainstream film from 1962.
Panic in Year Zero! is smart in the way that it focuses itself. Many times, apocalyptic films will focus a great deal on the death and destruction of the dropped bombs and the fallout. This movie gives us none of that. The closest we get to that is seeing a mushroom cloud early in the film. Any other mayhem is cause directly by the characters themselves. Instead, the movie focuses on the immediate loss of civilization, not by the masses, but specifically by Harry. Harry is presented to us as essentially an everyman, who within an hour or two of the bombs dropping, holds up a hardware store owner and gets in a fight. That night, trying to get across the highway, he lights a fire on the road to block traffic, setting at least one car afire. Harry dives head-first into survival mode almost immediately, recognizing exactly what lengths others will go to because he knows exactly how far he will go to keep his own family safe.
The play between Harry and Ann is the most interesting. When Karen gets attacked, it’s Ann who comes to her rescue. Later, as Harry laments is own actions concerning the men who attacked his daughter, it’s Ann who tells him that she acted in the same way, but was less talented with the gun. Harry resorts to survival mode but attempts to keep a veneer of civilization (he still shaves every day). It’s Ann who understands at a much deeper level what is trying to be saved here. While far more reluctant to attack someone or pull a trigger, when Ann does so, she does so with conviction.
Panic in Year Zero! is a smart movie. It surprisingly has a great deal in common with a film like The Hills Have Eyes, albeit a far more sanitized and even genteel in how it is delivered. This is about the loss of civilization and the idea of survival in a world were that thin social contract gets snapped. How would any of us act in this case? Harry certainly wouldn’t be the worst of us.
Why to watch Panic in Year Zero!: It’s a lot darker than you’re prepared for it to be.
Why not to watch: It could really stand to be remade.