in Year Zero! rolls out calmly in a Leave it to Beaver 1950’s idyll, the four member Baldwin family readying
an early four A.M. start for their much anticipated camping and fishing vacation. It doesn’t look much like four swipes past midnight,
despite the groggy time-checking complaint of teenage son Rick Baldwin (Frankie
Avalon). The sun, in fact, is high and
shining brightly overhead as the family loads themselves into their sleek Mercury
Monterey hitched to a shiny Kenskilltrailer
home. Rick’s parents, his saturnine
father Harry (Ray Milland) and doting mother Ann (Jean Hagen), ignore their
son’s sleepy protestations and they all climb merrily into the car along with
sister Karen (Mary Mitchel).
The family vacation is spoiled some two hours later when,
while driving into the mountains to their Shibes Meadow campground destination,
a blinding flash of light and a sonic boom sounds behind them. The family scampers out of their car to
witness a giant billowing mushroom cloud plume upwards toward the heavens. There’s little doubt in their minds that the
unthinkable has transpired. There’s an
interim when all communication with the outside world has been lost; the family
is even unable to receive messages via the Conelrad civilian alert radio
system, the Cold War era’s preferred conduit of emergency broadcasts. When they are finally able to receive news
via their car’s AM radio, they’re not surprised - but still horrified - to
learn that all of Los Angeles and its “surrounding areas” have been irradiated
in a nuclear attack.
The family soon learns via a second radio bulletin that
Los Angeles is not the only U.S. city to lie smoldering in ruin. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia have also
been similarly attacked, as have the capitol cities of Rome, London, and
Paris. We’re never told exactly who is
responsible for these reprehensible sneak atomic weapon attacks, but since its
1962, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the Godless Commies were behind it
all. Interestingly, or perhaps
prophetically, Panic in Year Zero!
was released to cinemas in the summer of 1962, only a few months preceding the Khrushchev
vs. Kennedy nuclear chess game that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Unlike most pure entertainment films that emerged from
American-International, Panic in Year
Zero! is an unrelentingly grim relic of the atomic age. Milland’s Harry Baldwin, ever the patriarchal
father, will go to any extreme to protect his family. His earliest protective measures are noble,
but he’ll soon turn completely paranoid – and commit a series of increasingly alarming
cold-blooded acts out of sheer desperation. This film, in the manner of a similarly themed sci-fi title, Stanley
Kramer’s On the Beach (1959),
concentrates not on those incinerated but instead entirely on those who have survived
a nuclear attack. The protagonists in
the film are not foreign invaders or militarists; the folks Milland is most
wary of are, sadly, his fellow citizens.
His adversaries are the similarly frightened people who, having
survived the blast, have gone mobile. Those who have piled into any moving vehicle they can commandeer to seek
some solace in the relative safety and refuge of the mountains. As he witnesses the endless parade of
automobiles streaming into the remote areas outside of Los Angeles, Baldwin doesn’t
see his fellow countrymen as scared witless refugees seeking safe haven. They are, instead, deemed potential competitors
for dwindling resources.
Baldwin switches instantly into survival mode, and is
distrustful of everyone. With the radio
reporting incidents of looting in and around the outskirts of America’s urban
areas, citizens are being instructed by the civil defense corps to seek refuge
in the fallout shelters. Baldwin decides
that his family’s chances of survival will increase exponentially if they do
the exact opposite as told. He chooses to go deeper into the mountains,
certain that “survival will have to be on an individual basis.” His soft-hearted wife disagrees with his cold-hearted
survivalist instincts, but she’s not able to sway him in his position. It’s 1962, after all, and he’s the man of the
To be fair, his hard-hearted intractable views are somewhat validated when the family witnesses an innocent gas station attendant getting punched in the mouth by a desperate motorist unwilling to pay the $4.10 fee at the pump. Baldwin doubles down on his survivalist instincts, deciding fear and desperation will soon transform otherwise decent folk into thugs and criminals. It’s every man for himself now. He tersely tells his wife with collectivist tendencies, “When civilization get’s civilized again, I’ll rejoin.”
The post-nuclear U.S.A. isn’t, one must admit, a place most folks would care to inhabit. The radio reports of looting, of marauding gangs of sex-craved teenagers (this is still an AIP film, after all), and of small-town vigilantes looking to protect their own resources from the horde of rampaging and frightened Los Angelinos flooding areas on the outskirts of target zero. Those holding precious commodities have chosen this moment to become entrepreneurial: they immediately enact price gouging practices and begin to unscrupulously profiteer on food and fuel sources. A gallon of gas that cost .32 cents now costs $3.00. Baldwin is not immune to such moments of selfishness in his own un-comradely desire to protect his wife and children. He pulls into a small, off-the-beaten-track mountain town in the early hours, knowing that reports of the nuclear attack have not yet reached this sleepy, remote hamlet. Awakening a grocer from his peaceful slumber, Baldwin bribes the unsuspecting clerk into opening up his shop so he can selfishly buy up and hoard several weeks’ worth of food stuffs.
He’s less successful when attempting to deplete the shelves of the neighboring hardware store. Though the cash in his wallet is mostly depleted, he hopes to stock up on supplies his family will need to survive in the wilderness (guns, ammunition, ropes, gas cans, lanterns, etc.). Unfortunately, the shop owner isn’t interested in accepting the promissory note to pay off the $427.67 tab that Baldwin has rung up. When the bargain goes bad, Baldwin chooses to simply take what he needs at gunpoint. As the film progresses, we watch with a curious mix of admiration and disgust how Milland’s egocentrism and ruthless desire to survive have consequently transformed this otherwise good citizen and neighbor into a virtual cold-blood.
Ultimately, Panic in Year Zero! serves as a practical, do-it-yourself guide for even the most forward planning survivalist. If Milland were still alive, I’m sure he might have been able to carve out a small pension as a late-career pitchman for all the doom-saying survivalist companies hawking their wares on today’s right-wing radio stations. Whether burying foodstuffs in several secret locations, setting up a temporary home in a remote cave, removing roadway signs or access bridges to deter intruders, fending off teenagers, motorists, local yokels or anyone and everyone competing for resources, the Baldwin’s are, without doubt, a resourceful bunch. What’s lost in Harry Baldwin’s otherwise gallant determination to protect and survive against the odds is his basic humanity and willingness to help others during a time of crisis.
The darkness, in time, passes, as it always does. Two weeks following the attacks, the family learns via radio that the still unnamed enemy and the leaders of the free world have agreed to a cessation of tit-for-tat atomic hostilities. The Baldwin’s also hear that law and order and public services are slowly returning to both the cities and the urban suburbs – though, ironically, there are reports that the rural and mountain areas are still unsettled. Forced to come to grips with some of his selfish actions, Baldwin laments in hindsight, “I looked for the worst in others, and found it in myself.”
Directed by Milland from a script by Jay Simms (a TV writer who dabbled in such low brow sci-fi fare as The Giant Gila Monster and Creation of the Humanoids) and John Morton, this unusually grim feature from A.I.P. is unrelenting in its black-and-white solemnity. Les Baxter’s jazzy score is sometimes a bit obtrusive and not entirely sympathetic to what’s happening on screen, but not fatefully so. The cast is superb. The stoic Milland, who made a half-career of portraying psychologically damaged characters - beginning with his Oscar winning turn in The Lost Weekend (1945) - gives a somber and suitably under-played performance. Though she has little to do here than serve as a counterbalance to her husband’s vigilante tendencies, Jean Hagen (Oscar-nominated Supporting Actress for Singin’ in the Rain (1952), also turns in a wonderful, reserved performance. Frankie Avalon, still a year away from achieving fame among the teenage set in a series of mindless but musical “beach” movies with Annette Funicello, proves that as an actor he had the potential of being more than just a pretty face. The lure of sunshine, sand and surf was too much, I guess, for this kid from the streets of Philadelphia.
This Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray edition of Panic in Year Zero! is offered here in its original black and white presentation in 1920x1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Supplements include an audio commentary by film historian and Video Watchdog critic Richard Harland Smith, twin trailers from two other Ray Milland features available from Kino Lorber (X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes and The Premature Burial), and a eight-chapter selection screen. There’s also a short segment “Atomic Shock! Joe Dante on Panic in Year Zero!” where the famed director and exploitation film enthusiast talks at some length at the film’s place in the pantheon of A.I.P. releases and impact on cinema in general.