Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

From Spotlight on Science Fiction, published 2022

Without the title card, the beginning of Panic in Year Zero! could be mistaken for a family road trip comedy. It has a hip jazz score by Les Baxter and features a long-married couple who tease and flirt with each other while their teenage kids complain about being stuck in the car all day.

But as they leave Los Angeles and head to their mountain camping spot, they see a blinding flash of light. Then another. Then a mushroom cloud over the city.

The groovy music sticks around. The happy family doesn’t.

Patriarch Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland, who also directed) drops the easygoing facade immediately. He transforms into an expert on survival, the kind of prepared citizen all those bomb shelter PSAs hoped would spring into action when the nukes dropped. He knows they have to outrun the radiation. They need food and supplies. They might have to steal. They might have to kill. While his wife, Ann (Jean Hagen), frets over these realities, Harry becomes a warrior-philosopher, lecturing everyone about the grim necessity of his deeds. Even before society really starts to fall apart, he’s anticipating his role in the aftermath. “When civilization gets civilized again,” he says, “I’ll rejoin.”

Ann and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel) mostly hide in the trailer and worry, while Harry teaches his son Rick (a young Frankie Avalon) the finer points of commandeering weapons and destroying bridges. Given the time period, Harry is probably a veteran, and he clearly hasn’t forgotten that skill set. As the situation deteriorates, his mentorship becomes an especially messed-up father-son bonding experience. Handling the apocalypse is men’s work, even if they’re not great at it.

In fact, some of their choices make things much worse, a problem embodied by a trio of marauding hooligans who threaten Harry on the road. They don’t see Ann and the kids, and Rick is able to wing one of them with a shotgun. He means to murder the guy, but Ann stops him, which incenses Harry. After letting the men go and yelling at Ann for interfering, he turns on an excited Rick, warning him not to enjoy what he’s doing. Rick is naturally confused by the mixed message – he’s supposed to be eager to kill someone, but only if he hates it? That’s exactly what Harry and the film are saying. The whole idea of civil society is gone, at least temporarily. The question is if it can come back when, less than 24 hours into the crisis, nice folks like the Baldwins are arguing the finer points of blasting strangers to bits.

They finally make it to a remote area, where they try to recreate suburban domesticity in a cave, right down to saying grace at dinner and the guys getting a good shave every morning. It works for a while, but Rick and Harry’s lack of brutality comes back with a vengeance, at least for others. The thugs have moved into a nearby farmhouse, where they enjoy their new lawless world. Also nearby are the owners of a hardware store Harry robbed to get weapons (in his own, more reluctant lawless act). He refuses a chance to share company and resources with them, and by the time he relents, they’ve been murdered. Meanwhile, Karen goes off alone and gets raped by two of the men, who only run away when Ann shoots at them.

Harry is devastated by his daughter’s violation, although she is the one who tearfully apologizes (for what?). Leaving Ann to comfort her, Harry and Rick find the attackers, and Harry finishes the job for his son. Neither man seems to regret letting them live in the first place, and Harry later feels bad for killing them. These moments of self-doubt humanize him, but they seem perfunctory, as if the filmmakers suddenly noticed that Harry was becoming too morally compromised and needed softening up. None of this ever translates to a critique of his leadership. The other characters may fret a little, but they never question the hierarchy he’s established.

A rare moment of pushback comes from Rick, when they find a girl about Karen’s age in the farmhouse, where she is being kept prisoner for obvious purposes. Harry is brusque toward her, even willing to let her fend for herself, as he did with the store owners. Rick asserts his humanity more strongly this time, convincing his father to bring her back to the cave. Later, Harry again expresses remorse, as the weight of his self-imposed responsibility takes its toll. At least he realizes his son is becoming the better man, and that it might be a good thing.

The family’s new addition, Marilyn (Joan Freeman), fits right in, and Harry even praises her for being a good shot. She has eyes for Rick, too, and they’re so focused on his physique, she doesn’t notice when her surviving captor sneaks up on them. She kills the bad guy, but not before Rick is seriously injured (he’s not paying attention, either, but she’s the one who apologizes – it’s a running theme).

By this time, the military is establishing shelters, and Harry’s belief that it’s too soon to leave camp is made moot by Rick’s emergency. When they reach an Army patrol, the soldiers fire a machine gun in Harry’s direction, and he actually seems relieved to be shot at. He can finally relinquish command to someone with more authority.

The idea is that some kind of normalcy is returning, despite the radio reports about the global nuclear war that just ended. No one ever gets radiation sickness. and food and water supplies remain uncontaminated (would the mountains really protect them that much?). Even the government and military continue to function somewhat smoothly. This could have been the aftermath of any catastrophe – a massive earthquake would be more realistic – but the Bomb was big pop culture business in 1962. It’s basically a MacGuffin, driving the action without ultimately meaning much.

Part of that is certainly for financial reasons. This was produced by American International Pictures, which took pride in doing as much as possible with very little money. The title (complete with exclamation point!) and teen co-stars are there to get audiences interested, especially young ones. It’s up to Milland and writers Jay Simms and John Morton to put something worth watching on screen.

Milland had been directing television and low-budget films for several years, so emphasizing drama over spectacle comes naturally to him here. Civil defense broadcasts and conversations with secondary characters fill in exposition that the budget can’t: A man at a gas station describes the city’s destruction, a doctor mentions junkies looting his drug supply, radio reports explain the scale of the war.

Milland builds tension by running the Baldwins through a gauntlet of mundane scenarios that quickly turn sinister. Diners and grocery stores become small-scale battlegrounds, and the roads themselves are full of traps laid – deliberately or not – by other terrified refugees. Setting the story on the periphery of disaster keeps it personal, without screwing up the tone with too many cheesy special effects.

There is one sequence that tries to go bigger, involving a busy highway the family needs to cross. It’s edited effectively, but the scale of the event and inclusion of poorly matched stock footage undermine the attempt. Harry’s solution to the problem is spectacular and very dangerous, and would lead to a gruesome pile-up in anything resembling real life. Here, it’s a temporary inconvenience for a couple of stunt drivers.

The scene does illustrate Harry’s boundless, apparently justified confidence in his abilities. At this point in his long career, Milland was looking a bit world-weary, and Harry epitomizes every postwar middle-aged man flailing for relevance as his world falls apart. He rises to the occasion, but only because he’s an invincible “everyman” hero, who absolutely has to succeed. If he can’t protect his all-American family, then everyone is doomed. It’s like watching Ward Cleaver play Mad Max.

Panic in Year Zero! captures the odd combination of fear and naivete that characterized the “duck and cover” era of the Cold War. It sneaks some truly grim content past the ad campaign (one poster tastelessly promises “an orgy of looting and lust”), and everything is played completely straight. Yet the closing title card says, “There must be no end – only a new beginning,” as the Baldwins drive toward an unlikely safe haven. Just listen to the nice men and hide under the desk. You’ll be fine.

There’s real despair underneath all this, and even the happy-ish ending can’t disguise it. Looking back, this feels like a transitional film, uneasily bridging the false comfort of the ‘50s and the looming chaos of the ‘60s. History unintentionally bears that theory out: A few months after Panic’s release, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer than ever to a real nuclear holocaust. The best publicity department in Hollywood would never imagine something so on-the-nose. It gives this uneven little B-movie a queasy, lasting relevance that no one could possibly have predicted – or wanted. – Loey Lockerby

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