Review: Panic in Year Zero (1962)

Written by Jay Simms and John Morton
Directed by Ray Milland
Starring Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon
US Release July 5, 1962
RT 93 min.
Home Video Kino Classics
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)


Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

Try as I might, I have a hard time enjoying Panic in Year Zero!  Watching it again recently, my mind acknowledges what it’s trying to accomplish, but my heart just can’t accept it.  The biggest disconnect for me is the difference in tone between its grim story and the jazzy soundtrack by Les Baxter.  It’s hard for me to believe people are truly in danger while the music is zipping along.  In one scene, as two hooligans toss young Karen Baldwin (Mary Mitchel) between them, fighting is depicted more like dancing.

The Baldwins, led by Harry (Ray Milland), rise at the crack of dawn to load the car and trailer for a camping trip.  Two hours later, the sky fills with “lightning.”  When none of the Los Angeles radio stations work, they stop at a phone booth to learn that all lines to L.A. are “out of order.”  Harry’s wife, Ann (Jean Hagen), wants to turn around and go back home, but when they look in that direction, they see a giant mushroom cloud.

The Emergency Broadcast System then makes an unofficial statement, “It appears that Los Angeles and the area have been hit with an atomic bomb or missiles.”   I wonder what Harry Baldwin does for a living.  He immediately reads between the lines to start taking action that will protect him and his family.  “Two and two doesn’t add up to four anymore!” he tells them.  When he wants to continue on their trip to, in essence, stay off the grid, he says, “When civilization gets civilized again, I’ll rejoin it.”

One of the biggest conflicts in the movie isn’t necessarily between the people they encounter along the way, but between Harry and Ann themselves.  In response to the comment about civilization, she says, “It’s still here,” and Harry says, “Watch it unravel.”  She longs to connect with other people when he wants to literally hide in a cave.  She believes people can still be trusted; he knows they cannot.  As the movie continues, he must remind her, “We’re fighting for our lives.”

Panic in Year Zero! isn’t a big special effects movie.  In fact, the results of what turns out to be a worldwide nuclear war aren’t even mentioned until the very last line of the movie.  When the family finally encounters the military police, they’re at first detained.  When they’re released, one of the men says, “Those are five good ones.  They come from the hills.  There’s no radiation sickness.”  The movie is strictly a survival drama.

Some dialog may have been designed by writers Jay Simms and John Morton to be comic relief; however, I found them to be inappropriately funny.  At a restaurant on the roadside, somebody says, “People are pouring out of L.A. like lava out of a volcano.”  In the back seat of the car, Karen says, “I’m so tired, I could die.”  After hiding their camper, Harry says, “The trailer is going to be as safe as a silk nightgown.”  All right, maybe they’re not funny at all, but they seem out of place for Los Angeleans.

If the language is sometimes a little too “down home,” so is the action.  Punching someone is the solution to any problem in the movie.  When a man doesn’t have enough money for gas, he punches the attendant at the gas station.  When a different attendant at a different gas station later charges Harry $3.00/gallon instead of $.34/gallon, Harry says, “You don’t leave me much choice,” and punches him.  The people definitely do not talk to resolve their issues.

Panic in Year Zero! might easily have been financed by the NRA.  When a hardware store owner won’t sell Harry a gun without a waiting period, Harry pulls one on him.  Twice, his son Rick (Frankie Avalon) backs him up in dangerous situations and pulls the trigger himself.  Even poor Ann, trying to scare off the hoodlums mentioned way back in the first paragraph, shoots a rifle and later says, “I tried to kill them, too, but I missed.”

To be fair, although everyone seems trigger happy, there is some conversation about what got them to that point.  Ann is ashamed for shooting the rifle, “I’ve become one of them.  I can’t face Karen.”  And when Rick shoots one of these hoodlums when they’re encountered the first time, his father notices, “You liked it, didn’t you?  You’re as wrong as they are.”  It’s just the new world order, I guess.  Harry even has to use the new currency, four rounds of ammunition, to pay the doctor who examines Rick when he’s later shot.

There are some things I admire about Panic in Year Zero!  Once at home inside the cave, Harry tells his family how important it is to maintain a routine.  They’re wise enough to bury six parcels of supplies they can use to negotiate if they’re separated and one of them is captured.  When they run out of kerosene and discuss open fires, they’re thoughtful enough to realize it will make them easier to find.  They don’t do anything stupid, I guess, which is unusual for a movie like this.

On paper, it seems like a smart movie that takes a fairly serious, perhaps realistic, approach toward how a family would act and react during the end of the world.  It just isn’t executed very well.  Milland is a fine actor (and he directed Panic in Year Zero! as well) but his Harry annoyingly barks orders at his family.  Yes, his intentions are good, but his actions don’t always match those intentions.  As a matter of fact, you could say the exact same thing about the movie itself.

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