05 December 2011



1962/Director: Ray Milland/Writers: John Morton, Jay Simms

Cast: Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel, Joan Freeman, Richard Bakalyan, Rex Holman

I know I’ve really liked a movie when later I am replaying the film in my head. Sometimes I imagine myself in the film and what I would have done in certain situations. Usually I handle these situations much better than the film’s original characters did of course. Or I may imagine myself overseeing a remake of the film that, while employing modern technologies, remains true to the original concept. Such is the case with the Ray Milland well directed low-budget doomsday film Panic in Year Zero! Certainly there are flaws to the film if you want to sit back and pick it apart but over all the film works well as a cold war period vision of how an everyday suburban family out for a weekend of tranquil fishing and camping has to deal with the sudden reality of a nuclear war in their backyard.

The capable, even in schlocky drivel like Frogs or The Thing with Two Heads,  Ray Milland handles the directing chores well here. The film is a 1962 AIP low budget feature and it could have fared worse. But Milland’s pacing moves the story along with out it ever getting too bogged down. It does get bogged down of course here and there but I feel that is more an issue with the film’s budget than with its direction or acting. All of the devastation is alluded to and we never see any of the brutal horrors of the devastation an atomic bomb being dropped on LA would cause. Milland plays honest, hardworking everyday citizen Harry Baldwin who is heading out for some fishing in the Sierras with his family. His wife Ann (Jean Hagen) rouses their two grumpy teenagers, Karen and Rick (played by a pre-beach party Frankie Avalon) up at the crack of dawn to get the trip under way. In no time the action begins as LA lights up behind them and they stand in disbelief as the hugest mushroom cloud ever forms over what was once Los Angeles.

Baldwin soon finds himself forced to disregard his lofty moral principles to ensure his families survival against not only the effects of the atomic blasts themselves but against the panic stricken motorist on the mountain roads, opportunist merchants and the worst threat of that that mankind faces in any apocalyptic nightmare: teenage boys. You know these guys are up too good since when they appear they are accompanied by hip strains of Les Baxter’s hip film score. Harry takes control of the situation like any good all American dad would. He soon has his not too rebellious son Rick covering his back as he robs hardware stores and deals with the young hoods who seem to waste little time in exploiting the situation. In fact you could argue that a couple hours right after a nuclear blast might still be a little too soon for teenage boys to start hot-rodding up and down the highways bullying families. Of course in this case it is the Harry Baldwin family and Harry makes it clear that his family is going to survive anything. Atom bombs and teenagers included.

The film follows the family up into the remote wilderness of Shibes Meadows where they hope to hide out and live off the supplies they have hoarded up on until things clear up. Of course the little snotty nosed hoods, who have probably never been out of the city before, are headed to same secluded spot and a confrontation is imminent. The focus of the film most of the time is on how a normal person or family might react to an extreme situation like the confusion and anarchy following Armageddon. Harry becomes a man hardly any better than the panicked people he walls himself and his family away from in a tiny cave. He realizes a simple truth: in the face of utter destruction do what you have to do to survive and deal with the ethical issues later. Like I said at the beginning this is the sort of film where I am placing myself into the story at times and trying to figure out what I would do. Would I choose to hang onto my ‘civilized’ nature no matter what or would I be pulling guns on people for gas and food. One thing I noticed about the film was that the credits did not appear until the end of the film. The title of the movie flashes at the beginning but the all the cast and crew credits scroll at the film’s end. That was not too common a film practice in 1962 though it is these days. I thought it was a touch that was a little ahead of its time.


Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review Bill, Ray Milland totally owns every frame of this hysterical dystopian cold war sci-fi/thriller. I've always thought he was also excellent in Corman's THE PREMATURE BURIAL, an AIP/Poe flick that always gets disregarded for some reason.

Chuck Wells said...

Panic in Year Zero is actually a decent flick. I hadn't actually heard of it until a few years ago, when I caught it for the first time. Budget issues aside, the film can be forgiven much for how effectively Milland and company play out their roles.

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