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DVD: Panic in Year Zero! (1962 )
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1 (NTSC)

September 20, 2005




Genre: Science-Fiction / AIP  
A family struggles to stay civilized in a mountain cabe after Los Angeles has been nuked into oblivion.  



Directed by:

Ray Milland
Screenplay by: John Morton, Jay Simms
Music by: Les Baxter
Produced by: Arnold Houghland, Lou Rusoff

Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel, Joan Freeman, Richard Bakalyan, Rex Holman, Richard Garland, and Willis Bouchey.

Film Length: 93 mins
Process/Ratio: 2.35:1
Black & White
Anamorphic DVD: Yes
Languages:  English Dolby Mono
Subtitles:  English, French, Spanish
Special Features :  

Side A: Panic in Year Zero! (1962) with theatrical trailer / Side B: The Last Man on Earth (1964) with featurette "Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Last Man on Eartth" (6:25)

Comments :

Ray Milland starred in and directed this fairly atypical post-apocalyptic tale of a family isolating themselves from civilization after Los Angeles has been nuked into oblivion, and it’s every man for himself.

Although AIP probably mandated the exclamation at the end of the title, this isn’t the studio’s usual B-movie fare, and one wonders how much influence Milland had in transforming the story into a sharp contemporary lesson on the destruction of civilized behaviour when there’s no civilization to return.

Allegedly inspired by Ward Moore’s shocking tales “Lot “and “Lot’s Daughter” (both from around 1953), the script is gripping in the way a highly dislikeable character – autocratic father Harry Baldwin (Milland) - suddenly orders his family into self-preservation mode when a nuclear cloud appears over the home city during a camping trip into the mountains.

In classic fifties mode, wife Ann (Jean Hagen) is whiny and weak, teen daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel) is pretty but naïve to the core, and son Rick (Frankie Avalon) is obedient and enamored by his father to the disturbing point where he starts to enjoy using a gun to defend the family against goons.

Harry maintains moral order, and his blatantly selfish acts, such as stealing goods at gunpoint, are justified by lame verbal promises to repay the victimized shopkeeper when money has value again. There’s also Harry’s destruction of a valuable bridge so no one else can enter their mountain hideaway, as well as burying their supplies in lots just in case they’re robbed by more desperate refugees.

The film is ostensibly built around Harry, but one sometimes wonders whether the script is half satirical. The women are unsurprisingly relegated to cooking and cleaning in the cave they’ve adopted as home, while the men shave daily to preserve good waking routines, hunt game and fend off invaders, and for a while, their world remains secure until daughter Karen is raped by a trio of goons the family encountered soon after the atomic blast. Harry then goes on a hunt for the scumbags, and tracks them down to a cabin.

With two of the men shot dead, they scour the home and find young Marilyn Hayes (Joan Freeman), the daughter of the home’s dead owners, whom the boys have been using her as a sex slave for the past few weeks. Harry has little interest in taking her along, but eventually she joins them, and the quintet stay hidden in the cave until the last of the goons makes a surprise visit, after which he’s dispatched to hell with a hatchet and gunshot.

For a 1962 B-movie, this is extraordinarily bleak, and Harry never changes in spite of the recent horrors; he remains a bully to the end, but the upside is his methods did save his family, and deliver them into the hands of a roving military patrol who’ve established a safe perimeter of civilization.

Where the film transcends the usual melodrama is by revealing mass hysteria on a small scale: Harry’s always 20 minutes ahead of the mob who, like him, will raid and steal whatever supplies are left from money-gouging shopkeepers and gas station attendants (one of whom is played by a baby-faced Paul Gleason in his film debut).

He’s also wickedly clever. While others wait to cross a packed highway, Harry orders his family to stay put in the trailer until dark, after which he sets a fire to the asphalt, and cause a massive car pile-up, which creates a trough through which son Rick drives the car and trailer across the highway towards the mountain road.

There are also some dramatic licenses: their 1962 gas guzzler manages great mileage and still starts in spite of being mothballed in the forest for weeks; air never fizzles from the tires; no one gets ill from living in a damp cave; Rick and Harry manage to skin a deer real fast, and without a splattering of blood on their clothing; and they still have juiced batteries for their radio, which they use to keep in touch with civilization every few hours.

Panic is clearly set in the duck-and-cover world of the Cold War; the Soviet Union is never mentioned (we never find out who sent the missiles, not what started the atomically powered fracas) but the focus is on how a civilized family would react after a nuclear strike.

For modern audiences, Panic still feels quite realistic in the way civility swerves to selfishness and intolerance, and one could argue some of the ideas were adopted by David Koep in his 1996 thriller The Trigger Effects. That film’s urban chaos stems from a mass power failure – explored in both an episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”) as well as an episode of James Burke’s BBC 1978 series Connections. However, the family’s decision to leave their suburban home after the power failure and trek out of the city where they experience road chaos, greedy filling stations, and gun-toting paranoiacs seems to stem from Milland’s little 1962 film.

The production values in Panic are fairly tight, but it’s Milland’s strong performance that grounds the characters, particularly his fast thinking and quick wits that never waver under pressure. The ‘scope cinematography provides some nice panoramic shots of the mountains and the family’s sense of isolation, although a decision to ‘create’ close ups of talking characters from interior scenes in the family station wagon are grainy, and feel cheap. Les Baxter’s score is largely monothematic, but it manages to cover most of the family’s mood changes.

MGM’s DVD didn’t port over the isolated music score from the Image laserdisc, but the trailer features some unused footage, notably an extension of Marilyn Hayes telling Harry to give her a gun so she can kill her tormentors. The trailer’s tone is utterly sensationalistic, which kind of betrays the filmmakers’ more earnest attempts to create social commentary in an otherwise abused sub-genre.

Whereas Avalon went on to make a series of Beach Party movies for AIP, Freeman appeared in Roger Corman’s Tower of London (1962). Hagen (Singin’ in the Rain) would appear in Dead Ringer (1964) before retiring from feature films.

Milland’s output as a director from 1955-1968 was fairly sparse, and whereas his TV work isn’t easy to come by, most of his features have appeared on home video. As a film director, Milland’s work includes A Man Alone (1955) and Lisbon (1956) for Republic, The Safecracker (1958) for MGM, Panic in Year Zero! (1962) for AIP, and Hostile Witness (1968), released by UA.


© 2010 Mark R. Hasan

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