Panic In Year Zero!

Director: Ray Milland   
Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon

I think it's safe to say that the majority of people in the western world are not thinking that soon they'll be in a disastrous situation. I think that if the thought of the possibility that they could be in a disastrous situation would run through their heads, they would quickly dismiss it with the thought, "It could not and would not happen to me," and just as quickly start thinking of something else. I must admit that for a long time I was one of those people, having long settled comfortably in my home and my outside life. But something happened to me not that long ago that started me to think differently. One night I was at home preparing my dinner, and the power went off in my apartment. No problem, I thought. My main course is already heated and my dessert will still be cold when I get to it. I finished my dinner, and waited. The power still stayed off. I decided to go out and take a walk. I quickly discovered that the power had not gone off in just my block, as it had gone before, but had gone off in the entire city. The people I passed along my walk seemed calm, but it wasn't long before I started to see the problems the power outage was causing. Traffic was moving slowly because there was no power for the traffic lights, causing jams at intersections. Stores that were normally open at this time had shut their doors and locked up. When I got back to my apartment building, I discovered that the hallway emergency lights had run down their batteries, and I had to stumble three flights of stairs in total darkness to get back to my apartment, which took even longer than you can imagine.

Fortunately, the power was restored to the city later that night, so then all I had to worry about then was resetting all the clocks in my place and waiting for my Internet provider to reboot their system so I could surf again. But the whole incident got me thinking in a way I hadn't thought of for a long time. That is, what I would do if a real and much bigger emergency situation happened? Some of the situations that I thought of I could easily ease my worries about after a little thought. If the power went out for more than a few hours, and went into days, I think I could survive. Cold food and having to go to bed earlier wouldn't be that much of a hardship. What if there was a flood, caused by global warming or a tsunami wave? I live several floors up in a building that is already a number of feet high from sea level, so I think I and my possessions would stay dry. But there are other situations that I am not sure I would survive so intact. The area where I live is long overdue for a major earthquake. I might dodge my tall and unsteady bookcase if it crashed down in an earthquake, but what would I do in the days afterwards? I'd need clean water, a steady supply of food, toilet facilities, and other things - and so would the thousands of other people affected by the earthquake. What if, like Chicago, London, and Vancouver, my city had a great fire that burned down most to all of the buildings? Where would I go and what would I do? And how would I resettle afterwards with nothing but the clothes on my body?

Then there are potential disasters that are even bigger than what I have already described. What if, for example, a terrible plague struck? I don't mean one in just my area, but one that went all the way around the world and killed off everybody but myself? How would I survive? Well, I suppose I could survive for quite a while with all the canned food and bottled drinks in the supermarkets in my area, and use batteries and gasoline-powered electric generators for all my electronic needs (gotta watch movies, even in the worst of times.) But the expiry date on the food would be after a few years, and most people don't know that gasoline will go stale and be unusable after a while. And the now unmanned nuclear power plants of the world would soon blow their tops and spew clouds of radiation into the air since there would be no more water pumped in to cool the radioactive material. But speaking of radiation, what would I do in a global thermonuclear war? I have been thinking about this ever since I saw Panic In Year Zero!  It's a movie that not only depicts nuclear war, but all the challenges that may follow afterwards. The plot: In the early hours of the morning, Harry Baldwin (Milland, X - The Man With X-Ray Eyes), his wife (Hagen, Singin' In The Rain), and their two teenage children (played by Avalon and Mary Mitchel) leave Los Angeles to go on a fishing trip. While driving through the mountains, they observe several big flashes in the sky. It doesn't take them long to discover that they are from atomic blasts to L.A. and other cities. Harry quickly takes charge, and declares they have to both get supplies and find a place to hole up from the new dangers that are out there. But even with a good plan like that, it's not going to be easy to follow it...

I suspect that some viewers (mostly brain-dead teenagers, I suspect), upon seeing Panic In Year Zero! today will find a large part of it unintentionally hilarious. They will probably state that they consider that the movie has significantly dated after more than forty years. There's the fact the family, upon finding a grocery store run by someone who hasn't heard the news, spends the whopping sum of $200 to fill up their trailer with food and other goods. Then when the family runs into people who know the truth and taking advantage of it, with a restaurant charging (gasp!) $2.50 for a plate of sausage and eggs, and (wow!) $3 for a gallon of gas. These same viewers will probably charge that the movie is (by today's standards) a pretty tame look at what would be a serious situation. (Remember, the production code was still in effect when the movie was made.) They'll point out that the depiction of violence in the movie, for one thing, is something you could easily get away with on prime time TV of today. Then they'll probably point out a number of other things, like the fact that Milland's character keeps wearing his hat even when he and his family are roughing it in the wilderness. There is one other charge they'll probably bring up that I will agree with, and that is with Les Baxter's musical score. You are most likely thinking that a movie with a serious subject matter like this would be restrained in its music. But for some reason, much of the music here is loud, jazzy-sounding harshness filled with trumpets and saxophones. It's not only out of place, but when it plays it spoils the mood the rest of the movie generates.

The music is the only major quibble I had with Panic In Year Zero! Even though I listed in the previous paragraph those points that other viewers might have problems with, I personally found the movie to be captivating from beginning to end. Sure, the movie has a few dated elements, but that happens to pretty much every movie eventually; I chose to view the movie through 1960s eyes. One way that the movie has not dated is its intelligent screenplay. Just about every action that the Baldwin family takes in this movie not only seems the correct thing to do at the time, but what they do could also be the correct thing to do in real life if (God forbid) there is a nuclear attack - even when they start to break the law. How should you travel along the congested and danger-filled roads? When you get to your hiding place, what can you do to discourage others from getting there? And if others do get there and they are threatening you, what can you do to prepare for this beforehand, or to get rid of the menace completely? Whatever the Baldwins do when they come to problems like these, their actions always seems to be right. The movie's screenplay also makes it clear about just how many problems will spring up after a nuclear attack, not just profiteering, but also things like dangerous punks who will hurt you (or worse) if you let your guard down. One minor quibble I have with the screenplay is that it doesn't seem to realize one major problem that comes with nuclear war: radiation. No one gets radiation poisoning during the course of the movie. (This may be explained by the fact that even in 1962 people were still naive about the effects of radiation.)

Some readers may be surprised by the idea of actor Milland also being this movie's director, but the fact is that at this point of his career Milland had already directed several television productions as well as feature films. I haven't seen any of his other directorial efforts, but now I want to after seeing the fine work he did here. For starters, he takes good advantage of the movie's CinemaScope process (I strongly recommend you see it this way on DVD instead of the awful pan-and-scan prints used for TV and cassette.) He also gets good performances from just about everyone in the cast; even Frankie Avalon gives a decent performance, showing toughness and even a little tenderness. And even though the movie may not be very explicit in its depiction of violence, Milland manages to make any scene even remotely connected with violence pack a punch. Several times, Milland does not show us the actual violence, but shows us the aftermath of the violence instead. In the silence that these scenes are filmed in, you can tell just what exactly happened, and there is a feeling of awfulness in the air that makes these scenes uncomfortable to watch - probably just what Milland intended. Milland also suggests several times after scenes like these is that while even while people may be rescued from danger, the violence is traumatic, and it will take a long time for people or things to recover - if ever, that is. Unlike other American International movies, this one takes things very seriously. From now on, I'll be using this movie as a guide as to what to do should this unthinkable subject ever happen.

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See also: Neon City, No Blade Of Grass, Stryker