Apocalypse? Now?: 60 Years Later, This Low-Budget Vision of the Apocalypse Remains Unnervingly Timely
Ray Milland directs and stars in 'Panic in Year Zero!,' a vision of an ordinary family doing what it takes to survive after nuclear missiles destroy Los Angeles.
You can almost hear the tentative sigh of relief in the opening line of Berkshire Eagle critic Milton R. Bass’s review of Panic in Year Zero!: “Although the bomb shelter scare of a year ago has died down to a tremor nowadays, a lot of Americans still wonder about what they would do if the nuclear bombs did drop.” The Eagle ran the review as Panic played at the Palace Theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, alongside Prisoner of the Iron Mask, a fellow release from the low-budget specialists at American International Pictures. The date was October 18, 1962. Four days later, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy would share photos with President Kennedy that the CIA believed revealed Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba.
The threat of nuclear war has never really abated. It’s just become a part of life, an existential threat we usually try not to think about, because what else can we do? From the moment the first bomb fell on Hiroshima, we’ve all been constantly aware of the potential for man-made destruction on a global scale. Sometimes it’s just background noise. Sometimes it’s impossible to ignore. I’m writing this on a Friday after waking up to a Washington Post article about a potential Russian attack on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, a possibility the United Nations has described as “suicide.” In an hour or so, I’ll take my daughter to an orientation session at her new school. The end might be nigh, but until then, life goes on.
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But what if the worst did happen? It could occur at any time, including — as depicted in Panic in Year Zero! — in the early hours of the morning as the Baldwins, an ordinary American family of four, embark on a camping trip, setting out from the suburbs of Los Angeles in the hours before dawn only to see a series of blinding flashes on the receding skyline. Hoping it’s just lighting, the Baldwin’s pull over to witness a mushroom cloud. (Sure, it looks a lot like a superimposed still photo, but this is an AIP film. Use your imagination a little.) L.A.’s gone, and with it, their home, their friends, and the rest of their family. What are they supposed to do now?
Baldwin patriarch Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland, who also directs) doesn’t take long to arrive at an answer: they’re going to survive. Harry’s first introduced as a genial fellow who still enthusiastically flirts with his wife Ann (Jean Hagen) as their teenaged son Rick (Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel) doze in the back seat. It doesn’t take long for all that to melt away. After realizing a return to L.A. would be foolish, Harry tells his family they need to gas up and head to the hills. At a gas station, they watch a customer who can’t pay the bill punch the attendant and drive away. The Baldwins are shocked by this act of barbarism. Within hours, they’ll be doing the same, holding a hardware shop owner at gunpoint when he refuses to take their check. The world has changed and might never change back.
The family changes with it because they have to to survive, and the matter-of-fact treatment that Milland (as actor and director) and the screenplay (by Jay Simms and John Morton) apply to this idea makes the film deeply unsettling. Once Harry understands what they face, it’s like a switch is flipped. He will do what he has to do to survive, be it armed robbery, using fire to bring traffic on the highway to a forcible stop, or even worse. When they take up residence in a spacious cave, the Baldwins might miss the irony, but we don’t.
Panic’s low budget necessitates a tight focus on a few characters and locations, which only increases the film’s effectiveness. So does the cast. Milland was an Oscar winner with a long track record as a leading man. Hagen had segued from Singin’ in the Rain into Make Room for Daddy and could still easily channel the persona of a sitcom-perfect middle American wife. Avalon was a teen idol whose career would find a second wind the following year as the star of Beach Party. These were familiar people reduced in an instant to desperate characters doing whatever it takes to survive. If it could happen to them, it could happen to you. The film ends on a note of hope, but it’s faint.
We’re sixty years away from the world that first watched Panic in Year Zero! but not as far removed as we might like to think. As a kid who went to bed every night worried about nuclear war, I can still remember the flood of optimism that greeted the end of the Cold War. As the '80s became the 1990s, millions of young people around the world felt reason for optimism. I never liked the Jesus Jones song “Right Here, Right Now,” a prominent part of the soundtrack of my end-of-high-school/beginning-of-college year, but that doesn’t mean I was immune to its “watching the world wake up from history” sentiment.
Maybe we should have known better. Agency, the most recent novel by William Gibson, is set partly in an alternate version of 2017 in which the world hovers on the brink of nuclear war. “We were expecting nuclear war all the time, really, up into my early thirties,” one character tells her daughter. “Later, all of that felt unreal. But the feeling that things became basically okay turns out to have actually been what was unreal.” The worst may never happen, and we have to live as if it won’t, but the possibility that Milland and company explore has never really gone away: Year Zero wiping away all that we know, including our sense of right and wrong.
Panic in Year Zero! is currently streaming on Hoopla and Flixfling and available to rent via Apple and Prime. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD via Kino Lorber.
They filmed THE DAY AFTER 20 minutes from my Kansas hometown, and we actually had to watch it IN SCHOOL. In fifth grade! Truly harrowing and unjustifiable!
I've never seen *this* movie but it's now at the top of my list. God, I love society-immediately-collapses stories, like TRIGGER EFFECT or Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS or that one SNL sketch where the morning show hosts lose their teleprompter.
And library request in! I thought this was the film you'd covered on NPS way back at the start of the pandemic, but that was a different Panic in a different area.