What would you do if everything you understood, everything you took for granted, was ripped away in an instant?
That’s the question that 1962’s Panic in Year Zero! asks. Its answer may or may not surprise you, but for me, the intensity and brutality of its vision is startling in how uncompromised it is.
Directed by star Ray Milland, Panic in Year Zero! is a low-budget affair, coming from the schlockmasters at American International Pictures, who that same year distributed such titles as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, White Slave Ship, and Burn, Witch, Burn. At first glance, Panic in Year Zero! despite its exclamatory, frenzied titled, lacks the exploitative outrageousness of those films. The pedigree of Oscar-winner Milland combined with the timely subject matter, lends it an air of prestige that a prior AIP release like Attack of the Giant Leeches lacked. But the heated anger of Milland’s vision makes Panic in Year Zero! feel like a movie that escaped rather than one that was released. Watching it, you feel like you’re seeing something that wasn’t entirely meant to be seen — like an email draft you write in an angry huff, intending not to send, but accidentally CC the whole office.
Ray Milland plays Harry Baldwin, a typical middle-aged white suburban male of 1962. He’s got a wife, Ann (Jean Hagen), a strapping teenaged son Rick (played by pop singer Frankie Avalon), and a daughter, Karen (Mary Mitchel). When we first see Harry, he’s testing out a new fishing line as he prepares for vacation, content and smiling as he admires the way it casts off. He’s every inch the respectable, seemingly-satisfied patriarch of his generation: patriotic, pleased, prosperous but not pretentious. Needless to say, this will not last long.
The Baldwins load up their car and trailer, and leave their nice Southern California home for a fishing trip. The first sign that something is wrong is when no sound comes out of the radio. When Harry tries to make a phone call back to Los Angeles, the operator tells him the lines are down. “All of them?” Harry asks, both confused and indignant. “I do not have that information, sir,” is the only reply. Ann tells Harry that she thinks they’d better head back home. As soon as she says this, Harry looks off to the horizon. Los Angeles has been annihilated in a gigantic cloud of nuclear fallout.
This is just under six minutes into the movie.
This is part of the reason why Panic in Year Zero! has such a great and unique feeling to it — other films might feel the need to build up to the complete nuclear devastation of Los Angeles, to slowly hold the audience’s hands as it leads them to it. But not this film — in this film, six minutes into it and you’re already staring down nuclear holocaust. And there are no scenes before, and there will be no scenes afterwards, of generals sitting in the Pentagon plotting what to do next, pilots in their bomber jets, President Henry Fonda deliberating his decisions. None of that will be there, because Panic in Year Zero! is a film that puts you in the perspective of someone unimportant and unexceptional in the face of the greatest hypothetical terror of its time.
This film was released in the summer of 1962. It’s not difficult to imagine it was still playing drive-ins several months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For audiences in 1962, this was a B-movie, for sure, but it was also a B-movie that dealt with a situation that many people thought might very well happen to them, and it depicted it from the perspective of those ordinary people, without the remove of watching statesmen debate and scientists calculate. The only note the Baldwins have that will provide them any sense of outside authority and continuity of society is a radio broadcast announcing the U.N.’s proclamation that 1962 will now be known as “the year zero.” Not exactly a vote that inspires confidence, is it?
Within the film, there is not much in terms of moral heroics and idealism. Milland’s Harry Baldwin quickly turns from Ward Cleaver to Walter White as he grabs a shotgun and starts taking out anyone who threatens his family’s real or perceived safety. Harry’s first encounter with a human being other than his family is with a man at a gas station. When the man is asked to pay for the refueling of his car, he says he doesn’t have any money, socks the gas station attendant in the jaw, and speeds away. “There may be a lot of business transactions like this from now on,” Harry tells the attendant when he recovers. When the attendant asks why Harry didn’t stop the man, Harry replies “My mother didn’t raise me to be a hero.” And he isn’t. Once the bomb is dropped, he’s a tribal figure devoted only to his and his family’s survival. Everything else — law, morality, empathy — comes secondary if at all.
The brutality is the film is shocking. Not because it is excessive — there aren’t buckets of blood pouring out of heads, or severed limbs tossed around like toys. No, it’s shocking because it’s so casual. The conventionality of the Baldwins, who are (at least initially) straight out of Ozzie and Harriet, combined with the unceremonious nature of the violence creates a remarkably vivid depiction of a world gone mad. These aren’t the burnt out, bourbon-soaked figures of a Peckinpah film, or the self-conscious ironic freakshows of a Lynch film — these are the grey, commonplace characters out of a 1950s educational film who have survived the unthinkable and become unthinkable themselves.
The ensuing 90 minute of the film will take the Baldwins from road to campsite to cave as they try to make sense of what’s happened and find a way to survive. Along the way, Harry Baldwin and family will confront looters, murderers, and rapists, and will often solve their problems through the same violence they see in their enemies and rivals. In the end, ‘Year Zero’ is called off when some kind of nuclear détente is declared, but you can’t just go back from this.
To tell too much more is to give away the film’s distinctive appeal — letting its strange Father Knows Best by-way-of-Hiroshima feel washed over you and take you to places you didn’t expect. This is not a pretty film, and its story sometimes feels like the fantasy of a middle-aged white man who wants a chance to break out of the laws and social inhibitions that keep him from shoving a shotgun into the face of all the punks and thugs who he hates, nuclear war or not. Those are ugly notions, terrifying implications. But they’re not uncommon — and Panic in Year Zero! has a genuine air of truth to it: the feeling that the society that holds us together is just waiting for a push, and that when it comes, chaos will fall, and people will be ugly. We might think we’re living in Pleasantville, but the truth is that Pleasantville is just seconds away from Armageddon, and when Armageddon comes who will you be? And who will you be after that?
Panic in Year Zero! asks those questions. And that’s why, even though it is not by any means an artfully made film, it is one worth seeing, because at its heart is a terrified and terrifying core of human truth.