Panic in Year Zero!

by Glenn Erickson Apr 05, 2016

Hey, we’re having a NUCLEAR family crisis, so load up your shotgun, grab the grenades and head for the hills, stealing what you need as you go. Ray Milland’s tense tale of doomsday survival shook up a lot of folks with its endorsement of ruthless violence. Fortunately the worst never happened, allowing us to ask, “Where were you in ’62?”

Panic in Year Zero!
KL Studio Classics
1962 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date April 19, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel, Joan Freeman, Richard Bakalyan,
Cinematography Gilbert Warrenton
Production Designer Daniel Haller
Film Editor William Austin
Original Music Les Baxter
Written by John Morton, Jay Simms
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Arnold Houghland, James H. Nicholson, Lou Rusoff
Directed by Ray Milland


There’s nothing like good old atom-scare hysteria, which Hollywood dished out as early as 1952’s Invasion, USA. The typical spin in atomic exploitation classics is right-wing isolationism, but not always. Movie studios deemed the subject matter of atomic war too morbid to attract large audiences, and for the most part they were right — even with its big stars, the biggest ad campaign imaginable was required to sell the world on Stanley Kramer’s ultimate downer On the Beach. Meanwhile, the peaceniks’ movies were just as grim, but artful: pictures like Five and The World The Flesh and The Devil. The post- atom war movie subgenre did a lot of playing around with allegories, Biblical and otherwise. Yes, the population of Earth will be decimated … but will we solve the racial divide? Can’t we all just… get along?

The somewhat exploitative but refreshingly frank Panic in Year Zero! put real scares back in the country’s atom jitters. Inspired by the tensions before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Americans were seriously encouraged to build bomb shelters, this American-International release takes the logical step beyond On the Beach’s claim that the world could be annihilated by a nuclear war: it attempts to depict the actual conditions after a nuclear strike. After a decade of public service films predicting order and optimism, Panic! was one of the first to suggest that an attack would precipitate an immediate breakdown of society. Framing its story within a loving family similar to those found in complacent 1950s shows, John Morton and Jay Simms’ story can’t wait to suggest that civilized law would boil down to one simple rule: Every Man For Himself.


Director-star Ray Milland does his best to convey the jitters that worried many in the early 1960s. The Baldwin family receives quite a shock on their way to a camping vacation in the Southern end of the Sierra Nevadas. Behind them they can see a mushroom cloud and multiple explosions annihilating Los Angeles. After shaking off his initial hesitation, Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) marshals his wife Ann, son Rick and daughter Karen (Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) to gather survival supplies before rural shopkeepers know what has happened. The Baldwins hide out at a remote campsite in the hope that they can avoid the crime, looting and rape that will surely result when civilization comes to an abrupt halt.

Panic In Year Zero! achieves its desired tone of hysteria right from the get-go. The film’s premise is as gripping now as it was in 1962, when the undertaker living on Savant’s street was building a fallout shelter in his back yard. More than half of the film is a nervous road picture, part of which is unfortunately filmed on the cheap. The Baldwins’ station wagon and trailer endlessly crisscross the same narrow roads north of Los Angeles, and the same five or six cars must represent a flow of panicky Angelenos heading for the hills. In one supremely unconvincing setup, the station wagon’s progress is halted at a rural intersection by unbroken flow of cross traffic — partly represented by mismatched grainy shots taken of an L.A. freeway!


But even if his visuals can’t quite keep up, actor-director Ray Milland maintains the dramatic tension. Jean Hagen (Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain) is fine as a mother slow to accept the idea that old rules no longer apply, and that dog-eat-dog survival is now the name of the game. Unconvincing teenager Frankie Avalon handles fairly well the business of literally riding shotgun for his pistol-toting father. As the original Variety review pointed out, sister Mary Mitchel and pretty refugee Joan Freeman (of The Tower of London and Roustabout) share a first for a mainstream American release: both are raped. But the one rape depicted provides an escalating ‘crisis beat’ to compensate for the show’s inability to stage the widespread chaos and anarchy that would follow an atom attack. By staying close to the Baldwins, we can imagine that the towns and the roads have gone all Cormac McCarthy all of a sudden.

Survivalism as a consumer industry didn’t start until a little later, with magazines preaching that the ‘right’ people should be storing food and ammo for the impending apocalypse. With the polarization and hostility that runs through today’s society, I don’t think I’d want to undertake a survival quest like the Baldwins — every other citizen out in the sticks or fleeing the city would surely be armed to the teeth and so trigger-happy that they’d shoot first in any encounter. In 1962, Panic In Year Zero! made a million wide-eyed young males wonder how they’d protect Ma and Sis in a landscape of unrestrained hostility. There’s not a lot of moral distance between guarding one’s own bomb shelter with a shotgun, and the marauding scavenger-rapists of movies like No Blade of Grass.

Of course, in just twenty years the subgenre evolved away from mere morbidity to a celebration of escapist, adventuresome morbidity, with the Mad Max franchise. Too many people now fantasize about a post-apocalyptic breakdown that would allow them to actualize their power fantasies of killing their political enemies, people of another color or religion, the bosses that laid them off, obnoxious relatives and anybody else they don’t like. For what else have they been stockpiling guns and ammo, if not that?

Harry Baldwin isn’t quite up to Mad Max speed, not with his drag-axle station wagon hitched to a trailer. But he takes an economy-based approach to the problem of what must be done Here and Now to survive. Harry takes advantage of one gas station owner still unaware of the crisis. At the next gas stop, a greedy proprietor tries to enforce a price hike — to $3 a gallon! In 1962 gas was selling at somewhere between 25 and 30 cents per gallon.  The pumps couldn’t even register a price over 99 cents.. Had the price neared $3 we indeed would have been certain that civilization as we know it was coming to an end. Harry buys out a greedy grocer (O.Z. Whitehead — good casting) and then is forced to rob decent hardware retailer Ed Johnson, who figures later in the story as another unfortunate refugee. ‘Average American father’ Milland holds a gun on Johnson, a shocking act that was surely a precedent for American films.

Although nobody noticed the irony, Ed Johnson is played by actor Richard Garland, who six years before had a small role in the big movie about anti-war Quakers, William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion. Garland’s Rebel sniper tries to ambush Gary Cooper, who disarms him and, to Garland’s surprise, spares him. Garland’s sniper walks away a transformed, humbled man surely thanking God for his ‘second chance.’ The contrast between the pacifist movie and this alarmist saga is strongly pronounced. Before the bomb scare one could find people fervently committed to the notion of turning the other cheek in almost any situation involving violence. Panic asks — recommends, maybe — that Harry Baldwin perform his own pre-emptive strikes to obtain what he needs.

As we follow the Baldwins’ subjective experience, everything we learn about the atom war is delivered through the Conelrad radio station. The radio voice is said to be that of actor Hugh Marlowe. With all the human scum supposedly prowling the roads, we’re given only a few hints of the kinds of trouble that could occur. In one of the best scenes, a township puts up a roadblock against all outsiders, a development with precedent in towns overrun by motorcycle ‘clubs’ in the early 1950s. The Marlon Brando film The Wild One was based on such an incident.  Panic! expresses its post-apocalyptic terror through three minor-league punks that murder and rape on a small scale. The leader is played quite well by perennial juvenile delinquent Richard Bakalyan. Our family encounters the hoodlums on the road and warns them off at gunpoint. Harry receives a dressing-down for suggesting that Dad should have killed them. Later events suggest that the kid was right, that the Baldwins would have been better off had Harry executed the punks on the spot.


The film takes a real risk with one plot development. The Baldwins pick up and adopt a young woman apparently being used by the thugs as a sex slave. Marilyn Hayes (Joan Freeman) is sullen for a few days, and then comes out of her funk with no discussion of her bondage. Did Harry spare Marilyn so she can become a father-approved romantic candidate for young Rick? That thought leads back to earlier post-apocalyptic literature, some of which proposed unthinkable reshufflings of the family unit. In one book, a survivalist father abandons his whole family save for his daughter, and then has children with her. One must go back to the Bible to find such creepy plot complications.

(spoilers) Panic In Year Zero! plays tough, but as with most low-budget A.I.P. filmmaking of the time, it can develop its premise only so far before the money runs out, and then wraps things up in a less than satisfactory manner. Harsh martial law arrives just as a crisis forces the Baldwins out of their mountain hideaway. A country doctor (Willis Bouchey) delivers a rather depressing sermon at the finale. The crusty old guy survived the post-bomb chaos by shooting the looters and drug addicts that came to rob and kill. His street looks like a war zone, and we readily believe that he might have shot anybody he doesn’t know. The movie brands him a hero.

The first implied message is that America could use some martial law right now, before the unavoidable collapse of society takes place. Asked what’s been going on while they were hidden in the hills, Bouchey speaks only in generalities. Yep, millions died. But radiation has not become an insurmountable problem: in this movie,  Nuclear War is survivable. No wonder Stanley Kubrick’s doomsday comedy used the subtitle “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb.” The filmmakers happily anticipate the opportunity to wipe out the godless Russians and purge our own society of undesirables, crudely defined as ‘drug addicts running wild.’  I guess that’s the worst thing the writers could think of. The movie doesn’t argue the necessity of mass killing, but instead asks which we should kill first, the Russians or the drug junkies.

Panic In Year Zero! still delivers on its promise, encouraging imaginative viewers to think beyond the narrow scope of what’s actually on the screen. It sure seemed shocking in 1962, and easily trumped other more pacifistic efforts. The Day the Earth Caught Fire was the Ban The Bomb touchstone for budding flower people; Panic In Year Zero! could have been made as a sales booster for the gun industry.

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Panic in Year Zero! is a welcome disc indeed. With the release of The Last Man on Earth, both halves of MGM’s old Midnite Movies Double Bill are now on Blu-ray. The sharp image flatters the work of cameraman Glibert Warrenton (who started working in 1916). The movie looks restrained, but never rough or cheap. A few stock shots vary in quality.  The fact that the Baldwins’ trailer blocks the view out the car’s back window helps out with one budgetary problem: rear projection is unnecessary for the many shots filmed through the front windshield.

The clear audio track is a showcase for Les Baxter’s jazzy score, which runs hot and cold for me. The main theme is powerful and arresting, but it undercuts some moods and is wholly inappropriate in a few scenes that are powerful on their own. When the hoods torment Karen, the upbeat music aligns with the boys’ excitement, not Karen’s terror. The movie inadvertently invites us to enjoy the attack.


The full-feature commentary by Richard Harland Smith is well informed about Milland’s movie and the historical nuclear standoff in force when Panic! went into production. I was hoping to learn more about writer Jay Simms, who the same year also wrote the Savant fave Creation of the Humanoids, but Smith’s extensive research didn’t go in that direction. He discusses some of the post-apocalyptic literature that preceded Panic! and gives a superficial account of the apocalyptic subgenre up to that point. Smith remains objective about the movie’s content, until he drops some remarks that give the impression that he too has survivalist plans for when the bombs fall (or the germs get loose, or we run out of water or cable TV). Overall Smith doesn’t editorialize, but offers the listener plenty of fresh information. He also has an enviably smooth and engaging speaking voice.

Offering the equivalent of an authoritative opinion editorial is director Joe Dante, whose nine-minute reflection on the film is indeed subjective and personal — if you recall, a Panic in Year Zero! poster is given pride of place in the theater lobby in Dante’s Matinee, a film that takes place in the same Atom-doom time frame as Ray Milland’s movie. Dante offers some observations on various elements of the show, and some of its personnel. He hired actress Mary Mitchel, who later became a script supervisor, to play a script supervisor in his movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

A trailer gallery includes coming attractions for The Premature Burial, “X” – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and this film.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Panic in Year Zero!
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Richard Harland Smith; trailers; featurette remembrance by Joe Dante
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 3, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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