‘Panic in the Year Zero!’ revisited

 We conclude our look back on Ray Milland’s cult triptych with his second feature for Roger Corman’s AIP studios.

Though it’s been a staple of science fiction movies and TV shows throughout the last sixty years, the post-apocalypse sub-genre was hardly an invention of the Cold War. The protagonist of Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man wanders a world ravaged by plague, while H.G. Wells gave us our first taste of all-out alien invasion – and the devastation that follows – with The War of the Worlds.

Even so, it was only in the 1950s and ’60s, at the height of the nuclear arms race, that big screen apocalypses began to pick up pace. While some movies (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) used alien invasion as allegory, or cast a satirical eye on the politics of mutually assured destruction (Dr Strangelove), others tackled the prospect of nuclear war with a grittier, almost “kitchen sink” approach. In this category we find 1963’s Panic in the Year Zero!

Written by John Morton and Jay Simms, it was actor Ray Milland’s fourth film in the director’s chair (he’d also directed for television), and his second feature with American International Pictures, following Roger Corman’s The Premature Burial the previous year. Milland also stars, as suburban husband and father Harry Baldwin.

The film opens with Harry and his wife Ann (Singin’ in the Rain’s Jean Hagen) packing their car for a family camping trip, and joined by their two teenaged children, Rick (a very young Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchel). The Baldwins are barely five minutes out of Los Angeles and driving through the mountains of Southern California when they see flashing lights in the sky and an ominous, unmistakably mushroom-shaped cloud on the horizon.

Los Angeles, as you may have guessed, has been devastated in a nuclear attack, and the Baldwins (who left LA at first light) have unwittingly given themselves a head start in the survival game. From here on in, Milland’s paterfamilias takes charge, his dismal, world-weary view of humanity shaping his family’s fortunes. It is he who decides they should stock up on provisions, arm themselves to the teeth and head into the mountains, to sit out the chaos that’s sure to follow such an attack.

What’s most unnerving about these early scenes is just how much they go against the conventions of many later disaster films. This was no doubt dictated, in part, by the film’s budget (it cost around $1.7million, adjusted for inflation), and so we don’t get to see the Hollywood sign obliterated or downtown Los Angeles turned instantly to dust by the atomic blast. Instead, we follow the Baldwins from petrol station to grocery store and from grocery store to hardware store, as society starts to crumble around them.

Except, that isn’t strictly true. Because while many post-apocalyptic movies have their salt-of-the-earth protagonists struggle to get by while those around them lose all sense of decency, Panic in the Year Zero! presents us with a family whose own values are compromised, almost immediately, by the attacks. When a petrol pump attendant is assaulted by a thief, Harry refuses to step in and help him, saying, “My mother didn’t raise me to be a hero!” Later, when a hardware store owner refuses to hand over several guns, Harry robs the man at gunpoint (though he promises to reimburse him later). At almost every step along the way, Harry turns down the chance to help others, and if anything it’s the idea of lawless savagery that poses more of a threat in this world than even the oft-mentioned nuclear fallout.

The Baldwins’ journey into the mountains places the first half of the film in that other nascent genre of the early 1960s, the “road movie”, and there are similarities here, in tone and feel, to the 1960 Twilight Zone story The Hitch-Hiker and Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Duel (1971). Here, the road itself (the Interstate Highway System was only 8 years old at the time) is something hostile, dehumanised, a force of nature in its own right, and one of the many dangers the family faces before reaching safety.

At least, that’s Harry’s plan, but despite all efforts to cut themselves off from the world, the Baldwins find that they are not alone. A trio of hoodlums (speaking in a very-much-of-the-time “daddy-o” slang) have invaded a nearby farmstead, murdering the farmer and his wife and keeping their daughter prisoner, and it’s the Baldwins’ final confrontation with this gang that provides much of the last act’s dramatic punch.

The story ends on an ambiguous note, perhaps too ambiguous for some audiences, and while there is talk of an armistice on their car radio (which is ubiquitous throughout the film, even bookending it in matching close-ups), society is far from “back to normal” when the end credits roll.

What’s striking, watching Panic in the Year Zero! over fifty years after it was made, is just how fresh it feels. The sinister greasers and Les Baxter’s finger-clicking jazzy score may place it squarely in the early ’60s, but the economy of its story and its cynical take on how humanity might handle such a disaster make it the spiritual ancestor of movies such as Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf and John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road. There are echoes too, of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and the countless cinematic zombie apocalypses to have blighted humanity ever since.

There is also something refreshing about watching a film that leaves many of its moral questions hanging for the audience to contemplate. Savagery and violence, the film suggests, are always just beneath the surface, and keeping them in check in a world without law and order requires diligence and hard work, but is Harry right to cut himself and his family off from the rest of society? Is it nobler to stay put and help one’s neighbours, like the character of Dr Strong? Or is the (nuclear) family still civilisation’s first and most precious building block?

David Llewellyn is a novelist (Eleven, Ibrahim & Reeni) and script writer (Dorian Gray, Torchwood, Doctor Who).

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