There are countless apocalyptic movies out there, but the most instructive is a little 1962 programmer called Panic in Year Zero!
Panic in Year Zero! hails from Roger Corman’s American International Pictures (AIP), one of Hollywood’s most famous and profitable independent production companies. Between 1954 and 1980, AIP released hundreds of cheapies with titles like Shake, Rattle, and Rock!, The Amazing Transparent Man, and Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World.
AIP’s gameplan was a simple one… Jump on whatever trend the teens were into, do it fast, do it cheap.
Beach movies, horror movies, biker movies, blacksploitation, women in prison… In 1970 alone, AIP released 14 titles, and they were all crap. But every once in a while, like the proverbial billion monkeys hammering away at a billion typewriters, a gem would appear: Coffy (1973), Sisters (1973), Dementia 13 (1963), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and a number of Edgar Allen Poe classics starring Vincent Price, most especially Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Masque of the Red Death (1964) — which is probably the most original plague movie ever made.
At the risk of getting too far off track, and although it ended up being release by Paramount, AIP also produced one legitimate masterpiece, Peter Bogdonovich’s Targets (1968)
Although it’s no masterpiece, Panic in Year Zero! is a true gem that examines the after-effects of a worldwide nuclear war on a single American family.
Shot in a matter of weeks and directed by its star, 1945’s Best Actor Oscar winner Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), Panic wastes no time getting to the nitty gritty. It’s just after dawn, and Harry (Milland) stands outside his Los Angeles suburban home staring at a fishing rod. The camper is all hooked up. He’s just waiting for his wife Ann (Jean Hagen) and teen-aged kids Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchell) to stop whining about the early hour so he can get going.
Just outside of Los Angeles, there’s a bright light. Then another. Then another. At first they assume it’s lightning. But the mushroom cloud over the city they once called home tells the full truth.
I’m not going to spoil the rest of the plot. Suffice to say, it is a tense and tightly-wound 93 minutes. That, however, is not the reason I’m recommending it.
What I love about Panic is how instructive and unique it is.
Here’s a family out in the middle of nowhere, lucky to be alive, and now they have to survive in a world they no longer recognize, a world filled with desperate people, price gougers, and marauders looking to take your food, your weapons, your daughter, and your life.
I might have missed it, but I don’t recall the movie ever telling us how Harry made his living. One assumes he’s a businessman of some sort, we’re certainly introduced to a Ward Cleaver-type, but almost immediately he turns into someone else, someone his wife does not recognize — a survivor.
There’s no scope to Panic in Year Zero! What I mean is that we never see the destruction of L.A., we never even see a television newscast or crowd scene filled with terrified people. The focus here is only on this family and what they must do to survive in a rural California filled with small towns and terrified citizens looking to escape along rural roads.
Most apocalyptic movies focus on Big Ideas about humanity, world politics, or even finding a cure. We’re almost always at the center of the action in the White House, with the military, with the scientists, with the problem solvers, with the Last Man on Earth and his quest for a vaccine, or with the small group of survivors waging war against the invaders, be they from space of Russia.
Panic is only about one thing — what this family must do to survive…
What’s most fascinating is that our protagonist, Harry, isn’t interested in teaching his children any lessons about generosity, rebuilding civilization, world peace, or lending your neighbor a helping hand. Not now. Not in a world gone feral. And while his wife questions his sudden lack of charity and distrust towards anyone outside the family, Harry cares only about one thing — keeping his family alive and safe…
The first thing they need is food. Thinking ahead of the panicked mob that will pick everything clean in seconds, Harry goes off road towards a small town and finds exactly what he’s looking for: a shopkeeper who has not yet heard of the nuclear attack and is thrilled to open early for a $200 sale.
Harry piles his camper with months worth of food and walks over to the hardware store, where he buys firearms, ammunition, fishing poles, lanterns, rope, shovels… $400 worth. But he only has $200. He offers the owner a check for the rest. When the owner refuses, Harry becomes an armed robber.
Later, Harry will punch out a price gouging gas station owner (but leave a sawbuck, which is what the gas should have cost), and then cause a devastating multi-car accident so he can get his family across a highway, a highway that never stops.
Harry has one goal and one goal only: keep his family alive.
Harry has one duty and one duty only: keep his family alive.
He hands his son a shotgun, tears down literal bridges behind him (to keep his family isolated as they wait it out), teaches his family to hunt, to hide their supplies, and when asked for food from a decent man, even one can, he refuses.
Harry’s only regret ends up being a moment of weakness. Yes, when he had the drop on them, he should have shot down those three marauders in cold blood.
There is only one moral in Panic in Year Zero!: protect your family at all costs.
There is only one cause here: protect your family at all costs.
Any duty Harry felt towards his country, his fellow man, his community or the law, is immediately abandoned.
On top of that, Panic in Year Zero! schools us in survival; it’s a step-by-step tutorial in how to prioritize what you’ll need, how to scavenge it, how to protect it, where to hide, and how to hold out one once you’re there.
You never let your guard down.
You never trust anyone.
Your responsibility is not to the world. This is no time to virtue signal. Your responsibility is only to your family — even if they will never look at you in the same way again.
One reviewer summed things up nicely in this way:
Panic In Year Zero! scrupulously avoids scenes requiring more than minimalist production values yet still delivers on its promise, allowing audience imagination to expand upon 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 for budding flower people; Panic In Year Zero! could have been made as a sales booster for the gun industry.
Not long after I first saw Panic, my wife and I were headed home to North Carolina after spending New Year’s with our family in Wisconsin. By the time we reached Kentucky, we were caught in the middle of the worst snowstorm in decades. It was so bad, state troopers stopped traffic and told us we had a half hour to get off the freeway.
Obviously, we had to find a hotel.
At the next exit there were hotels, plenty of them, but everyone was taking that exit. There was line of headlights straight to the lobby doors.
This is when I remembered Panic in Year Zero!, the tip about not going where everyone else is going… If I wasted my 30 minutes sitting in that exit, what were the chances there would be any rooms left, and then my 30 minutes would be up.
So I spent those 30 minutes driving (about 20 miles per hour) to the next exit with a hotel … and we got the last room available at a Howard Johnson’s.
We unloaded. I walked a few of blocks through the snowpocalyose to a Mexican restaurant that was 15 minutes from closing, and instead of sleeping in our car, we enjoyed a cozy night of good food and a good movie.
Thank you, Ray Milland!