Today we’re going to take a quick Brusimm classic reflection look at another great B-movie called Panic in the Year Zero (1962).
I had forgotten about this gem of a B-movie until I found it while browsing on NetFlix. It was made just a year after I was born, so I didn’t see it when it was originally released. Panic in the Year Zero is a product of the 50s and 60s nuclear-war-scare era, but I think its story is still relevant and very much plausible today. The plausible part being the breakdown of society in the event of a nuclear attack.
The film starts out with the Baldwin family getting ready for a camping trip; dad Harry, (Ray Milland, who also directed), mom Ann, (Jean Hagen), teenage son Rick, (Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchell).
As they leave Los Angeles they notice flashing lights from far away and hear strange reports on the radio about a war. Their worst fears are confirmed when from a vantage point they see a giant mushroom cloud over what once was Los Angeles. What happens next is the unraveling of civilization as this kind of event usually brings out the worst in people, including our movies’ protagonist, Harry. But maybe we can forgive him just a little bit.
The movie was directed by Ray Milland, a well-seasoned and prolific actor in the 30s and 40s. An Oscar-winner in 1946 for his portrayal of an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend, in the 50s he turned his hand to directing while continuing to make a few films, most notably Dial M for Murder.
While Panic in the Year Zero was not hailed as a great film when it debuted, it none the less does have a cult-like status for 1960s sci-fi and end-of-the-world/nuclear war movies. The Film is bleak, with no frills and filmed in black and white probably due more to costs than artistic notion, but it works and sets the tone. There is some fine acting by all including Jean Hagen (Singing in the Rain) and Frankie Avalon, who was a popular teen singer and had only a few movies to his credit up until now. (The silly beach movies would come later.) The soundtrack is a little too jazzy at times but even that works for the movie instead of against it. It adds a frantic element, a zany backdrop as the (ordinary) characters on the screen react to extraordinary events.
For those of us who grew up in the 1960s under the threat of nuclear war, how many now remember the air raid sirens that were tested once a month? We’d be in school and like trained chimps we’d quickly slide under our desks, heads covered by hands, butts up in the air. “Duck and cover” was a real song – the scratchy black and white films showing children getting under their desks are real. We thought that crap was real too just like a we thought an inch thick plywood desktop would save us from a nuclear bomb.
This film is an important testimony to that era, and it’s a decent B movie film that – I hate to say it because you know how much I hate remakes - could be remade today if it was updated a bit.
Panic in the Year Zero runs 1 hour and 30 minutes.