Panic in Year Zero!

Panic in Year Zero! (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Ray Milland
viewed: 08/26/07

Gotta love a movie with an exclamation point in its title!

Ray Milland directed this nuclear holocaust film, one of a handful of films that he directed.  He’s much more noted as an actor, starring herein as well.  Interestingly enough with Frankie Avalon as his son.  This is a surprisingly good B-movie, intended no doubt as a cautionary tale of the world of survivalism that may face America in a nuclear attack.

The literal nuclear family, Milland, his wife, son, and daughter, climb into the family sedan attached to a camper and drive the climb out of Los Angeles for a camping trip in the Sierras, when with a few flashes of light and a huge mushroom cloud, they realize that civilization as they’ve known it is totally gone.  Well, let’s just say that Milland realizes it, and more quickly than most, becomes a ruthless survivalist, punching out gas station attendants, robbing a decent hardware store owner at gunpoint, when told about the mandatory 1 day waiting period on buying a firearm, and arming his son with shoot-to-kill rights when they are accosted by a gang of adolescents.

That is the meat of the film, in my opinion.  It’s an almost Darwinian take on the nature of society and the lack thereof, while all being deeply embedded in patriarchy.  The women are mostly useless.  They cling to their societal mores about robbing, stealing and killing, while dad and son quickly take up arms and are ready to fight.  In this case, “Father definitely Knows Best”.

There are elements of violence in this film that seem moderately shocking, probably much more so in its day.  A car accident victim is shown, dead with blood all over him, as are another family, wife and husband shot and killed.  The wife is left in a suggestive position, not by any means explicit, but certainly enough to glean what happened to her beyond her killing.  And the daughter is raped, again in a suggestive manner, but it’s pretty clear that this violence has happened.

The fact that the depravity is primarily exemplified by a gang of young thugs is possibly interesting or perhaps less interesting.  The confidence that Milland has that the world will return to normal at some point is a strange aspect of this film’s take on society in crisis, the continuation of shaving, saying prayers at dinner, a code of ethics: “I want you to shoot to kill, but I don’t want you to like it,” advises Milland to Avalon.  The difference between the beast and the survivalist.  The father figure is clear that his most important goal is that his family survives to regain society when the chaos ends.

It’s actually quite an interesting film, in its way.  The filming, on location in the California foothills, adds to its character.  The film is about ideology, it espouses it, and lives it.  And there is an interesting air of echo, now in the days of the fear of terrorist attacks vs. the good old days of the Cold War, when nuclear holocaust was just around the corner.  The funniest thing is that when they see the mushroom cloud, they drive back toward L.A. toward their home rather than realizing the ridiculousness of that.  Who knows?  Maybe that’s realism.

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