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  Panic in Year Zero! The Breakdown Of Society (!)
Year: 1962
Director: Ray Milland
Stars: Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel, Joan Freeman, Richard Bakalyan, Rex Holman, Richard Garland, Willis Bouchey, Neil Nephew, O.Z. Whitehead, Russ Bender, Andrea Lane, Scott Peters, Shary Marshall, Byron Morrow, Bud Slater, Paul Gleason
Genre: Thriller, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) does like his fishing trips, and this morning very early he plans to take the whole family - wife Ann (Jean Hagen), son Rick (Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel) - with him up into the Californian countryside. The teenage kids are not so keen to get up at this hour, and settle down to doze in the back seat of the car while Harry drives, towing the caravan behind it, though once they are out on the road he notices a flash of light behind them, and wonders if there is a storm approaching. When it happens again, he stops and gets out - to see the mushroom cloud building over Los Angeles.

Panic in Year Zero! (note the exclamation mark, oft forgotten but underlining the forceful nature of the drama) was one of the first of the post-apocalypse survival movies, a strain of science fiction which in the wake of the Cold War went on to prove particularly enduring, and in fact difficult to shake once the idea of society, nay, the world being destroyed really took hold in the public imagination. Naturally with many such things it took a low budget effort to really kick things off (no On The Beach regretful contemplation here), and if Milland, who operated as director as well as star, was working with modest means at least he made up for that by heightening the melodrama to levels as high as he could get away with in 1962.

Which meant the community not simply gradually descending into violence, but jumping in with both feet and uncommon enthusiasm. Previously straight ahead, respectable dad Harry could have emerged from a fifties sitcom judging by the opening scenes, but once witnessing a desperate character switching from ordinary chap to aggressive lawbreaker and all for the sum of four dollars worth of fuel, something clicks in his mind and he sets out to arm himself. When he finds he still needs to wait a day for the official confirmation at the weapons store, he grabs the gun off the shopkeeper and helps himself, grimly telling him he'll be back with the two hundred dollars he owes him.

As if that makes it all right, but Harry's morality has become skewed and only his wife and daughter balk at his personality change. Son Rick (Avalon about as convincing as a teenager as he was in those Beach Party flicks he would go on to pop culture immortality in) is just as keen to blow the bad guys away with a shotgun as his dad, and the theme about male aggression given free rein when push comes to shove is about as plain as it could be. If the bomb dropped, this tells us, males would stop listening to the compromise and compassion of the female point of view and set about scheming to get everything they needed to protect and survive with as much force as they could muster.

Showing any kind of weakness is likely to get you killed, according to Harry's mindset, but interestingly the script stays ambiguous about whether it is dismayed at this or actually admires his forthright attitude and newfound capability, even if it does lead to more trouble than it's worth, as if the men's willingness to spiral into chaos is mirroring the nuclear war that has brought it about. Not that we hear much about the global conflict aside from the odd mention on the emergency radio broadcasts, indicating the world's stage diminishes in importance when your personal safety is under threat from people you would have previously passed in the street without a second thought. Histrionic this is without question, but it was interesting in that it didn't shy away from the implications of the breakdown, with murder and rape on the agenda, and the would-be reassuring ending with its note of hope pretty hard to go along with after we've watched law-abiding citizens turn unabashedly feral so quickly. Weirdly jaunty and jazzy music by Les Baxter.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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