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Review by
Kelly Parks

Panic in the Year Zero
PANIC IN YEAR ZERO (1962)
American International Pictures / Universal
Rated: N/A

Nuclear War. Sure, we joke about it now but there was a time when people took it very seriously.

PANIC IN YEAR ZERO (1962) stars and was directed by Ray Milland (BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER [TV], TERROR IN THE WAX MUSEUM, THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, FROGS) and written by John Morton and Jay Simms (THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS, THE KILLER SHREWS).

The story begins with Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland), his wife Ann (Jean Hagen: ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS [TV], DEAD RINGER) and their teenage children Rick (Frankie Avalon: VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU) and Karen (Mary Mitchel: SPIDER BABY, DEMENTIA 13) loading up the trailer for a camping trip. They head out of Los Angeles and are winding their way through the mountains when the bombs fall. They see the flashes and watch as mushroom clouds rise over Los Angeles. Ann is in denial but Harry understands the situation right away. The radio doesn’t provide any information and a roadside phone booth, though functional, can’t reach Los Angeles. Ann’s mother is still back there.

They decide to try and get back to the city, a fool’s errand to be sure. Traffic is massively going the other way as people flee the radiation but Ann is determined they rescue her mother.

The things Harry hears from a few survivors convinces him there’s no chance of anyone being alive in L.A. He’s a very pragmatic man and turns the car around, determined to head for the hills and ride things out there. “When civilization gets civilized again, I’ll rejoin,” he tells his wife and off they go.

Roadside cafes are stripped of food pretty fast so Harry takes a side road to a small town where the news hasn’t arrived. He stocks up on supplies fast but not fast enough, forcing Harry and his steadfast son Rick to take action.

On their way to the wilderness they encounter price gouging, chaos and lawlessness. The latter in the form of Carl (Richard Bakalyan: THE NIGHT STALKER [TV]), Mickey (Rex Holman) and Andy (Neil Nephew: THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR [TV]), three juvenile delinquent types who have several run ins with Harry’s family.

The radio finally does report that a nuclear attack targeting major cities has occurred and the U.S. has responded in kind. Until order can be restored everyone is told that maintaining law and order is their responsibility.

This movie is bigger on being a “how to survive a nuclear disaster” guide than it is on being a dramatic story. It does have its moments, especially when Harry deals out some justice, but mostly its pretty predictable. The real attraction lies in what it is: a fairly realistic portrayal of the aftermath of a limited nuclear war in the early 1960’s. The family avoids dealing with fallout by getting well away from the cities but they do have to deal with finding food and protecting themselves from those who take advantage of lawlessness.

And it also offers an excuse for the rare
POLITICAL SCIENCE MOMENT:
When you watch movies like this it’s important to try and recapture the mindset of the era. Not just the cold war, but the fact that for most middle aged people in 1962, WWII was something they’d personally experienced. The idea that the world could erupt into war wasn’t dim history for them – it was perfectly believable.

PANIC IN YEAR ZERO is historically fascinating and occasionally cool. It makes you glad President Reagan won the cold war*.

I give PANIC IN YEAR ZERO three shriek girls.


This review copyright 2006 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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TRIVIA
*
What? You have doubts? In speeches going back to the late 1950’s Ronald Reagan was saying that Communism was inherently weak and that if we confronted Communism – rather than appeasing it – it would collapse. Then he became President, confronted Communism, and it collapsed. So there.

 
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