The end-of-the-world theme has captured the imagination of audiences for many years. Films such as THINGS TO COME (1936), the PLANET OF THE APES saga, Toho’s THE LAST WAR (1961), THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1959), Roger Corman’s THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1956) and THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH (1960), George Pal’s WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) and THE TIME MACHINE (1960), THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), Boris Sagal’s THE OMEGA MAN (1971), Richard Fleischer’s SOYLENT GREEN (1973), right up to 28 DAYS LATER (2004) and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) have all depicted various cataclysmic scenarios both man-made and of natural origin. One of the most interesting “what if…” cinematic tales was released by American International Pictures (AIP) in the early 1960s at the very height of the Cold War…PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! (1962) directed by and starring Academy Award winner Ray Milland.
PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! depicts the harrowing struggle for survival after Los Angeles and all the other major cities of the world are victims of a devastating nuclear attack. The story is played out through the eyes of the Baldwin family. Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland, THE THING WITH TWO HEADS), his wife Ann (Jean Hagen, DEAD RINGER), son Rick (Frankie Avalon, THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR), and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchell, DEMENTIA 13) are on their way through the California countryside for a weekend camping trip as Los Angeles is plunged into chaos. Harry decides to continue the trip to the secluded camping site as a way to shield and protect his family from the nuclear fallout and the human viciousness and anarchy likely to ensue in the city after such a brutal attack. However, as the family discovers, brutality and anarchy lurk everywhere even in their isolated area as man battles man in a struggle for “survival of the fittest.” The question then posed to the viewer is…are we our own worst enemy or is it the foreign power that attacked us our real enemy? As the doctor (played by veteran character actor Willis Bouchey, THEM) ironically puts it, “Keep your gun handy…our country is still full of thieving, murdering…patriots.”
Based on two 1950s Ward Moore stories ("Lot” and “Lot's Daughter"), PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! was released just months before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and was (especially for its time) a fairly frightening film. Naturally, director Ray Milland could not show the full force of the attack due to his very low special effects budget (although there is a fairly decent matte shot of a large mushroom cloud engulfing the city as the family stares at it in horror) and 1962 film standards would not allow for excessively violent scenes (such as radiation scarred victims). However, Milland makes his point very clear about the horror of the situation and keeps the pace moving briskly. He makes the audience care about his family and we become engrossed in their plight because it could happen in reality to any of us. All in all, the film holds up fairly well today, with plenty of exploitation elements which help to make things quite sensational, especially for 1962. The only major flaw here is Les Baxter’s musical score. While Baxter contributed haunting scores for AIP’s HOUSE OF USHER (1960), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), BLACK SUNDAY (1961) and BLACK SABBATH (1964), his score for PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! has been criticized for sounding more like a "beach party" movie than a drama about a nuclear war. Although there is no confirmation, it is entirely possible that he was told by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff (AIP executives and executive producers of this film) to keep the music upbeat because the story itself dealt with a very depressing theme.
The cast of PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! also includes Richard Garland (ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS) as the civilized hardware store owner that the Baldwin family has several run-ins with, familiar tough-guy actor Richard Bakalyan (THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE) as the leader of a trio of trigger-happy “boy” hoodlums who take advantage of every situation, and Joan Freeman (THE THREE STOOGES GO AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAZE) as Marilyn, a teenager who is kept as an unfortunate plaything for the cold-hearted trio until the Baldwins come to the rescue and make her part of the family. Avalon was under contract to AIP and was often typecast in the “Beach Party” movies as well as other goofball comedies like SERGEANT DEADHEAD, but he proves here what many failed to notice from seeing him in such films: he can act, and although it may be hard to accept him as the son of Milland and Hagen (appearance wise), he does a perfectly decent job of it here. The co-writer of PANIC was Jay Simms, who also did the screenplay for THE KILLER SHREWS, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER and the incredible CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS, released the same year as PANIC. Less than a decade later, MGM released an R-rated update which was thematically very similar and also directed by an accomplished actor: Cornel Wilde’s NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970).
Previously available on DVD from MGM as part of their “Midnite Movies” line on a double feature with THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! now comes to Blu-ray in a new HD transfer (which is also being made available on standard DVD). The film is presented here in a very attractive 1080p HD 2.35:1 widescreen transfer that beautifully highlights the crisp black-and-white cinematography of Gilbert Warrenton. The transfer is a rather noticeable upgrade from the 2005 MGM DVD release, with precious few scratches, speckling or other damage present. Detail is strong throughout, grayscales are excellent and blacks are perfectly deep. The English DTS-HD Master Audio track fares quite nicely as well, with Baxter’s admittedly energetic score having nice clarity and the dialogue is clean throughout. No subtitle options are available on the disc.
Richard Harland Smith is on hand for an audio commentary to cover a number of topics related to the film, and he's especially revealing about a number of the locations, pointing out other films and television shows that they were also used in. “ATOMIC SHOCK! JOE DANTE ON PANIC IN YEAR ZERO!” (9:10) is a cool new featurette with the director, discussing being a child during a tense time of fear of “atomic war” and the sci-fi films that resulted. He tells how PANIC was embarked upon under the title “Survival”, that the resulting film was more grim and “adult” than the usual sci-fi fare, and that he feels it suffers from an extremely low budget. Dante also tells an anecdote about Milland (through friend Jon Davidson who met the actor in a backstage dressing room) and that he later hired Mary Mitchell as a script supervisor on his film LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION. It’s interesting to note that the non-Scope theatrical trailer has several brief bits not in the final film. This includes Marilyn assuring, “Give me a gun, I’m good with a gun. I’ll stay here and kill them”, after she is found in her bedroom by Harry and Rick, and several alternate shots during the abduction of Karen by the hoodlums. Trailers for X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES and THE PREMATURE BURIAL are also included. (Joe Cascio)
BACK TO REVIEWS