dir. Ray Milland
"We've had it. Haven't we dad?"
To anyone who's even remotely familiar with modern American history it is well known that the 1950s gave birth to the idea of the nuclear family. After the Second World War, Americans wanted to believe in the stability of the tight nit family. America, luckily, was untouched by war. Its citizens were not, however. After the war was over, returning GIs started families and had children at an enormous rate. Because of the popularity of the car, more often than not, people would start these families in newfangled suburbs rather than in crowded cities. Americans needed stability and this was a period of renewed prosperity (if you were middle class and white, that is). Along with this need for stability came a newfound blandness. From this was born the sitcom families of TV's golden age. These characters reflected what Americans aspired to: loving families with minor problems easily resolved by a superdad (don't worry, I'm going somewhere with all this).
The end of the war also gave birth to the cold war. The dropping of Atomic bombs on Japan put the nail in the coffin of one era and ushered in a frightening new era. The lethality of this new weaponry was deep in the mindset of this new world. Although most people would like to believe things were just peachy keen, they knew that everything could go horribly wrong with the push of the button. This fear informs the AIP produced Panic in Year Zero! This movie saw the confluence of these two major forces: the nuclear family and the cold war.
Panic in Year Zero! starts off with a bang (not a bomb, if that's what you were thinking). A loud jazz score blasts forth as the title is displayed on the screen. We are then introduced to the bland Baldwin family: level-headed father Harry (Ray Milland, best known for The Lost Weekend) and doting wife Ann (Jean Hagen, best known for Singin' in the Rain). Soon we see the Rebel Without a Clause influenced teenage son Rick (Frankie Avalon). Oh yeah, they also have a daughter, Karen (Mary Mitchel). For some reason, it seems that the writers of this movie forgot to write anything for this character until the movie's end, but more on that later. These folks live in an L.A. suburb and they are packing up their car in preparation for a fishin' trip.
Well on their road trip, they see a flash of light and then they lose radio reception. They stop their car to see what all of this commotion is and then they see a mushroom cloud directly over LA. After getting mildly upset about this, they decide to drive back and see what all the ruckus is. I think the more appropriate response would have been something like: "HOLY FUCKING SHIT, IT'S THE MOTHERFUCKING APOCALYPSE! LET'S GET AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE!" It is astounding how calm this family remains. Seriously, the characters in this movie react the way the characters in an Ozu movie would react when confronted with a minor domestic squabble.
On their drive back to LA, the Baldwins witness humanity run amok. People fight over food at a supermarket; gas station owners engage in price gouging; and hoodlum kids run amok. This movie really has the feel of a government manual instructing citizens through every scenario of nuclear survival. The plot is very segmented. It is less a continual flow than a series of events in which this group has to decide on a case by case basis the best method of surviving. Through it all, Harry remains the voice of reason. The Baldwins soon realize that they can not travel back to L.A. and instead venture back to their secret fishin' spot (surely no one would find them there). Things become harder for them the longer they journey. Harry soon becomes forced to resort to violence on more than one occasion. It becomes clear that the lines between civilized society and barbarity have disappeared. Although many of Harry's later actions make logical sense given the context, his wife becomes horrified at what is becoming of him.
After they get settled at their fishin' spot it seems like everything is going to be just swell (cue ominous music). Oh wait, some young toughs manage to follow them here. These goons soon find Karen alone by the lake and attempt to rape her. I found this scene quite offensive. It was clearly used as a cheap ploy to instill fear in the audience. It is a sad fact that far too many movies of this period (mostly the 7os, though) would use rape as a cheap plot device. The thing that annoyed me most about its use here was the fact that the Karen character was almost non existent until this scene. I imagine the screenwriters' discussion about this must have gone something like this:
"Alright, it seems like these folks are safe, so how are we gonna scare the audience and show them how terrifying this life is?
"Rape. Street toughs rape the daughter."
"Perfect. That's why I have you around. You're an ideas man...wait, these folks don't have a daughter."
"Sure they do. She uh-" He leafs through the screenplay. "Well I'll be damned. Fuck it, let's just throw one in there."
"Shouldn't we develop her character and-"
"Alright. Moving on-"
When Harry learns of this incident he goes apeshit and takes his son along on a roaring rampage of revenge. They kill the attackers and Rick gets wounded. While traveling to find a hospital for Rick, they stumble upon some military personnel. They are safe for now, but it is up to them to start building a new society.
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to watch the Cleavers from "Leave it to Beaver" survive a nuclear attack, this is the movie for you. Although many of Harry's actions might seem tame today (not the whole killing people thing, of course), if you imagine Ward Cleaver doing this stuff, it's pretty awesome. The tagline for this movie was "Where science fiction ends and fact begins." I think a more appropriate tagline would have been, "Meet the Baldwins -- America's first Nuclear Family." (If only I was responsible for movie promotion in the 60s) Although the nuclear family can attempt to remain intact after nuclear war, everyone has a breaking point. If put in this situation, even Ward Cleaver would resort to using his gat.
Although nuclear scare movies were not new (On The Beach is an earlier notable example) they took off in this period. Fears of nuclear annihilation were particularly pronounced after the Cuban missile crisis. A spate of nuclear scare movies were produced at this time, including: Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, and the terrifying made for BBC production "The War Game". Movies have long functioned in this role, namely that of examining and coming to grips with society's biggest fears and anxieties.
Panic in Year Zero! is a great time capsule. Although this movie may not seem too terrifying today (especially when compared to something like the TV movie "The Day After") it did play on some of the prevailing fears at the time. This movie's influence can also be seen in many of the apocalyptic movies that arrived in subsequent years: The Last Man on Earth, Night of the Living Dead, "The Day After", and even Michael Haneke's The Time of the Wolf. It is still, obviously, a relic of its time. As a society, we now have different fears and thus these older fears don't seem as dangerous. Oh how quaint it seems to be scared of two super powers initiating a nuclear holocaust that would destroy all of civilization. Those were simpler times.
(I couldn't find a clip of the trailer from this movie, but I did find this clip of a scene in which Harry explains to his son that they should continue shaving so as to remain civilized.)