Panic in Year Zero!

Dir: Ray Milland, 1962. Starring: Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchell. Mystery/Thriller.
Panic in Year Zero!

Actor Ray Milland is best known for his Oscar-winning performance as the tragic drunk hero in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (and as Grace Kelly’s unlikely murderous husband in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder) plus about 100 other flicks going back to the end of the silent era up until his death in ’84. But surprisingly to many, he also did some directing -- mostly television -- and also five cheapie features in the '50s & '60s. His ’62 entry, Panic in Year Zero!, is the one still of some note today. What was just a low-budget, obviously economical, double bill throwaway then, now feels weirdly powerful and very influential. It was the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when America and the Soviet Union were as close to nuclear war as we’ve ever gotten and the world was on edge. So this was a timely, life-after-Armageddon movie. It’s stagey and sometimes awkward, but it’s so cold and vicious that it actually often feels too authentic. It’s almost as if it were a '50s sitcom family (though completely devoid of humor) written by Rod Serling and produced by the NRA. (Yes, when the bombs drop, this movie makes it clear you want to be armed to the tee).

The Baldwins are (I suppose) a typical suburban Los Angeles family, headed by the bossy, gruff dad, Harry (Milland), and his minion wife Ann (Jean Hagen, brilliant as movie star Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain). Harry’s second-in-command seems to be his teenage son, Rick (Frankie Avalon, a year before he would break though and become a big star in a number of beach blanket bikini movies) and rounding out the family is his useless teeny-bopper sister, Karen, played by Mary Mitchell. (She went to school with Francis Ford Coppola and a year later would appear in his Dementia 13. She would be done acting by the end of the decade, but would later compile a long list of credits as a script supervisor). While the family sets out pulling their camper for a little fishing vacation, nukes torch LA and suddenly their trip becomes a fight to survive. Harry goes all in. The film plays like a real how-to, as Harry and son take to the road, robbing for guns, gas and groceries, before setting up a makeshift home in an abandoned cave. Along the way they are forced to confront some James Dean mannered-creeps and rescue the creeps’ sex slave (Joan Freeman), though sister Karen does get raped. And if all of this does not sound grim enough, the film ends on a title card that reads "There must be no end – only a new beginning."

Upon its release, Panic in Year Zero! was overlooked, if not ignored. But in the decades since, it has found an audience, obviously influencing other post-apocalyptic works, if consciously or not, including Late August at the Hotel Ozone (1967), an incredibly depressing, but under-appreciated Czech film, as well as a number of TV-movies, like the two acclaimed British programs Peter Watkins’ War Game (1965) and Threads (1984). The film also influenced America’s small screen, with notable entries including The Day After and also from 1983, PBS’s American Playhouse theatrical film Testament. (Check out that before-they-were-stars cast). But most remarkable are two great films that skew extremely close to Milland’s movie topic (families forced to get brutal to survive), Michael Haneke’s French film Time of the Wolf (2003) and the overlooked masterpiece No Blade of Grass (1970), by another actor dabbling in directing, Cornel Wilde (who also made another extreme survival gem The Naked Prey). In Wilde’s film, instead of nukes it’s environmental issues that turn the world into violent chaos, but another nice family is forced to kill and fend off rapists. Though Wilde was working in a different filmmaking climate, there is a big difference between '63 and '70; he was able to turn up the pessimism, utter nastiness and cruelty to an eleven. Milland saw the world as a dark place -- but as long as there are guns and a little belief in the old American values, there is some still hope.

Six years later, Milland made his follow up and his last film as director, another little seen oddity, Hostile Witness -- a sort of revenge & courtroom drama, where Milland again plays another unlikable man vs the world. It’s interesting, realizing that a respected but undefinable character-actor was perhaps secretly carrying a lot of pent-up anger and even violence in him that he could only truly reveal and express though his B-movie art.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 18, 2017 1:21pm
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