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July 23, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #81 - Panic in Year Zero!

Nothing like eating under an open sky, even if it is radioactive!  - Frankie Avalon, Teen Idol/Philosophizer
There's also almost nothing that scares me more than the end of civilization. Not from a "Oh no, what would I do without cable and frozen pizzas!" standpoint, more from a "Y'know, people get awfully cranky when they're shaken from their comfort zone".  After all, just look at the reports you see about people who riot after disasters or sporting events or other things that humans have the ability to survive and cope with if they could only stop and think and not get carried away.  The bottom line, to put it simply, is that people don't react well to change.  And a global change - like, for example, a series of nuclear attacks to large cities which wipe out amenities and governments - could quickly send humanity into a downward spiral.
That series of attacks is the catalyst for the drama in Panic in Year Zero!, a 1962 black-and-white sci-fi film from American International Pictures and Star/Director Ray Milland.  When I met the film, it was what music fans would call the "b-side" of a double feature DVD with the Vincent Price classic The Last Man on Earth, and I didn't even bother to check it out for some time after picking up the disc.  After all, I finally had a good looking DVD of the film in which Price headlines Richard Matheson's I Am Legend - what more could I want?
I might have wanted a more human based apocalypse tale - which is what Panic in Year Zero offers.  I've always had a soft spot for this kind of "humans turning on each other when the pressure's on" tale, whether it be through things like the infamous "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" episode of The Twilight Zone or something like the underrated 1996 film The Trigger Effect, in which Kyle MacLachlan and Elisabeth Shue try to last through an L.A. power outage. While both of those examples simply teased an end to civilization, Panic in Year Zero gives us a full vision of what the event that changes the rules could look like.
The story follows a family of four - husband and wife Harry and Ann (Milland and Jean Hagen) and their children (a son played by teen idol Frankie Avalon and a daughter played by Spider Baby's Mary Mitchel) - who leave Los Angeles early in the morning on a camping trip and soon witness the event that sends society into an uproar.  With a head start on the rest of society - thanks to their 4 AM departure and the livable trailer they're pulling behind the car - Harry and the family manage to pick up supplies without incident, but things spiral out of control pretty quickly.  One of the first signs that things have broken from the norm comes when the family stops for gas, only to find that the advertised price of 34 cents per gallon (YES, 34 cents/gallon!) has gone up to $90 for a tank. To put that in perspective, that basically means that the real world increase in price of gas that occurred between 1962 and 2011 happened in a few hours.  Unable to pay for gas at that price, Harry and his family must take the gas by force.  It's then that the panic of the title starts picking up steam.
 The action in the film never hits a manic pace - the final product is just a family sci-fi flick that shows its age these days - but there are loads of intrigue regarding the family's fight for survival.  A trio of teen hoodlums who reminded me slightly of The Last House on the Left's crew provide one of the stronger oppositions in the film, and things get a little dark in the final act when confrontation is necessary.  The film even goes so far as to imply that a female character has become a sexual victim of the three thugs, which still surprises me considering the film's time of production and generally cheeky drive-in nature.  It's a little difficult to buy Avalon toting a rifle, but the change in these characters and the implications of how bad society can get are what gives the film most of its power.  If the Bleach Blanket Bingo guy has to carry a weapon, it has definitely hit the fan.
As director and star, Milland does a good job of keeping the film grounded, which is also the role of his onscreen character.  Harry is a fine patriarch under the circumstances, giving direction - but not orders - to his family as they try their hardest not to become victims in this chaotic new landscape.  A favorite moment occurs when the family - now safely secluded in a cave - sits down for dinner and is surprised to hear him start into a prayer thanking the Lord for getting the family through the day.  Religion and science fiction were often tied together in the '50s and early '60s, and though this scene will appear cheesy by today's standards (heck, that statement probably applies to the whole movie) it's a great addition to help us understand why the plight of these characters is worth following.
As the film moves to its conclusion the characters' morals and beliefs must take a back seat to their needs at times, and there are moments when the characters are forced to act in selfish and violent ways to ensure their survival.  Much of the final act, which crescendos to a tense final scene, plays into this - reminding us that frustration and pressure can easily block some of our basic courtesies - putting Harry and family on the other end of the gun.  This all leads to an abrupt conclusion which doesn't even try to wrap up all our concerns, which is a fitting way to keep the film's message strong.
With strong direction from Milland and a jazzy musical score by Les Baxter, Panic in Year Zero is a great example of how classic science fiction films could be both family friendly and mentally stimulating.  It also avoids going political in its message, because there are far more primal matters of right and wrong that must take precedence in this post-nuclear setting.  The result is a great drive-in diversion that's perfect for a Saturday matinee; a sci-fi film that can still entertain and provoke wonder.


JohnBem said...

" If the Bleach Blanket Bingo guy has to carry a weapon, it has definitely hit the fan." Yes indeed. How did I not know that Milland directed a movie? This sounds like it'd be right up my alley. Thanks for the excellent post.

The Mike said...

I was surprised to find out that this wasn't the only movie he directed, John, but it turns out he directed a few dramas before this in the '50s.

I really dig Milland's stuff with AIP, though there's a big dip in quality between this and X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes in the early '60s and Frogs and The Thing With Two Heads in the '70s.

Hope you enjoy!