Sunday, June 27, 2010

After the Bomb, Set Your Calendars to Year Zero

Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

Move over Mad Max. Make room for Mad Milland! As in Ray Milland (yes, you read that right: Ray Milland). When his family is endangered after a nuclear strike against the United States, Ray Milland will do anything to keep them safe.

On the surface Panic in Year Zero! appears to be just another cheapie sci-fi movie from American International Pictures made to capitalize on the Cold War fears of a nuclear attack against the U.S. But first time director Milland makes use of the small budget to focus on his family and the people they encounter as they search for a safe place to ride out the attack.

The movie starts innocently enough with the Baldwin family – father Harry (Milland), wife Ann (Jean Hagen), son Rick (Frankie Avalon), and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchell) – leaving Los Angeles for a camping trip in the mountains. Several miles into their journey they see a white flash of light from the direction they came. Soon after they see the unthinkable: a mushroom cloud. L.A.’s been nuked! The radio only has sporadic updates and every where they go the Baldwins see civilization start to unravel. At a gas station they encounter a man who had just lost his wife when a window shattered in their home cutting her to pieces. The man ran from his home in his pajamas and has no money to pay for the gas a mechanic just pumped into his car, so the man belts the hapless mechanic, jumps in his car and speeds off.

A short time later, when the Baldwins have stopped at a hardware store to pick up supplies, and, most importantly, firearms and ammo, Harry finds he’s a couple hundred dollars short. Naturally Johnson, the store owner, doesn't want to let Harry walk out with everything without paying in full, but Harry quickly loads a pistol and holds up the store owner, promising to pay him back the money he owes. Johnson surprises Harry and the two get into a fight, which Harry quickly loses, but Johnson’s victory is short-lived as Rick rushes to his father’s aid.

This is a movie short on visual effects but long on character. The writers, Jay Simms and John Moore (from novels by Ward Moore), put the burden of the Baldwin family’s survival squarely on Harry’s shoulders. Growing up, I pretty much knew Ray Milland only from his appearance on the original Battlestar Galactica as an aged colonial fat cat, more interested in stuffing his face and fulfilling his every desire. Milland is a much better actor than that (both in Panic... and in another AIP sci-fi cult classic, The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). Harry not only has to plan everything to be two steps ahead of the increasingly lawless people and crowds they encounter, but he has to quiet wife Ann’s doubts about his conduct and actions. She’s worried that if he crosses the line too many times that she may lose her husband, and likely her family.

Frankie Avalon doesn’t sing (thank goodness) but does turn in a decent supporting performance. In one scene, thugs get the drop on his father, and Rick ends up shooting one of them to save him. Harry discovers that Rick got a bit of a thrill from almost killing the man, and he quickly moves to dispel those feelings from his son. The world may be going to hell, but the Baldwin family will keep some semblance of civilization and decorum. In one scene, Harry decides that he and Rick will shave every morning, just one little civilized thing they can do to stave off their animal impulses.

The Baldwins face more threats as they try and ride out the end of the world. Mad Max would have been proud as Harry belts dudes, blasts rapists, and destroys bridges. Unlike many AIP movies, they managed to keep the current trends of the day mostly at bay, so there weren't any gangs with embarrassing slang to fight off (as in the Billy Jack movies [yes, I know those aren't AIP pics]). The filmmakers did a much better job of it than so many end of the world films made today. Carriers was one of the more recent low budget post-apocalyptic movies and its creators could have done a whole lot worse than to watch a little gem like Panic in Year Zero!, for inspiration, which shows that a solid story and characters will always win out in the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment