It's the end of the world as we know it in PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! (1962), which I watched for the first time this morning. This grim, downbeat film, directed by the film's star Ray Milland, was released by American International Pictures It's probably the only AIP film to deal with a nuclear attack without resorting to monsters and mutants to spice things up.
Ray Milland stars as Harry Baldwin, a middle class resident of Los Angeles. He's taking his family, wife Ann (Jean Hagen), son Rick (Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchell) on a camping/fishing trip in the hills outside of LA. It's Ozzie and Harriet meet the Apocalypse.
On their way out of town, the family witnesses a bright flash of light and when they look back they see an enormous mushroom cloud (the only special effects shot in the film) rising over the Los Angeles basin. They start to head back to the city but are met with a steady stream of automobiles fleeing the area. If you look closely you'll notice that it's the same cars on the same road, over and over again. Budgetary restrictions didn't allow for the hiring of more than a handful of vehicles.
Baldwin quickly goes into survival mode. He buys up groceries in a small town along with hardware and weapons. When he can't pay for the guns and ammunition, he takes the weapons at gun point. The Baldwins eventually reach their original campsite destination. They collapse a bridge into the area, ditch their camper and take up residence in a cave. Harry insists that they maintain a regular routine and try to remain civilized at all costs.
But danger rears it's ugly head when three hoods (Richard Bakalyan, Rex Holman and Neil Nephew) show up. The Baldwins had encountered the punks on the road earlier in the film. The bad guys have taken up residence in a farmhouse where they keep a frightened young woman, Marilyn (Joan Freeman), captive. Two of the men try to rape the Baldwin daughter and it's up to Harry and Rick to gun the men down and rescue their captive. The third hood shows up later and seriously wounds Rick before being killed by Marilyn.
Harry realizes that in order to save his son's life, he must return to civilization and put some trust and faith back into mankind. They load up the car and head for a nearby refugee center only to be met by the U.S. Army who is now in control of the area. A tenuous peace has been negotiated between the countries involved in the nuclear war and the Baldwins are permitted to proceed to their destination. The film ends on a cautious note of optimism.
PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! is an earnestly mounted production. It treats it's subject matter quite seriously while avoiding some major issues, such as radiation and fallout. Ray Milland does a competent job directing the action and his performance as Harry depicts a man rapidly descending to the level of "every man for himself" in order to secure his family's continued existence. Milland appeared in a several other genre films including THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962), X-THE MAN WITH THE X RAY EYES (1963), FROGS (1972) and THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972).
The first (and best) half of the film was filmed on location in the hills and canyons outside of Los Angeles. When the family arrives at their new cave home, the action moves to a studio sound stage. It's a bit jarring to move from a realistic to an artificial environment. The jazz inflected score by Lex Baxter is good, but it belongs in a different film. It's too upbeat for the depressing story on display. One nice note: we see only the title of the film at the beginning. Full credits do not appear until the very end.
PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! isn't the greatest end of the world movie ever made but it's certainly a product of it's time. I'm sure it resonated with audiences in 1962, tapping into the threat of nuclear war that was a clear and present danger in the Cold War years. It's sober, well-meaning and compelling. Recommended.