I recall the first time I saw Ray Milland’s Panic In Year Zero! some decades back as a kid, I laughed at a few things from some of the histrionic acting and direction, the incredibly poor science on display (back then I was a science whiz), Frankie Avalon’s perfect coif (that pomade he was using was pretty much disaster proof) and every woman being a second class citizen and second fiddle to the men in the world it presents. I still laugh now, but it’s more of a dry cackle of late. The film’s less that rosy display of humanity comes off as only a fraction of where we are today with reality rolling up with a nice ice cold dose of “hold my (insert obviously named) beer, pal.”
Despite its flaws, it’s a really good “B”-grade film that’s quite dated on a few fronts, but the message hits home because hell, who wouldn’t want to get the heck out of town after major cities fall under multiple nuclear attacks? Well, if you’re a tightly knit family unit like the Baldwins, who happen to be on a camping vacation when all hell breaks loose, you get in your trusty sedan with that handy trailer attached and try to survive the trip into the mountains as chaos breaks out everywhere. Saying this film is a total blast is an understatement as well a a nice and corny joke (ha and ha).
The film is pretty much The Baldwins (Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel) versus nearly everyone else, as they go through hell and high water in their survival attempts. Well, there’s no high water because of the budget, but you know what I mean. Of course, a few moral arguments break out among the family unit as tensions increase. But Milland’s direction and style of acting here is mostly lead, follow, get out of the way, or get shot, which works well here. I wouldn’t call Frankie Avalon a “great” actor, but he manages to hold his own, keeping up with Milland’s pace (and an appropriately off-kilter Lex Baxter score). As for the ladies? Well, in true early 60’s fashion, they’re conflicted but spunky when need be, but there’s still that bit of hesitancy when a few creeps try and gain the upper hand. At least they get to wield firearms when a few scenes require them, so there’s that.
Interestingly, the film takes a neat turn when there’s a blood transfusion that’s needed and rather than a patently happy closure to things, you get The Baldwins pressing on as survivors thanks to a truce called between warring nations. Granted, the film would really be more like the supremely depressing TV movies from 20 years later, 1983’s The Day After or 1984’s Threads. But then again, the UK got the harrowing and eventually award-winning The War Game in 1966. It seems that here in the States, we’re always not completely ready for something, aren’t we? That said, I’d stick Milland’s flick into a nice and gloomy triple feature that included Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and Fail Safe. Hey, I know what you’re thinking right about now, but I’m not that nutty. Sometimes you need a little fake disaster to deal with the real ones.