Frankie Avalon, Ray Milland, Richard Bakalyan, Neil Burstyn, Joan Freeman, Jean Hagen, Rex Holman, and Mary Mitchel in Panic in Year Zero (1962)


(director: Ray Milland; screenwriters: John Morton/Jay Simms; cinematographer: Gilbert Warrenton; editor: William Austin; music: Les Baxter; cast: Ray Milland (Harry Baldwin), Jean Hagen (Ann Baldwin), Frankie Avalon (Rick Baldwin), Mary Mitchel (Karen Baldwin), Richard Bakalyan (Carl), Joan Freeman (Marilyn Hayes), Richard Garland (Eric Johnson), Willis Buchet (Dr Strong), Rex Holman (Mickey), Neil Nephew (Andy); Runtime: 93; AIP; 1962)
“The only thing that was hard to fully approve of in Panic in Year Zero!, was Milland’s selfish philosophy for survival — it was simply not a very human one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Los Angeles nuclear Baldwin family consisting of authoritarian father Harry (Milland), sweet mother Ann (Hagen), obedient teenager son Rick (Avalon), and obediant teenager sister Karen (Mitchel), leave by camper trailer at 4 a.m. for a camping trip in the mountains. When they are far from L. A. they hear an explosion sounding much like thunder and can’t pick up a radio signal, and soon discover that L.A. is undergoing a nuclear attack by an unnamed enemy.

Harry realizes that panic will set in and goes in a second from being a vacationer to a hard-nosed survivalist. He forces his reluctant wife to forget her pacifism and gets everyone in the family to fight for their survival by taking a militaristic stance, as looting and anarchy begin and people’s behavior starts to get ugly as the law of civilization is usurped by the law of the jungle. Store owners exorbitantly hike up the price of their goods and customers run off without paying. Harry comes so fed up with one such gas station owner that he punches him out and only pays him the price the gas was supposed to be. Ann wants to go back to help her mother still in L.A., but Harry says that it’s too late to help her. Harry’s only aim is now to protect his family at any cost.

The family stocks up on food and buys weapons, and when the hardware store owner (Garland) wants them to follow the state law and wait a few days for a license and for his check to clear, Harry takes the guns at gunpoint after promising to pay later. On the road they are jumped by a trio of thugs, but manage to get the jump on them and escape. On the road to their lakeside retreat, armed men from the town stand by a road barricade and refuse them entry because of previous looters. But Harry has Rick shoot over their heads while he crashes through the barricade. When the highway is too jammed for movement, he spills kerosene on the road and ignites it so it causes a traffic jam whereas only he can pass. He eventually escapes to a remote secret cave Rick discovered on their last camping trip.

The family survives alone until one day the hardware store owner spots them, as he also fled to the mountains to escape the hordes of people pouring into his small town from L.A. and destroying everything. But Harry refuses to help, until his wife urges him to. When he goes to find the hardware man and his wife, he finds them dead from gunshot wounds. The Baldwin women are left alone at their campsite, as two of the punky thugs from before show up and rape Karen. Harry goes with Rick to get the thugs and kills them in cold-blood. He also finds an attractive teenager, Marilyn Hayes (Freeman), that the trio kept as a prisoner after they killed her parents to take over their home. They rescue the girl and Rick develops a romantic interest in her.

While Rick is chopping wood and Marilyn is standing guard with a rifle, the third member of the gang sneaks up and overtakes them. A struggle ensues, as the thug is killed by Marilyn but Rick gets critically shot. The radio announces the war is nearly over, as the enemy was hit by a return nuclear attack and is asking for peace. The roads are still dangerous, but the family risks it in order to get their son to a hospital. The film ends with order being restored by the presence of the military and the comfort for the family that civilization is now once again restored.

This was the first film Ray Milland directed. A modern audience would have no trouble identifying with its pessimistic treatment of humanity and the frightening possibility of what a nuclear attack could do. We live in a time of terrorists and the scenario presented onscreen is not that far fetched from the realm of possibilities. The only thing that was hard to fully approve of in Panic in Year Zero!, was Milland’s selfish philosophy for survival — it was simply not a very human one. It was a narrow philosophy that did not give him the high moral ground over the looters, who also recognized it was a dog-eat-dog world and they must also look out only for Number One. But if everyone behaved like that, the world would indeed be a place of anarchy and hell. Otherwise this rather grim tale acted in a satisfying but desultory manner, in pointing out what realistically might happen in such a catastrophe. Its theme as stated by Milland is: “I’ll return when civilization becomes civilized again.”

The film takes its title after the devastation from the world nuclear attacks, as the calendar begins at zero. It signifies that: “There must be no end — only a beginning.”