Several years back I was traveling with my family and we stopped at a hotel for the night. There, we caught part of an old black and white movie called Panic in Year Zero (1962). It was kind of funny to watch with its low production cost and very dated effects. I recently watched it again, and seeing it in its entirety was both amusing and sobering.
Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his wife Ann (Jean Hagen) leave their Los Angeles home early in the morning with their teenage kids, Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchel) to make good time for their camping trip. After some time on the road, they hear an explosion and realize that Los Angeles has been leveled by a nuclear attack. Other major cities in the US and around the world have also been hit. With the authorities tied up in more pressing matters, looters and killers are everywhere. After stocking up on some necessities in a town they pass through, Harry takes his family out into the hills where they were originally planning to camp. There he sets about the business of surviving in a world where he knows the old ideals of humanity will be the first casualties. Taking every precaution to keep themselves hidden and protected, Harry hides his family in a cave, to wait for a time when civilization might again become civil.
Panic in Year Zero is like a time capsule of nuclear paranoia. Around the time this movie was made, The Cold War was escalating and the Cuban Missile Crisis had barely passed. Many people were expecting the world to come to an end at a moment’s notice. This movie really captivates this fear and reflected the attitude of its day; especially in the shot of the Baldwin family standing next to their car, staring at the mushroom cloud above their home on the horizon. From a historical perspective, this movie is fascinating to see.
Even though it could still happen, we don’t really fear a nuclear holocaust today. But if you look at Panic in Year Zero from a perspective of people caught up in a massive disaster, it still hits home. The massive panic, looting of supplies, people killing each other over necessities, and wide spread lawlessness on the grounds that there are no police to stop them brings to mind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. People are taking extreme measures to protect themselves at all costs, while others degenerate into monsters without morals or conscience. We have seen people do this on the news in the face of massive disasters, natural or otherwise. The conflicts between people in Panic in Year Zero aren’t far-fetched from real human behavior that we have seen in recent years.
I’m probably making this movie sound a lot grittier than it actually is. While it certainly makes you think about surviving a massive disaster, it’s still a low-budget movie from the early 1960’s. It’s almost like a nuclear holocaust if it were depicted on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. There are strong gender roles that seem archaic these days; the men do all the fighting, hunting, and negotiating, while the women’s role is to have emotional break downs and scream at anything that doesn’t involve cooking dinner. Harry gets his family into the cave, and his wife immediately sets out to make a kitchen and dining area that is decorated and furnished. Ann and Karen spend days at the cave doing laundry in their high heels while Harry and Rick hunt. And of course the wise, unquestionable patriarch has to keep the women in line so they don’t do something stupid and jeopardize their survival. They also make a point of praying as a family like any good Christian Americans would.
Panic in Year Zero still had The Hays Code in effect; they were very limited in what they could show or say on screen. There are some teenage thugs (as most movies in the 50’s and 60’s had) who try to abduct Karen. It’s vaguely implied that they intended to rape her, but this is depicted by having them push her off balance a few times and kiss her on the lips against her will. Those monsters! It’s like The Andy Griffith Show trying to be Mad Max or something.
One of my favorite scenes is early on when the Baldwin’s stop for gas and the greedy gas station attendant tries to take advantage of the panicked demand for gas. He hikes up the price for his own benefit to an outrageous three dollars per gallon! That is unimaginably high for 1962, where the average price of a gallon of gas was $0.31. Harry ends up knocking out the station attendant in one old-west-style punch, and leaves a $10 bill with him before driving off. That scene really dates the movie, but man, I wish I could get gas that cheap.
Panic in Year Zero is a cheap B-movie, but it still hits home and touches on human behavior and panic in face of a crisis. It’s very successful in what it attempts to do, even on an obviously shoe string budget. I mean, they try to depict a traffic jam, but you never see more than 5 cars on the road at a time. There’s still a prevalent vibe of anxiety and panic throughout the movie, and it shows us things that could very likely happen. I recommend seeing this movie. It’s a pretty obscure title that I doubt you’d find at a local video rental store or RedBox. But NetFlix has it on DVD. If you can tolerate the low production value and dated social norms, this is a pretty good movie for what it is; a time capsule of nuclear paranoia.