The only thing better than discovering a B movie you’ve never seen in a genre you like is discovering a good B movie in that genre. “Panic in Year Zero!” is a damn good movie. Damn good, I say.
Directed by, and starring onetime-superstar Ray Milland, and co-starring a pre-beach-movie Frankie Avalon, along with a cast of nobodies, it tells the tribulations off a normal American family in World War III. Well, a normal American family with a dad who slips into a watered-down Welsh accent, but, hey, whatever.
Despite having a budget of a couple hundred bucks, plus whatever was left over at the Craft Services table when the previous production wrapped, the movie uses it exceptionally well. “Low Budget” doesn’t mean “Bad,” and if you use your low budget effectively, it can give you qualities that a bigger, slicker film can’t. This movie uses its limitations excellently. I expected it to be yet another ‘Family escapes, then gets attacked my mutant monsters’ turd. Instead, I got an intelligent, well directed, pretty well acted movie that both shows the best qualities of the mid-century American can-do attitude, and also how thin the veil of civilization really is. It pulls off the juggling act of optimism, pessimism, and and mild action all at the same time.
Much like Red Dawn (The 1984, not the crappy remake), we start out with normal slice-of-life as the family gets ready to go on a fishing trip for the weekend. Shortly after they get into the foothills, they start seeing flashes and hearing booms they mistake for lightning. The dad quickly realizes the truth, and we get the ONE special effect in the film (A matte of a mushroom cloud with the cast staring at it from the road).
From there the tension ratchets up. All the radio stations are dead. They find one from Bakersfield which seems perfectly normal, but it abruptly goes dead. They pull over at a payphone to try to call grandma, but can’t get through. They start getting nearly run off the road by cars hauling ass out of the city. They stop at a restaurant, which is packed with scared people and running out of everything. This being almost the ’50s, the dad hits on the idea of pulling off the highway and driving through some of the smaller towns that may not have heard yet. This works for a while.
What makes this work is that the dad is a decent all-American (though occasionally Welsh-accented) guy, determined to be fair and decent with everyone. He is burdened with being the only one in his family who really grasps what’s going on, however, and the lines between what he will and won’t do blur pretty quickly. Initially he pays for gas when they need a refill, and pays for groceries – this being before the idea that money is useless has really sunk in yet – but pretty soon he’s beating people up to take what he needs, then leaving behind as much cash as he thinks is fair to salve his consciousness.
At one point he starts a fire to create a traffic jam so he can get his car across the highway and down a dirt road on the other side. This causes one oncoming car to burst into flames, and the driver to be clearly injured, but dad don’t stop.
What keeps this from going all Breaking Bad is that he sees what’s happening. He’ll do anything to keep his family safe (And fails, because he is just a guy, not some superman or army vet who’s trained for this stuff). Example:
Wife: “You can’t be so hard on yourself.”
Dad [depressed]: “I killed two men.”
Wife: “I tried to kill them, too, I just wasn’t a good enough shot.”
Later on, when his son, Frankie Avalon, shoots a guy in the arm, he gets a little too worked up over it. “I could have blown his head clean off!” He likes his newfound power. Dad tears into it, talking about how the best part of civilization is gone, and how they’re going to have to do some uncivilized things to survive, “But I want you to hate it. Every time you have to do something bad to another man, it’s your duty to hate it, because that’s all there is left of civilization: What’s inside of us. If we lose that, we’re no better than them.”
Eventually, they manage to find a place to hid out in the mountains, and do pretty well there for a couple months, with only infrequent news by radio (They get five minutes of emergency broadcasts every two hours, on the hour).
Then the film gets unexpectedly vicious. Some wandering thugs attack the daughter. Mom scares them off with a gun. Dad and Frankie come back to the camp, later on and see Daughter crying and the mom looking forlorn and holding her close. Dad asks, “Did they…hurt her?”
Mom nods, yes.
I was dropjawed! This is an early ’60s adventure film. Teenage girls don’t get raped in these movies! They make it very clear that she did, though. She behaves in a tragic fashion in the aftermath, apologizing to her dad as if it’s her fault, talking about how she doesn’t want to go back to civilization because she’s ‘not the same,’ and so on.
In a run in with the same thugs later on, we discover that they’ve murdered four people, and are holding another teenage girl prisoner, using her as a sex slave.
Again: holy crap!
This girl is a better actress then the daughter, and telegraphs the trauma better. There’s an oh-this-is-just-wrong romantic subplot about Frankie developing a crush on her and putting the moves on her, but before I could even say, “Oh, God, no, don’t go all stupid on me now,” the girl completely shuts him down, and he realizes what he’s done.
Later on someone gets shot and they need a doctor. On the way, they hear on the radio that the enemy has surrendered. They manage to find a doctor, who insists they roll up their sleeves before they come in (“Can’t be too careful. Junkies are everywhere”). Even as its drawing to a close, the film maintains its dual viewpoints
Dad: “The war’s over! We won!”
Doctor [sarcastically] “Well ding, ding for us.”
Dad [put off]: “You have a very odd sense of humor.”
Doctor: “The war is over, over there, but that doesn’t change anything over here. Now, you stay on the back roads. And you keep your gun handy. Our country is still full of thieving, murdering patriots.”
So Dad manages to keep his family alive, if not safe. Or does he? the movie is a little ambiguous about that as well. We don’t actually find out if the person who got shot survives or dies. It’s implied that probably survived, it’s made clear that they have a good chance of surviving, but the film steadfastly refuses to give us a clear-cut happy ending. All we’re told is that we can not allow endings, only new beginnings.
Wow! This is strongly recommended.
There’s negatives, of course. Frankie looks like a teenager, and him viewing the disaster as a fast track to becoming a man is a neat twist, but he’s not good enough to quite pull it off. The daughter is just a plain bad actress. The mom is a bit of a schlub. Frankie spends two days in a car with open windows, and never gets as much as a follicle out of place. Damn, that’s some hair helmet he’s got going on there. The soundtrack – a big, bold, jazzy, swingin’ score – is completely inappropriate for the movie. “The Wilderness” is clearly a soundstage, and some of the day-for-night shots are painfully obvious.
From a modern perspective, the movie is pretty sexist. Women are victims. They can’t defend themselves. They’re baggage. A lot of viewers may find this offensive or insulting.
From the perspective of the time, though, I think this is pretty on the mark. Women were not trained to be self-reliant. Given that their lives were intended to be cooking, cleaning, and shopping, I think the movie actually acquits itself pretty well. Mom is eventually packing a gun, as is one of the girls. Two girls get raped, but they don’t go suicidal or completely catatonic. It’s made clear that they’ll survive and they still have worth. They’ve been violated, they’ve not been sullied.
Bottom line: This is actually a better movie than a lot of big budget World War III films. It’s a forgotten minor classic. Watch it.