The Baldwin family – Harry (Ray Milland), Ann (Jean Hagen), Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchel) – are headed off to fish and camp when they witness an explosion from afar, eventually realizing that Los Angeles has been hit with a nuclear attack.
The country goes mad. Looting and violent encounters plague the worldwide population since bombs were also dropped on other major cities, like New York and London.
Harry decides to escape to the hills, where he hopes he will be able to save his family and avoid being exposed to the chemicals of the attack.
But in such a dire situation, it’s difficult to get by without resorting to desperate measures, and Harry is more than willing to commit a few crimes to keep his family alive.
Ray Milland directs Panic in Year Zero (1962). The film was written by Jay Simms and John Morton, based on the stories of Ward Moore, who is not credited for his contributions.
A jazzy tune catches the viewer’s ear as the film begins, and the tense opening of the family witnessing the bombing hooks the viewer into the film.
In a way, this film is reminiscent of The Space Children. A family travels together and has a strange experience on the road. The major difference is that this time the whole family catches wind of the odd happenings, and the parents aren’t the unintentional cause of the whole ordeal.
Panic in Year Zero remains very tense and engrossing throughout its run. The conflict of a confused mother, a stern father willing to do whatever it takes and a whole lot of danger on the horizon leaves the viewer wondering how we would handle such a disaster, also bringing to mind how the world has handled past disasters.
Quite a few unexpected turns of events pop up, so the viewer’s interest is never lost. The story plays to our collective fear of the worst case scenario, and as a result never lets up its grip on us. (Quite appropriately, I watched this during TCM’s 2012 “doomsday” lineup.)
Panic in Year Zero is a well-paced, well-acted and well-written thriller. It will appeal to any fan of the horror/sci-fi/thriller genres, as well as the conspiracy theorists among us. The score: 3.8/5