The End of the World, be it nuclear, environmental, medical, technological, or religious in nature, whether it arrives as a result of a careening meteor or an alien invasion, has provided a rich source of inspiration for filmmakers for nearly a century now. Of the countless filmic visions of the apocalypse to date (The Day the Sky Exploded, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, The Last Days of Man on Earth, The Last Days of Planet Earth, The Last Man on Earth, This is Not a Test, Virus, Grass, Threads, Five…), few can match the simple, brutal strangeness of Oscar-winning actor Ray Milland’s sole directorial effort, Panic in Year Zero. Released in 1962 by AIP with a finger-poppin’ jazz score by Art Baxter and a screenplay by Jay Simms (The Giant Gila Monster, The Killer Shrews) and John Morton (who did nothing else), the film fed straight into the post-Cuban Missile Crisis jitters with a portrait of psychological ugliness audiences couldn’t have expected.
The trailer tried to offer a few hints:
“This is civilization’s jungle after the jackals of society have ruthlessly ravaged it, ending the world of decency!”
(After seeing the film, exactly who those “jackals of society” are remains a question well worth discussing with friends and family.)
The first subtle hints of what lay ahead come in the opening scene. A casually dressed Milland (complete with his ever-present fedora) stands in the driveway of his suburban Los Angeles home, playing with a fishing rod as his wife loads the trailer for a week-long camping trip in the mountains. He’s apparently been playing with that fishing rod and ignoring his wife for some time, as she finally complains about his lack of helpfulness as she hauls out the last bag of supplies. The wife (Jean Hager of Asphalt Jungle and Singin’ in the Rain) is soon joined by their two teenage children, Mary Mitchel (Spider Baby) and teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon, and the family is off on a supposedly pleasant vacation.
After an hour or two on the road a mysterious flash and a distant explosion makes them curious. It takes a good long time for them to reach the conclusion that the Bomb’s just fallen on L.A. (that mushroom cloud is a big tip-off). Deciding almost immediately that it’s not worth heading back home to check on his mother-in-law, Milland forges onward toward the mountains, gathering supplies where he can. Along the way he makes a number of speeches that clearly delineate the film’s political outlook.
When his wife confesses that she’s frightened, Milland replies, “That’s a good way to be. For the next few weeks survival’s gonna be on an individual basis. What we need now is food, a way to protect it, and a way to get more when it’s gone.”
“So what do you do,” his wife asks. “Write off the rest of the world?”
“When civilization gets civilized again,” he explains, jumping to some big conclusions, “I’ll rejoin.”
Over the next few minutes, that attitude changes slightly. Not only is he out to protect himself and his family, Milland also represents the future of Western Civilization, which had provided him with his suburban home, his camper, and his new fishing rod”
“You said civilization’s still here,” he tells his wife. “I want you to keep your eye on it, watch it unravel to a small, hard core. Then someone’s gonna have to start putting it back together again, and I want that someone to be us.”
For all his talk, however, he promptly turns his back on Western Civilization, as supposed fundamentals like cooperation, compassion, law, and humanity go right out the window in the frenzy for personal survival. He refuses to tell a shopkeeper that most of the world has been obliterated so he can get his supplies at pre-apocalypse prices. A few minutes later he robs a hardware store at gunpoint and beats up the owner. Then he beats up a gas station attendant for raising the prices.
After the family is stopped by three thugs on the highway, Frankie Avalon wings one of them with a shotgun blast. Milland gets upset that his son didn’t kill the guy. When his son promptly turns around and blames his mother for knocking the barrel when he was about to fire, Milland yells at her.
In what was becoming a pattern throughout the film, after Avalon expresses some excitement over having shot someone, the never-satisfied Milland tells him, “I want you to know how to use that gun if you have to, but I want you to hate it. Otherwise you’re no better than they are.” Then in the next scene he turns around and sets up a flaming roadblock on a busy highway so he and his family can get across. It results in multiple accidents and lord knows how many fatalities, but by god he gets across.
It goes on and on. Upon arriving at the campsite a safe distance away from L.A. and the fallout, he not only tears down the sign announcing the site, he tears down the bridge leading to the site to make sure no one else can get in. Even after encountering the hardware store owner and his wife in the woods, he doesn’t kill them, but refuses to share any food with them. (When, at his wife’s urging, he goes back to visit them a few days later, they’ve been murdered. Yet after his family gets set up in a cave with supplies enough to last them a month or two, he insists that they will be defending civilization if they continue with their daily routines, including prayers and shaving, which are apparently far more important cornerstones to a culture than, oh, helping out some decent folks down the way. The only moment of remorse he feels, the only moment in which he says aloud, “I’m no better than they are,” comes after shooting the two men who raped his daughter. He admits to his wife that he can’t look at his daughter after the rape, but he feels bad for shooting the men who did it.
The thing to keep in mind throughout all this, and this is important, is that Milland’s character is presented as a good guy, a heroic figure who is doing whatever it takes to get his family to safety and protect them once they arrive. The key is in the final scene. While driving down a dark side road in a rush to get his wounded son to a doctor, Milland is stopped by a roadblock. The people manning the roadblock proceed to strafe his car with machine gun fire. The terror quickly turns to joy, however, when the family learns their car was just shot up, not by thugs, but by U.S. soldiers.
After telling his story, the soldiers let him pass along toward presumed salvation. Watching them go, one soldier says to another, “There go five good ones.”
And that’s the core of the family values message here. If protecting his wife and children requires a little armed robbery, arson, reckless endangerment, and homicide, maybe even a little paranoia and hypocrisy along the way, so be it. So long as you know you’re right.
And that idea in turn leads to a completely different way of looking at the film, and one that might make much more sense, namely, that it’s a Western. Screenwriter Simms, after all, spent most of his career writing television Westerns, and this seems to follow many of the basic models. Following some disaster at their old homestead, Milland and his family of settlers have loaded up the covered wagon and set out to create a new life in some uncharted wilderness. Along the way it’s up to him to protect them all from Indians, rustlers, and marauders of all types. It doesn’t matter how he does it in this new lawless territory, so long as he does it well. If the film had been set in the 1870s instead of the 1960s, there would be no question about the validity or honor of his behavior.
I’m going to avoid drawing any modern political parallels here, simply because I think the film remains an honest portrayal of basic human behavior in times of extreme crisis. No matter what your politics, Panic in Year Zero remains an endlessly fascinating and hugely entertaining film; a snapshot of America’s view of itself at the height of the Cold War, and one of those rare drive-in films that leaves viewers with an awful lot to think about.
And as a friend of mine once put it, “Panic in Year Zero taught me everything I needed to know about parenting.” Plus it includes one of my favorite and most-quoted lines of dialogue ever: “Quit yer yappin’ and get back in the cave!”
Den of Geek Rating: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars