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Monday, August 1, 2011

Panic In The Year Zero!

American International Pictures was not famous for great movies, but Panic In The Year Zero (PYZ) was a pretty good movie. It was highly topical, given that it was released at the frightening height of the Cold War. It starred, and was directed by Ray Milland -- an actor past his peak, but still solid. Frankie Avalon -- before becoming mired in the whole beach party genre, plays his son Rick. PYZ is classic Atomic Angst, playing out the "what if..." following an all-out nuclear war. The film is sometimes categorized as sci-fi, but this may be because nuclear apocalypse films often were. There is no science in PYZ. There is a tangental connection to sci-fi via the writer Jay Simms. He did pen several B sci-fi movies, however. He brought us The Killer Shrews, The Giant Gila Monster (both '59) and Creation of the Humanoids ('62)

Quick Plot Synopsis
The Baldwin family set out for a fishing vacation in the hills. A few hours outside of Los Angeles they see bright flashes from behind them. Massive mushroom clouds rise of LA. Ann, Harry's wife, wants to return to see if her mother is okay, but reckless refugee traffic eventually turns them back. Harry decides that civilization is about to crumble so he turns off to an out-of-the-way small town to buy supplies. They stock up on groceries and hardware like axes and rope. When Ed Johnson, the hardware store owner refuses Harry's check and promise to return and pay, Harry decks him and leaves (with the goods). A gas station operator tries to gouge $3 a gallon (sakes!) where his sign says 34 cents per gallon. Harry decks him and leaves the ten dollars (regular price.) The Baldwins eventually escape the traffic, but are beset by a convertible carrying three hoodlums. The three plan to rob and kill Harry, but Rick (Avalon) shoots from within the trailer, wounding Andy slightly. The hoodlums depart. Once at the remote campsite, Harry and Rick wreck the rickety bridge, limiting access. Rick knows of a cave in the rocky hills big enough to live in. The family set up home in the cave. Scattered radio reports tell of other major cities being destroyed by nuclear attack, and American counter attacks on enemy cities. Law and order difficult to maintain. The UN declares this to be the year zero. Harry encounters Ed Johnson in the woods. He and his wife set up home in the Baldwin's abandoned trailer. Harry's cool to the idea of socializing, worried that it would expose their cave hideout. Smoke from a distant farmhouse belies someone else living in the area too. While hunting a buck, Rick hears two shots fired. Later, he and Harry find Mr and Mrs. Johnson shot dead at the trailer. The three hoodlums have set up home in the farmhouse. One day, Ann does laundry in the river, but one of her slips floats away. Andy and Mickey find it, follow upriver, and come across Karen (the Baldwin's teen daughter). There is an off-camera suggestion that Mickey sexually abuses Karen. Her screams bring Ann running. She takes a distant shot at the men, frightening them off. Harry finds out and is outraged at the hoodlums. He and Rick sneak up to the farmhouse while the leader, Carl, is away. Harry overhears Mickey and Andy talking about attacking Karen. He and Rick burst in. Mickey makes a move for a gun, so Harry shoots him. Andy looks contrite, but Harry shoots him anyway. They search the house and find the hoodlums' sex slave, Marilyn locked in a bedroom. She's wary, but agrees to come with them. They hide the bodies in the barn. Back at the cave, Karen is recovering and Marilyn is softening to Rick's 50s cuteness. Carl, prowling for who killed his buddies, comes upon Marilyn and Rick out gathering firewood. Carl shoots Rick in the thigh. Marilyn shoots Carl dead. The first aid kit isn't enough for Rick's wound, so they uncover the car and drive to the nearest town looking for a doctor. They find one, but he says Rick needs blood. The nearest hospital with blood is 60 miles away. The Baldwins drive on into the night, but encounter another vehicle. Instead of hoodlums, it turns out to be an advanced Army patrol. They direct Harry to an aid station just 10 miles down the road. As they drive off, the two soldiers reflect on the hopeful future of America. The End.

Apocalypse Survived
Like many dramas of the Cold War era, PYZ plays out the scenario of the collapse of civilization after a massive nuclear war. Instead of focusing on radiation (mutants or sickness or death), the story stays confined to lawlessness and survival. The off-screen devastation and chaos leave survivors in the hinterlands on their own. Some become greedy, some become rapists and killers. That background of fallen man is what Harry Baldwin is headstrong determined to have his family survive. They do, but not unscathed. The moral of the story is: as bad as nuclear war can be, it can be survived. This is quite the opposite message from the movie On The Beach ('59) in which no one survives.

Cold War Spotlight
One of the nagging fears of the Cold War era was that doom could rain at any moment -- without warning. The Baldwin family blithely start a vacation with no hint from current events that a nuclear attack was at hand. The radio announcer provides the larger off-screen view that most major western cities were destroyed and that American had retaliated. Several of the "enemy's" cities were destroyed too. A subtle hint of patriotic confidence is written in, such that we hear the enemy sues for peace terms. America "won."

Man's Dark Side -- The real story within PYZ is not the more familiar atomic mutants that result from a nuclear war. It is the emergence of mankind's own "dark side" from within. The various institutions of civilization corral and leash fallen man's tendency towards evil, but it is never truly tamed, or eliminated. In the Cold War ethos, global nuclear war would break down civilization's fences, snap the leash. This is shown in small stages -- price gouging, etc. -- but most clearly in the three hoodlums: Carl, Mickey and Andy. They represent ruthless, black-hearted man, amused at theft, killing and rape. But note too, how Harry, Ann and Rick discover their own hint of dark side. Each comes to accept killing too, albeit for more noble reasons.

Panic's Two Faces -- It can seem, at first, that the characters of Harry and Ann are written shallow. She is all denial. He becomes authoritarian, with total bunker-vision. Yet, with a bit deeper look, Harry and Ann each portray two polar responses to the nuclear apocalypse -- go into survival mode and try to remain civilized. Both of these would be present in most people. Indeed, the two responses are present in both Harry and Ann. He chides her for clinging too hard to the old ways of civility, yet acts honorably. He decks the price-gouging gas station man, but still pays (advertised price) for his gas. Ann, still expecting mutual civility, balks at the killing of hoodlum Andy at first encounter. Yet, later, she is quick to shoot at him as they ravage her daughter. By the end of the film, the two faces have become more blended in both Harry and Ann. Both live in bunkerism with hope for civility's return.

Army? Thank God! -- A background current within the story is that American society and institutions are essentially "good." There are just some very bad apples in the bunch. Store owner Ed Johnson turns out to be just a regular guy, then hapless victim of evil. Dr. Strong (aptly named) is a noble remnant. The America-is-okay sentiment is most evident when the Baldwins encounter the army patrol near the very end of the film. "Oh Harry, the ARMY. Thank God!" Darker, most pessimistic (modern) films would have cast the doctor as just another guy on the make, and the army patrol is little better than uniformed hoodlums.

Familiar Ground -- The boulder-strewn landscape of "the hills" in which Harry hides is family, could look very familiar to people who watched a lot of westerns on television or Republic serials shot in the 40s and 50s. It looks familiar because it's the same land. TV series like Bonanza, Gunsmoke,The Virginian, and The Rifleman were shot there. In the sci-fi realm, the Commando Cody serials and Captain Video series were shot there too.

Car Nuts -- Fans of 50s (and early 60s) cars will find a candy store on parade. All the traffic scenes feature dozens of 40s, 50s and 60s iron. The Baldwin's '62 Mercury Monterey gets a lot of camera time, but there are glimpses of many less-famous models, too numerous to list here.

Bottom line? PYZ is well paced, with enough action and events to keep the average viewer engaged. The film's low budget prevent more lavish treatment of a nuclear holocaust, but Milland navigates this well enough by focusing on the human drama rather than topics requiring special effects, sets or extensive makeup. The result is a focused drama about the thinness of civilization's veneer. PYZ is a good peek into the Cold War citizen's heart.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This was a great movie.

The edginess of the characters really set the tone for the film.
For those of us who grew up in the Los Angeles area - it was especially realistic.
The difficult decisions that the father had to make, as well as the change of attitude of the mother and daughter really helped bring depth to the movie.

Can't help feeling good when the two "punks" got theirs in the farm house living room.
It also showed how human nature can express itself in a disaster.

Worth watching and in some ways more meaningful today than when it was made.