“Panic in Year Zero!” centers on eruption of atomic war in Los Angeles, and other American cities, seen not up close but from far away, through the eyes of the Baldwin family, Harry (Ray Milland) and Ann (Jean Hagen) and their two teenage kids Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchell). On their way out of the city and into the mountains for a camping trip, a flash of light appears and a mushroom cloud rising above Los Angeles confirms the family’s worst suspicions. That mushroom cloud, actors staring off at what is clearly stock footage, foreshadow this nuclear horror movie’s indifference to impressive effects. Effects are not in the budget! Neither are a lot of extras! This means that if the Baldwin family encounters a person or persons you can be sure those encountered will re-appear. This is ok. Milland, who also directed, working from a script by John Morton and Jay Simms, shrewdly uses production limitations to his advantage. This is an atomic movie in which a father instantly decides to isolate his family, reasoning that seclusion is their only chance for survival, and the ensuing events are a familiar if still effective rendering of what really lies in the heartz of men when the lights go out.
It doesn’t take long for the lights to go out. As director, Milland doesn’t dilly-dally; he gets up and goes, pushing forward, a narrative efficiency that is mirrored by the ahead-at-all-costs desperation felt by his character. Though initially Harry thinks about getting back to L.A. to check on their loved ones, his behavior from the get go knows this is futile and as the traffic of those survivors fleeing the city becomes omnipresent and out of control, Harry decides to flee too. Not in a panic, mind you, but with solemn calculation, gathering food, gathering gas, gathering supplies. Their car and trailer take on the air of a covered wagon lighting out along the Oregon Trail, not with hope but survivalist despair, and it often feels that way, right down to a nighttime highway crossing that resembles a pioneer river crossing, suggesting how quickly American society, in the wake of cataclysm, might revert to primitive beginnings.
Even as he correctly senses lawlessness on the horizon, Harry tries to maintain decorum, paying for what he needs, until what he needs he can’t afford – a gun. It’s always a gun. And when he takes it and cocks it, a sound that has so many times been employed cinematically to maximize coolness, counts for something, the demarcation line between who he was and who he needs to be now. Who he needs to be now is an at-all-costs protector of his family, a role that Milland plays with an air at once apologetic and A Man’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do. And he does, turning his gun on whoever he needs to and not hesitating to pull the trigger. There is real sudden violence in this movie, and it becomes more notable for the guilt that Harry doesn’t feel. The stakes are too high for remorse; point and shoot. Not that he forgoes all codes, advising his family of a need for normalcy, forcing them to sit down for dinner, telling Rick they will both continue to shave. He also orders his wife and daughter to keep near the cave where they make camp.
The women remain very much in the background, marking “Panic in Year Zero!” as very much “of its time”, where the women exist primarily to be placed in peril, most notably at the hands of a trio of thugs who become the chief villains, a strange lot, like extras from “Jailhouse Rock” crossed with the brigade of Major Henry West. These guys, along with the film’s jazzy score, which at times aids the uneasy, off kilter feeling permeating the Baldwin family’s escape but at other times, particularly in situations of grave suspense, feels like an odd intruder, are the movie’s most dubious elements. These obligatory bad dudes just seem like bad dudes all around, bad dudes pre-atomic war, bad dudes now, rather than made this way by the sudden turn of events, which is less in line with the rest of “Panic in Year Zero!” where the situation gives rise to behavior.
This also allows for the movie to be spurred to a dramatic conclusion, and while there is still something of an open end, the family’s return to civilization to tend to a wound incurred by Rick is very consciously portrayed as a re-engagement with polite society, a holding up of hope. Then again, this re-engagement is brought about by circumstance just as their initial fleeing from polite society is also brought about by circumstance, tempering the concluding hope, suggesting that should circumstances of the same kind arise again, the slope on which humanity rests will no doubt once again prove rather slippery.