[July 14, 1962] Cause for Alarm (Panic in Year Zero – a surprise summer hit film!)

[if you’re new to the Journey, reference this summary article to see what we’re all about.]

by Gideon Marcus

The specter of atomic destruction has been with us for more than a decade, ever since the Soviets detonated their first A-bomb in 1949.  Both the US and USSR have developed vast bomber squadrons and now missile and submarine fleets rendering every place on Earth vulnerable.  Not surprisingly, a new genre of fiction has been spawned – the post-apocalyptic story. Books like Alas, Babylon and movies such as On the Beach (originally a novel). 

The latest example is a tiny-budgeted film by schlockhouse American Independent Pictures, Panic in Year Zero.  The Young Traveler and I saw Panic at opening night, July 5.  There was a big promotional event headlined by Frankie Avalon, and I understand the picture made back its budget in just the evening L.A. showings!  The film has already generated some positive buzz, and I suspect it’ll be the surprise hit of the summer.

Produced by the master of the independents, Roger Corman, Panic opens with a literal bang: a typical Angelino family out on a drive toward a camping vacation sees a bright flash as their home town of Los Angeles is wiped out by Soviet bombs.  It soon becomes clear that the attack is widespread and civilization is about to deteriorate.  Our viewpoint family must brave its way to safety, securing adequate supplies and a defensible shelter, before the walls of society collapse.

The father, to all appearances a moral and decent man, has his principles rocked to the core.  After all, at what juncture is it right to abandon civilization and fight solely for your family?  When is that point of inflection where it is okay to abandon the sinking ship, at the same time hastening its capsize?  There are several points in the film where Milland undertakes actions that, while they ensure his survival, likely cause the death of countless others.  Compared to modern-day folk, his acts are evil.  But contrasted to the depravity they meet, they are the “good guys.”  It’s fascinating and effective.

Panic stars a pair of actors in the Autumn of their career: Ray Milland (who also directs) and Jean Hagen as the parents.  Teen idol Frankie Avalon is the son, while Joan Freeman, of whom I’d never heard, is the daughter.  Despite the utter lack of funds, or perhaps because of it, the acting, writing, and pacing are all tight and surprisingly realistic and gritty.  Les Baxter contributes an original score that consists largely of snappy jazz music.  It is at once appropriate and jarring.  All in all, it’s a solid movie, well worth your time – particularly if this genre is your bag.

Four stars.

[And now for the Young Traveler’s take…]

by Lorelei Marcus

Death is a scary topic for pretty much everyone. I think what’s scary about it is it’s so unexpected. You don’t know when you’re going to die. You could die tomorrow! Our chances of death seem to have increased since the Cold War began as well. All it takes is one push of a button and you and everything you love is obliterated in seconds. That’s a truly terrifying thought. However, what if you survived? What would living through the aftermath be like? Luckily, the new movie, Panic in Year Zero! has the answer!

Panic in Year Zero! is the latest summer blockbuster, taking the U.S. by storm. It goes into the life of a traditional suburban family trying to survive the aftermath of a mass bombing. All the major cities, as well as our allies have been nuked. The family, specifically the father and son, have to face harsh moral decisions centered around their family’s survival. It portrays beautifully the panic and breakdown of society, and how this family deals with that. When law and order falls, do you try and restore society, or survive?

I believe the acting was very good. The emotions felt real. The story was also fantastic. It managed to tackle very dark issues while also being entertaining and hopeful. The pacing was great as well; everything in the movie played in real-time in a convincing way. The events all felt very natural and beautifully laid out. This movie did a superb job considering its tiny budget, especially when it came to the special effects. It is thought-provoking, very well done, and a very good watch.

I give this movie 4.5 stars. I highly recommend you see this movie.

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  We’ll be talking Panic and other films!)

10 thoughts on “[July 14, 1962] Cause for Alarm (Panic in Year Zero – a surprise summer hit film!)”

  1. I agree this is an excellent, very intense film which makes fine use of its limited budget.  The music was a little loud for my taste, but that’s a minor quibble.

    Mention should be made that the story is obviously based (without credit) on “Lot” by Ward Moore.  The plots are simply too similar for this to be a coincidence.  I doubt whether any American filmmaker would dare to include the most shocking theme found in Moore’s sequel, “Lot’s Daughter.”

  2. Is Ray Miland the new Richard Carlson?  Carlson stared in (a forgoten minor gem) The Magnetic Monster, stared in the Jack Arnold gem It Came from Outer Space and Arnold’s sort-of-good Creature from the Black Lagoon (forget Riders to the Stars).
    Miland directed this one, with difficulty. I and my fan friends thought we saw something familiar in this surprisingly OK SF film. Turned out the story is based on Ward Moore’s Lot and Lot’s Daughter. That pleased us who puzzled greatly over Hollywood’s ignorance of good prose SF.

  3. All of these are on my must-see list: “Lot,” “Lot’s Daughter,” and “Panic in Year Zero!” However, I was so scared after “On the Beach” that I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to see the others after all.  This post-apocalyptic fad is bound to die out once the gloom-and-doom story writers get tired and start focusing on good old American family stories.

    1. Boy On the Beach (with a nod to The World, the Flesh and the Devil) were the saving grace of the SF film in 1959.
      WWIII and post apocalyptic stories are considered solid science fiction currently.
      1959 … Plan 9 from Outer Space to Teenagers from Outer Space … along with all the other crud Z movies….
      a challenge to the The-Steel-Eye-Ball-School-Of-Movie-Going!

        1. Teenagers from Outer Space holds the distinction of having won the Bert I Gordon W3DSE* award of 1959.
          A lobster (our ‘giant monster’) thrust crudely into the camera frame!
          beating out:
          1) Stupid looking pie plates ineptly subbing for flying saucers (Plan 9 from Outer Space)
          2) Manual face plant of Gila Monster into a model balsa wood wall (The Giant Gila Monster)
          *Worst 3 dollar special effect

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