Theatrical Release: July 5, 1962
Blu Ray Release: April 19, 2016
Director: Ray Milland
Review by James Klein
Released right around the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Panic in Year Zero plays on the fears of every American in the early 1960’s; the threat of nuclear war. In fact, Panic in Year Zero really hasn’t aged much as the film has stayed relevant throughout the years. Growing up, I always had a fear of Russia attacking the U.S. but I cannot imagine what children must have been going thru during the early 60’s with all the talk about WWIII and nuclear bombs that infiltrated schools, newspapers and even film. I still get goosebumps from watching any film or TV show that portrays the possibility of nuclear destruction and the threat that survivors may face. Panic in Year Zero is exactly that; the fear of society crumbling and surviving not war but man.
Ray Milland stars and even directs this AIP low budget shocker but don’t let the budget fool you as this is a well thought out and intense shocker and starts off with a bang (pun intended). Milland plays Harry Baldwin, a mild mannered husband and father whose on a camping trip with his wife (Jean Hagen), daughter (Mary Mitchel) and son (Frankie Avalon from The Million Eyes of Sumuru) in the wilderness when one morning they see a huge flash and a large atomic cloud coming from Los Angeles. With the radio stations suddenly off the air and phone lines down, panic starts to strike in the hearts of our heroes and Harry decides he will not let anything happen to his family, no matter what the cost.
Harry and his family stop in small towns that don’t yet know the big one has hit (we later find out that many cities all around the world are obliterated) and fill up their car and camper with food and survival equipment and it is here where Harry’s demeanor changes a little. When he isn’t allowed to buy a gun due to the state law wait time, he tries to hold up the store owner and almost fails until his son is able to rescue Harry by holding up the owner. Harry and the family are also confronted by looters, hot roders, and local town folk who try to keep people out from coming into their town.
Harry tries his very best in keeping his family safe, becoming a realist when he knows he must kill some men who could possibly be a danger to his family. This is where Panic in Year Zero seems to take a much darker tone. There are shocking moments of violence and even an unspoken off screen rape of a young woman (Joan Freeman from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) that pushes this atomic thriller into a much darker tone. One of the men who attack Harry’s son is dispatched by an ax, an act of on screen violence that was rarely seen in films at this time. Milland’s directing is also top notch as he not only refuses to shy away from the violence but keeps the tone serious and frightening. Panic in Year Zero could have easily turned campy if made under the likes of Roger Corman or William Castle but thankfully Milland doesn’t fall for the cheap gag and carries out the dangers of mankind throughout the entire 93 minutes. Even the finale, while having the war end somewhat abruptly, ends on a cryptic note as we are unsure if a certain family member will meet his or her demise.
I cannot say enough about how much Panic in Year Zero captivated me. I found it entertaining, suspenseful and unforgettable. The acting is top notch aside from some dated, silly dialog that crops up once in awhile. Milland has always been an actor I enjoyed and watching him play a good guy for once was a nice treat (Milland in his later years become the heavy in many genre films) showing off his acting chops. The 2:35:1 black and white cinematography looks beautiful. All around this is just a damn good thriller where if I had to criticize it would be the out of place jazz score by Les Baxter that doesn’t fit for this type of film. Sad too since I do like the score but feel that it was misplaced and in the wrong movie.
Kino’s blu ray looks and sounds awesome. I didn’t even notice any print damage or debris. The audio was perfectly clear with little hissing or pops. Kino did an amazing job with this transfer and is a vast improvement over the old MGM DVD. The special features are limited but are still decent as there is an all too brief interview with director Joe Dante about the history of Panic in Year Zero and atomic films in general. Dante is a great choice to speak about this film given his movie knowledge of genre films as well as directing his love letter to atomic features, 1993’s Matinee. There is an informative commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith who, when he tries not to be funny, is quite interesting and a good listen. Rounding out the extras is the theatrical trailer along with a few other titles released by Kino.
With the popularity of The Walking Dead and the new fear of North Korea possibly testing nuclear bombs, Panic in Year Zero is more relevant than it ever has been. Watching Milland’s look of terror as he witnesses the mushroom cloud over LA is still quite effective.
Movie and Blu Ray Rating: