Fifty years later, I can’t foresee a different outcome
How bad does a good man have to become to save his family?
Okay you freaky dreamers. Forget the Zombipocalypse. That shit ain’t happenin’. Total nuclear devastation? Not likely, but it could get ugly. Asteroid hit, or maybe the caldera in Yellowstone will blow? Possibly. If anything, now that our itty-bitty planet has over seven billion humans, Mother Nature’s most likely to cull the herd but unleashing a deadly virus. However, in 1962, the “Big Red Scare” still lingered, and fear kept us and them, and everyone else, in line. But what if the Eagle and the Bear had gotten into a minimal nuclear exchange? This is the item in question in a Jay Simms and John Morton screenplay, based on Simms story, and directed by the star himself, Ray Milland.
But the nuclear exchange only serves as the catalyst for Harry Baldwin (Milland) and his family (including son, Rick played by teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon), as they try to survive in a country when panic reigns supreme, and where there’s no safe haven.
After leaving Los Angeles, Harry’s in the midst of taking his family on a vacation when the city’s nuked. Once Harry and company learn that an attack ravaged several cities, the stoic, mild-mannered father turns into a human machine driven by logic. For Harry it’s simple: We’re under attack, our home’s gone, and we have to survive. His matter-of-fact nature helps his family navigate a new world where being neighborly can leave one open to getting killed – even if his wife, Ann (Jean Hagen) still clings like a neophyte to goodness and positive human behavior. Harry takes his family on an adventure to fight to see another day – at all costs.
As the story progresses, as stakes rise, Harry, our man of action, must make quick and often harsh decisions.
***** SPOILER ALERT *****
In one scene, Harry and Rick square off against two unarmed cretins. The problem is they’ll undoubtedly go after Harry’s family. What to do? As I watched the scene unfold, I remember saying, “Shoot them.” After all, the movie became a game of Scruples, or a quick presentation of choices. Harry always seemed to have at least two options, and I wonder how many people did the same thing I was doing: Contemplating my own course of action. With the scumbags sitting in their chairs, Harry just looked at the twentysomethings and shot them down. Ice cold? Murder? Or practical reasoning and common sense planning in a continually disintegrating situation?
***** SPOILER FINISHED *****
PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! presents the story in a “What would you do?” way, and it’s hard to ignore. At first, I thought the movie would be laughable, if not silly, and it quickly became a suspenseful and thought provoking thriller – because it could happen today. That’s right. If Hollywood wants to remake this one, the story will hold up. The only thing that needs to change is the costumes and cars, and that’s it.
In the movie, the nation that launched the attack is never mentioned, though it had to be the Soviets, and its Eastern Bloc sacrificial colonies. Although China also had nuclear weapons at the time, they could have reached the west coast, but not much more. In any event, PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! not only makes us ponder about what we’d do in such a shituation – but asks if we’re prepared for it.
In 1977, New York City had a major blackout. Granted, good people stood tall and helped others, but the looting was outrageous. We’ve heard of rapes in the Superdome when families did their best to hide out from Hurricane Katrina, among other horrific tragedies. After the Rodney King police brutality decision, Los Angeles went up in flames. However, after two separate tsunamis struck parts of Southeast Asia, and Japan a couple of years later, I don’t recall hearing or seeing anything about violence against others. After 9/11, the crime rate dropped in Manhattan.
What the hell will happen if we’re nuked, or if that caldera blows under Yellowstone, or if an asteroid rocks our world for real? I have a feeling, if it comes to what people deem as an “Earth ending event,” then it’s going to get real ugly – especially if government services and emergency responses are slow or unavailable (as with the blackout or the Katrina debacle. As for the LA Riots, that was a powder keg ready to erupt – and it did).
Regardless, as individuals, if the bottom fails out, and it comes down to survival, we’ll have to react quickly to protect life and property, as well as the lives of loved ones. No doubt, the result won’t be pretty, and I hope we’ll never have to find out.
In PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! the end leaves us wondering what will come next, and if things can ever be the same. As for the characters, the family can become closer and more loving than ever, or PTSD, guilt, and other psychological milieu could rip them apart. We don’t know. But again, Simms and Milland didn’t want us to leave the theatre without thinking about that one as well. And no matter how much discussion, it’s hard to say a damn thing without being tested under such calamity.
In this vein, there are many other “end of world” movies exploring similar themes, and though one can choose from virtually any of the nearly 700 zombie movies, the best may be LAST NIGHT (Canada, 1998) from Don McKellar. It’s not a horror, but David Cronenberg’s in the film.
Sleep with one eye open…
3 out of 5 stars
(Photo from Sodahead.)