Hey everyone! Andy Larson back with another edition of “Strange and Obscure Movies I watched at 3am instead of Sleeping” aka Insomniac Cult Movie Theater! I know that I have haven’t highlighted the fact that I’m a frequent insomniac in a while, but that is the truth of my existence.
Why do you think the rest of the Ghost gang has me edit the podcasts?!? Well, it’s true that I’m a whiz with editing software, but primarily it is because I sleep so poorly that I have oodles of time on my hands. That and crushing mental illness and an insanely short temper, but eh…you gotta take the good with the bad.
And I’m sure most of you can guess that the primary reason I sleep so poorly is because of my loads and loads of anxiety. And if there’s one thing that this whole COVID pandemic hasn’t helped, it’s that. Whether it’s the actual of fear of myself or one of my loved ones actually coming down with it or what some ignorant half bred dullard might do to make the situation worse for all of us, it’s enough to keep me up most nights.
And it’s that second part which actually lured me into watching the movie I’ll be covering today. It’s from the notion that I have deep down that although I hope most people will be decent and kind when faced with a crisis of epic proportions, I have a deep rooted fear that most will actually be the opposite. Terrible people that will horde toilet paper and hand sanitizer so they can price gouge their fellow human beings into the poor house.
That sort of complete breakdown of social niceties and common decency that occurs well after the initial shock of the crisis has hit the general public, and only starts when the reality sets in that the “new norm” is a difficult and demanding thing. That’s when people start trading selfless for selfish, and the real moral fiber of most looks more like soggy cardboard than Kevlar.
As such, here’s a review of a movie that talks about just that. A real “boots on the ground” survivalist nightmare that trades a deadly virus for nuclear fallout, but the effect on society is just the same. Grab yourself a can of baked beans and pop a squat in your new bomb shelter, here comes the 1962 H-Bomb fear vehicle know as “Panic At Year Zero!”
Panic At Year Zero
Also known as “End of the World”, this movie was released at the height of the Cold War back in 1962 by notorious the notorious B-movie production company called American International Pictures. AIP was known for churning out low budget double feature fare that would appeal mainly to teenage film goers at the time, and as such this particular movie was often paired with the film “Tales of Terror”, a Richard Matheson adapted collection of Edgar Allan Poe short stories featuring the likes of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone.
Unlike it’s screen partner, Panic couldn’t rely on the likes of such classic horror actors to get the audience engaged in the goings on. Instead it turned to teeny bopper sex appeal with the casting of teen idol, Frankie Avalon, as Rick Baldwin, a member of a clan of middle class folks who just happened to have the good luck of being on a fishing trip when atomic bombs are dropped on Los Angeles.
Although the Baldwins initially try to return to Los Angeles out of panic to see if their family and friends are still alive, the patriarch, Harry Baldwin, quickly switches into full on doomsday bunker mode deciding to head deep into the mountains at their families regular vacation spot to wait things out. Along the way they buy tons of guns and run a foul of gang of young hoodlums who are terrorizing some of the families fleeing from the destruction. However, thanks to good luck and some genuinely decent planning on Harry Baldwin’s part, they manage to make it the vacation area before dumping their camper and instead hiding out in a nearby cave to draw less attention to themselves.
Unfortunately, their quick wits and survivalist know how only keeps them safe for so long as that same gang of bloodthirsty teens eventually find the daughter of the group reading by a near by stream and rape her. Out for not only vengeance but also out of self preservation, Harry and Rick track down the teen gang to their cabin lair and kill the two of them present. There they also find a teenage girl, Marilyn, who used to live in the cabin with her parents before the gang killed them and imprisoned her as a sex slave. Despite Harry’s initial reservations, Rick convinces him to save Marilyn and bring her back to the camp.
Marilyn does make a pretty terrific inclusion to their little family as she’s a pretty expert hunter as well as decent companion for Rick. Bad luck though strikes again as the final member of the teen gang tracks the Baldwins down and shoots Rick in the leg before being killed by Marilyn. With Rick loosing blood, the Baldwins have to make a trek 100 miles to the nearest army base to seek medical attention. But will they get there before it’s too late? Harry Baldwin will have to pull out all the tricks in his doomsday survival guide in order for that to happen..
Speaking of Harry Baldwin, the part is played by well known character actor, Ray Milland. Most people might know him from his Oscar winning performance as the drunken writer in the movie “The Lost Weekend”, however I will always equate him with the abusive murdering husband from Hitchcock’s classic “Dial M for Murder”. Well, that and being the heartless jerk father of Ryan O’ Neil in “Love Story”. Yeah, he certainly knew how to play less than upstanding fellas, didn’t he?
Anyways, it’s important to note that in addition to having the starring role in this movie, Ray Milland was also the director, which did cause problems during production. B-Movie legend, Roger Corman, who was often acted that the coordinating director on so many of these AIP movies reported that Ray often felt overwhelmed by both acting and directing causing organizational problems. This differed greatly from the experiences Ray had with AIP as just being an actor such as when he joined forces with Roger Corman on the minor sci-fi classic, X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes, which is often noted as one of Corman’s best pictures.
Well, this is a depressing, dark picture for sure. I mean it’s like what would happen if you crossed science fiction with film noir. For those of you need a more modern well known reference for what I mean, it’s sort of like the movie “Blade Runner”. Everything has a very dire and claustrophobic feel to it. In fact, I’m glad that the movie was shot in black and white as I feel it would have changed the entire film if it had even a small amount of color. It fits the atmosphere to have everything be slate gray: cold, empty and drab.
I say this because primarily the subject matter covered in this movie touches upon all of the darkest parts of human society, despite not showing any of it really on screen. There’s the implied death toll of millions from the initial bombing, the subsequent murdering and looting as society begins to break down following the blast, there’s the rape of most of the young women in this picture, including as I mentioned the implication that the Marilyn character was kept tied to a bed in her underwear by 3 young men as a sex slave.
Hell, after Rick is shot in the leg, they try to take him to a local doctor who holds the family at gunpoint until he can check them physically for signs of radiation sickness. This is followed by a scene in which the family is almost killed by US Army soldiers for the exact same thing with the only thing saving them is the fact that they are “good ones” not in terms of their moral fiber but just overall lack of radioactive contamination. That’s an extremely morbid thought. If they had radiation sickness, instead of Rick getting medical assistance for his gunshot wound, the entire family probably would have been gunned in road like rabid dogs. As I said, this movie is unquestionably dark.
But there’s also something exciting and life affirming about the way that the Baldwins make their way through the chaos that is this life in Year Zero. Everything seems very natural, as if Ray Milland actually thought out what a typical day would be like if he was stuck in this real post atomic bomb world.
Would he shave daily to keep a sense of societal norms? Would his wife refuse to shoot an unarmed man even if he was attacking her daughter? Heck, there’s even a completely rational trip to the store for supplies given the circumstances with big bags of dried beans and flour while turning down eggs and meat that could spoil quickly. I’m sure Ray pulled on his experience as a survivor of the Great Depression and service in the British army as signposts as to how best to remain rational and alive during a crisis of this magnitude, and it really does show.
It’s almost like Cormac McCarthy‘s Dad character in The Road, in which there is no real wasted effort from Harry Baldwin and everything in this movie is very purposeful. In fact, speaking of that book, it would be very easy to see the Baldwins being the ones that rescue the young boy at that book’s end because they are genuinely kind hearted folks who seem to have this whole survival at the World’s End down pat.
Final Grade: B-
This movie is not for everyone. In fact, I’m not really sure if it was for me in the end. Given it was again done on a shoestring budget, it at times feels like more of a early ’60s episode of a TV show like “The Twlight Zone” or “The Outer Limits” than an actual movie. There’s not a ton of action, and it’s more or less watching the same characters travel from place to place having lots of conversations about their predicament which can get more than a little tedious.
But as I mentioned above, there’s a strange charm in all of this. Whether you think Ray Milland’s gun toting hard ass of a survivalist dad is good or bad, it definitely does seem real. Like you can believe this is the way that folks would react to a massive catastrophe mainly because you can see shades of this same type of thinking in real life crisis.
The exodus to hide in the hills, the ever increasing paranoia, the hording, the groups of despicable folks trying to take advantage of the social disorder to take what they want by force, its all there. I see it every day in the headlines since the COVID crisis started. Panic at Year Zero might not production values of some of the bigger post apocalyptic sagas, but what it lacks in money, it more than makes up with in realism. Again, you just have to trade the mushroom clouds for an invisible virus and you can see how this movie really does do an excellent job of mirroring what we’ve all been living with for the past several months in our own country. The despair, the isolation, the moral and ethical breakdown of social norms, the clinging to some sort of hope despite a way of living that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
That’s what I think saves this movie from just being a forgettable relic of the B-movie past. It still challenges the viewer with its small stakes and intimate cast to put ourselves in the shoes of these characters and ask the question: Would we act differently if we were in this same situation? I betcha given the recent events with COVID, the answer is probably a “no”.