Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Panic in Year Zero!


Here’s a movie that doesn’t screw around getting into the action. For five minutes Ray Milland and his wife Jean Hagen and son Frankie Avalon and daughter Joan Freeman are a happy family setting out in their gigantic Mercury Monterrey, pulling a camping trailer into the hills north of Los Angeles. There is a bright flash of light, and everything changes. They see the mushroom cloud to the south. At the wife’s insistence, they turn around to go get her mother. It’s clear that Ray already knows this is futile, but it will take a while for his family to adjust to the new reality. It soon becomes clear that return is not just futile, it’s impossible. Everyone is speeding the other way, in both lanes. Now Ray starts to do smart, though sometimes brutal, things, He stocks up on food. When the hardware store won’t take a check, he overpowers the owner and takes his guns. (He’s still trying to justify his actions, saying he’ll be back to pay for it all. Fat chance.) Civilization falls apart much more rapidly than the women can imagine. They finally realize just how bad it is when the clueless daughter is kidnapped and raped by some (awfully clean-cut) thugs. Ray kills them, but Frankie is severely wounded. They set out to find medical help, and at the end it isn’t clear if Frankie will survive to boogey on the beach with Annette Funicello.

It’s a hard-nosed picture, and one that makes you think. What Ray is doing, basically, is looting. Wouldn’t it be better if he tried to found some community larger than his family, work together with them? He doesn’t believe it, he thinks it will be every man for himself, and he’s right. At first. He hopes that civilization will re-establish itself soon, but in the meantime he intends that his family will survive, no matter what it takes. So he kills, without mercy, but not without remorse. He doesn’t like what he’s becoming. I wouldn’t, either, but I’d do what it takes, too. Ray Milland also directed, with what was obviously a low budget, but he makes the most of it. It’s still one of the better after-the-apocalypse movies.