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Panic in the Year Zero

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The end is near. 

No really. It is. 

And we’ll be enjoying the show from front row seats. It’s funny, the apocalypse is something that’s been fascinating us since we first stood up and threw a rock at another rock, but in no time in history have we so utterly and fetishistically praised it in art and media. Recently, we’ve all talked about how pleased we are that The Walking Dead even exists on TV, and how, even though The Road bummed us out, it spurred our imaginations and touched our hearts. 

Two weeks ago I even went to a revival screening of the 1982 masterpiece The Road Warrior at the New Beverly in Los Angeles. It’s everywhere. One of the first apocalyptic films I ever saw was The Last Man on Earth, a black and white gem from 1964 starring Vincent Price and based on Richard Matheson’s I am Legend.  

I’ve always had a soft spot for films about the apocalypse, and I thought I’d seen every one of them, but this week I found a new one. Well, not really a new one. In truth it’s a very old one, but somehow I’d missed it during all my video renting and late night rerun watching. It’s a super low budget 1962 American International Pictures release called Panic in the Year Zero, starring and directed by the great Ray Milland.

In the case of Panic, our apocalypse comes not in the form of zombies or a collapsing world economy based on fuel, but good old fashioned limited nuclear war. The story follows Harry Baldwin (Milland) as he’s just packed up his family-- wife Ann, daughter Karen and son Rick (played by a wonderfully subdued Frankie Avalon) -- for a vacation in the mountains. Just as they get outside of Los Angeles, they’re startled by blinding explosions and when they stop the car, they look back at a giant mushroom cloud over the city they just left.

That’s the first five minutes. After that, we follow them as they struggle to survive in a world that has lost it’s civilization in the blink of an eye. Money quickly becomes worthless and people take what they can take, and things like bullets, food and money are the new currency. 

What I like is that it’s not a film about radiation and fallout, so much as it’s about the utter collapse of social systems. Milland and his family aren’t dying of cancer. They’re worried about brigands, thugs and hostile tribes that have sprung up everywhere.

I expected a lot more mothballs and kit glove treatment in this old forgotten gem, but Milland really goes for the jugular. As a father interested only in the survival of his family, he’s the first to lose his civility and become a brutal old testament survivor. He warns his son, that they should know to use weapons, and not be shy about it, but never, ever enjoy it. Because when the chaos ends, and the strong do survive, the goal is to build civilization again. 

At the end of the day, it’s a film about the collapse of morals and ethics that are taken for granted in a country where we’re all well fed, well medicated and relatively safe from daily rape, robbery and murder. A world where we worry about stupid shit like Facebook and what’s on TV. 

Do yourself a favor and watch this one. It’s bereft of the usual cold war bullshit and rhetoric, even though it’s exactly about the cold war. Like The Walking Dead, The Road, and the Mad Max films, Panic is about that component of the apocalypse we’re most fascinated... ourselves.

Gaudium per atrox.

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