A family of four is out enjoying a pleasant summer camping trip outside of Los Angeles when KABOOM, a nuclear device is detonated in the city. It isn’t specifically stated who dropped the bomb, but as this was a Cold War era film the natural assumption to make is that the Russians were the antagonists. Radio broadcasts suggest that this is just the beginning of a full scale thermonuclear exchange and everything the family has ever known will soon be ash and dust.
They are stuck in the middle of nowhere and have to face several moral dilemmas. The unstated question being explored in this film is what is “right”? To what extent should a person compromise their ideas of morality and civility to survive? Are these just fantasy concepts that modern America allows us to indulge or are they necessary for a person to retain their soul and rise above the level of a beast?
All those are explored here as the family must face scrounging for supplies, the dilemma of stealing from an old man for what the need, the standard vicious thugs who decided the end of civilization is party time, kidnapping and rape, and the exclusively of medical care. When one of them needs a blood transfusion and the nearest medical facility is 100 miles away, an incredibly long distance in the new wasteland, how does one deal with it?
This is film was independently produced, as can be evidenced here by the low budget and lack of many characters. It varies from many of the atomic nightmare films of it era in that it doesn’t feature a giant radioactive monster of some kind and deals with the idea of survival of an urban American in a realistic way. The fear, their anxieties come from the uncertain future and lack of survival skills, not that they will eaten by a mammoth praying mantis.
This type of film was not exactly unique. There was On the Beach in 1959, Last Woman on Earth in 1960, Five in 1951, and The World, the Flesh, and the Devil in 1959. All of these dealt with similar themes and reasonably consistent premises. It was an easy scenario for indie filmmakers to produce and shoot. Take some equipment and head out into the desert. No need for permits or expensive scenery. It wasn’t until the 70’s with The Road Warrior that the genre began to take on more horror and action orientated themes, requiring a lot more time and effort.
What sets Panic in the Year Zero! apart is the level of acting skill displayed in them. With most of the other films the acting is competent (the exception here being On the Beach which has amazing performances) this film stands out in the casting of Ray Miland. His starring roles had begun to thin by this time due to his premature baldness, so he took whatever lead positions he could find. His ability to emote had not dimmed however and presents the moral dilemmas in this script with style and panache.
The entire film is below. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor.