Panic in Year Zero!

Panic in Year Zero

Originally uploaded by Thomas Roche

Tonight’s viewing: 1962’s Panic in Year Zero, directed by and starring Ray Milland. It was based on two stories by Ward Moore, who was never credited in the film or in the later paperback novelization.

The flick concerns the adventures of Milland, his wife, his daughter and son who happen to be driving up North with their trailer when Los Angeles and many other cities are destroyed in a nuclear war.

It is a strange, savage and straightforward movie made all the stranger by the fact that it came out shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis. What’s more, Panic‘s lead character Harry Baldwin (Milland) mixes equal parts rigid ’50s moralism, flaky ’60s idealism and ’70s opportunistic vigilante psychopathy. When he needs to buy supplies for his family, he’s found that the storeowners have jacked up the prices; gas is going for — GASP! — three bucks a gallon. He responds by offering what money he has; when they sneer at him he pulls a gun and takes what he wants. His wife freaks out, but his son Rick, played by Frankie Avalon, likes shooting people a little too much, and Baldwin lectures him — shoot people, he tells his son, but hate doing it. And after all this, Baldwin has the huevos to insist that he and Rick must maintain their way of life — by shaving every day.

This is one fucked-up moral compas for 1962; Milland places Baldwin in the position of enforcing society’s rules — fair prices for goods, rape bad, shaving good — by transgressing against them — eat lead, sucker. Things get even more interesting after an attempted rape by a few neighborhood toughs turned postapocalyptic Max Max’ers — making the whole thing a weird comment on either survivalism or antihooliganism, maybe both. When the Army shows up, the Baldwins are just “four of the good ones” — those who fought to survive, and Providence smiled down and allowed them to do so.

Is it a good movie? For Milland as director and from a story and structure perspective, it is brave and audacious and weird, a disturbing glimpse of idealistic 1950s optimism as corrupted by the growing seed of ultraconservative self-righteousness that in subsequent years would crack open the Cold War’s sternum like an alien baby yowlling for fresh meat. True to its conceit as a glimpse into the human soul when its societal structures are strained past the breaking point, Panic reflects just how unprepared the righteous American psyches of the 1940s and ’50s were for the nightmare threat of global holocaust and everything else on the ’60s and ’70s menu — war, famine, liberation, and the assassination-meritocricide that surely on some level resulted from exactly the kind of lecture-me-while-you-kill-me attitude Milland’s Harry Baldwin displays here.

On an aesthetic level, it displays some of the evocative brilliance from other great ’60s thrillers like Seconds, Seven Days in May, Fail Safe and even (maybe) Dr. Strangelove. Less self-aware and more self-consciously conservative than any of those films, it still stands as a weird and twisted look into a time that freaks me out more the harder I think about it.

It would freak me out less if, with its $3 gas and its jacked-up food prices, its breakdown of municipal services and its desperate proclamations of safety “in the hills,” Panic in Year Zero! didn’t feel more like a paranoiac’s 2009 than like 1962.

And just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Google the fucker and you get hits on white supremacist websites and counterculture science fiction writer Mick Farren’s somewhat more imaginative article about the freakout sure to ensue as we approach the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. As Farren puts it: “I love a good irrational panic.”

But viewed this year, July 2008 with California on fire and Iran rattling the saber, even Panic‘s closing aphorism: “There must be no end… only a new beginning” bears the rank smell of a New World Order. In ’62 Panic was just a movie, but the reactionary terror Milland’s film reflects fear of more than just apocalypse — it reflects fear of human misbehavior when the rules are swept away, fear of a social explosion when we kick out the jams. For all the seeming imminence of real nuclear war, the bona fide nukes were alreaday falling on the culture. Panic‘s kind of paranoid rigidity, a terror of change, is what drives some people over the edge. Not so much when the levees broke in New Orleans or along the Mississippi in the Midwest — but when King marched in Selma or Dr. David Gunn went to work one morning in Pensacola. Sometimes it seems like it really is year zero.


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