Ah, the Good Old Days of the late 50s and early 60s…. The days of Civil Defense drills, fallout shelters, and missile gaps… When people lived in fear of nuclear war… With some justification, since the United States’ war strategy was essentially “Launch everything!” We wouldn’t see such paranoia again until the days of Ronald Reagan and his “Evil Empire” rhetoric. During the 80s, there were a number of films that tried to address what might actually happen to ordinary people in a nuclear war. Panic in Year Zero! was there first.
Harry (Ray Milland, who also directed) and Ann (Jean Hagen) Baldwin are loading up their camper in preparation for a vacation off at a little spot Harry knows about in the mountains well away from Los Angeles. In the sort of movie making decisions that would not get made today, their children Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchell) are not only older than you would have expected for a typical movie family, they are also both OK with the choice of vacation spot. It’s a good thing they were planning to spend some time in the wilderness, since on their way there, Los Angeles gets nuked.
Fortunately, it’s only a limited nuclear war. Only a relatively small number of cities were attacked before sanity prevailed. However, there’s still a flood of refugees that’s going to pour out of Los Angeles any minute now. Can Harry get his family to safety in time, and then hole up and hold out while civilization gets restored?
The movie follows Harry as he gets closer and closer to losing his own “civilization”. Beating up a price-gouging gas station owner? Well, Harry does leave a proper payment behind. Forcing – at gunpoint (a gun that he hasn’t yet paid for, mind you!) – a store owner to accept an I.O.U.? Wrecking the bridge on the only road into their campsite? Ann is very concerned about the way her husband is acting, but she (and the audience) kind of understand the necessity.
Milland never quite lets Harry’s paranoia get the better of him and turn him into a tyrant over his family. But you do get the feeling that Harry would have been perfectly happy to stay huddled in their cave until their supplies completely ran out, no matter what CONELRAD was saying about relocation centers for refugees.
As a director, Milland keeps a good rein on everyone. There’s no screaming, scenery-chewing, or false notes in the acting. Everyone comes across as a believable character. And there’s one scene that is very well done. Harry and Rick, in their hunting / scavenging explorations, come across a farmhouse. It turns out that the place is being occupied by a couple of thugs that the Baldwins had an unpleasant encounter with on the way to their campsite. The thugs are quickly and cleany dispatched. Then they find a young woman who was being held prisoner in the farmhouse. The “unwritten code” of Hollywood at the time said that there were certain subjects you could not talk about in movies. That it’s blatantly obvious to even the dimmest viewer what the thugs were using her for without the need for mentioning it is to Milland’s great credit.
In a way, the fact that it’s a limited war makes the movie a better fit to the “disaster” genre than the “post-apocalyptic” one. We know that there is some government, some organization, some society “out there” that is indeed working to put things back together. It’s just a matter of whether or not the Baldwins will be able to make it back to society with their fundamental humanity intact.