Friday 11 January 2013

Top 100 disaster movies: Panic In Year Zero

Panic In Year Zero (1962)

Isn't it just always the way? You manage to rouse your wife and two teenage children so that they are awake and ready to leave for a camping holiday in the hills at 4.30 a.m. but, after just a few hours driving, you see a nuclear explosion decimating your city in the rear-view mirror. Typical. Before you know it you've held up a hardware store, been ripped off at a petrol station, held at gunpoint by YOUTHS and are living in a cave.

There's more than just an air of unreality about this film. Even leaving aside the unlikelihood of the scenario, in which the people in the hills a few hours drive outside Los Angeles survive a nuclear attack completely unaffected in any material, physical or emotional way, Panic In Year Zero never once rings true with the horror of the situation at hand. I have written before about how some disaster movies neglect to have any survivors and how I think that this is a grave mistake, but Panic In Year Zero neglects to have any victims. The full extent of the destruction that we see on the ground is a distant flash and a mushroom cloud. Almost every other dead body comes about as a result of the actions of the protagonists. It's the most curiously sterile and anodyne film about thermonuclear war that I can imagine there ever being. Considering that it was released a just few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's a wonder that anyone in America (or elsewhere) got so worked up about the whole thing. All you need to do is go and live in a cave for a few weeks until the jazz stations are back on the radio and then you can go home and sweep up a bit.

Ultimately, the panic of the title never really materialises, nor does any hint of a "year zero" due to the film's complete lack of any sense of a breakdown of any of the normal structures of government or society. What this is a film about, then,  is a family going away from home for a few weeks to live in a cave, shit in a bucket, get ripped off by ornery small town shopkeepers and trying to prevent their womenfolk from being raped by youths. Half of my childhood holidays were spent in worse conditions than this, and never once was an atomic bomb involved.

Ray Milland, doing his best not to panic

My favourite part of this film, indeed perhaps its only saving grace, is the character of the father, played by the film's director Ray Milland. Whatever the situation presenting itself on the ground, his reaction - or rather, his over-reaction - will be a good two notches over and above what was required. When he needs to cross a busy highway filled with cars of refugees, he sets fire to it. And although his family are already towing a caravan fully stocked and ready for their holiday, he quickly makes them move into a cave and then buries all their food in the ground for safe-keeping.

Early in the film, he encounters some other suspiciously not-particularly-dazed and confused survivors in a roadside diner. One man who he talks to was woken up by the explosion - as though he'd been awoken by the barking of a neighbour's troublesome dog - and then decides it might be for the best to head up into the hills for a while. Shortly afterward, the father is charged $1 over menu price for a grilled cheese sandwich and immediately makes a starkly bleak speech to his (no doubt long-suffering) wife about how civilisation has now broken down and how it is up to him to ensure they're all still alive once law and order can be re-established. It's as if he's acting in another -  better, more realistic - film about survival following a nuclear apocalypse but has declined to tell any of his co-stars. His hysterical response to even the mildest setback, in fact, makes me wonder if perhaps he'd already decided to buy a shotgun and move his family into a cave with the fact that an atomic bomb was dropped on Los Angeles proving a convenient cover for the fact that he has completely lost his mind.

I've seen some horseshit in my time but I think that Panic In Year Zero may take the cake, the horseshit cake. Its sole saving grace may be that it isn't - indeed that it couldn't possibly be - worse than Sliding Doors. I give Panic In Year Zero a dismal TWO out of ten.

1 comment:

Chopper said...

However bad this film might be, reading your review makes me want to see it.

Well done.


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