The year is 1962. Lights flash over California and the news on the radio is bad. What everyone feared has happened. Atomic war has broken out and the world is about to end. Refugees clog the highways as a mushroom cloud sprouts over Los Angeles. This is year zero, the year that humanity will either cease to exist or try to begin again.
Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his family were among the lucky ones. They were camping in the mountains when the war broke out. Harry does not hesitate to do what he has to do to make sure that his family survives. Harry alone understand that this is a brand new world. When a local storekeeper refuses to allow Harry to take any goods back to his family, Harry takes them by force. While his wife (Jean Hagen) worries about whether or not her mother has survived in Los Angeles, Harry’s teenage son and daughter (Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) try to adjust to the harshness of their new situation. Harry may now run his family like a dictator but his instincts are proven correct when the Baldwins find themselves being hunted by three murderous, wannabe gangsters (Richard Bakalyan, Rex Holman, and Neil Nephew). This is year zero.
As both a director and an actor, Ray Milland does a good job of showing what would be necessary for a family to survive in the wake of a nuclear apocalypse. Milland doesn’t shy away from showing Harry as being harsh and violent but he also makes a good case that Harry has no other choice. Everyone who tries to hold on to their humanity is either killed or sold into slavery. What sets Panic In Year Zero! apart from so many of the other nuclear war films that came out in the 60s is that, instead of focusing on an anti-war message or calling for disarmament, Panic In Year Zero! seems to argue that end of the world is inevitable and only those who prepare ahead of time are going to survive. Get a gun and make sure you know how to use it before it is too late to learn, the movie seems to be saying. That the movie is probably correct in its pessimistic view of humanity makes it all the more powerful. Panic in Year Zero! is a little-known but gritty and effective film about the end of the world