Panic in Year Zero! (a.k.a. End of the World) (1962): Sci-Fi Starring and Directed by Ray Milland

Produced by Arnold Houghland and  Lou Rusoff, Panic in Year Zero (aka End of the World) features the directing debut of Ray Milland, who also stars as a “typical” American patriarch.

The sci-fi thriller was released in 1962 by American International Pictures (AIP) on a double bill with Tales of Terror.

The screenplay, by John Morton and Jay Simms, is replete with speeches about the state of civilization—or what’s left of it. The right-wing subtext of the film (whose original title was Survival) is evident in the interaction between father and son about the use of physical force—guns—for survival.

Samuel Z. Arkoff, AIP head, cast Milland and Frankie Avalon as father and son, cashing in on their popularity with different segments of the audience.

Harry bosses his family—and everyone else.   He is a can-do American, who would do everything and anything to protect his family.  In one of many family discussion scenes, he firmly states: “In the next couple of days, you are going to see togetherness like you have never dreamed off.  The women, reflecting the era’s sexual politics, are relegated to passive, secondary positions

Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland), his wife Ann (Jean Hagen), their son Rick (Frankie Avalon), and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchell) are about to leave the comfy suburban L.A. on a camping trip.

When a bright light flashes from a distance, and a radio news report suggests an atomic war, the Baldwins observe a large mushroom cloud over Los Angeles.

The family tries to return to rescue Ann’s mother, who lives near Los Angeles, but abandon their plan as panicked refugees escape the fallout from multiple nuclear explosions. Harry ten decides the family must find refuge at their secluded vacation spot.

Baldwin shows his aggressive personality, when he attacks hardware store owner Ed Johnson (Richard Garland), when the latter refuses to accept a check.

On the road, the Baldwins encounter three young hoodlums, Carl (Richard Bakalyann), Mickey (Rex Holman), and Andy (Neil Nephew), but, again, dad manages to drive them off.

After a harrowing journey, the Baldwins find shelter in a cave, while they wait for order to be restored. On their portable radio they listen to war news and learn that the U.N. has declared it “Year Zero.”

The three thugs reappear and shoot Johnson and his wife, and a  farming couple lose their life, while teenage daughter Marilyn (Joan Freeman), is kept as a sex slave. Karen is also raped by Mickey and Andy.

Later on, when Rick is out with Marilyn, Carl sneaks up and forces Marilyn to drop the rifle. Rick throws a piece of wood at him, and Marilyn grabs the rifle and shoots Carl dead.

Looking for a doctor to take care of Rick’s wounds, they hear that “the enemy” has asked for a truce and Year Zero is ending. The boy needs blood transfusion and must be taken to an army hospital miles away.

Along the way they encounter a military patrol, and after a tense meeting, they are allowed to continue. The soldiers realize that they’re among the “good ones” who escaped radiation when the bombs exploded.

A closing title card states: “There must be no end, only a new beginning.”

Made on extremely low budget, the modest black and white film is impressive in its attention to detail as far as characterization is concerned, capturing the anxieties of the Cold War era with no production values or effects, though the original score by composer Les Baxter is more than serviceable.

AIP sent the stars with the picture around the country to promote it, making it profitable.


I am grateful to TCM for showing Panic in Year Zero as part of its “Survival Films” on January 26, 2018.