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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Panic in Year Zero! / The Last Man on Earth
Panic in Year Zero! / The Last Man on Earth
MGM // Unrated // March 22, 2005
List Price: $14.99
Review by DVD Savant | posted April 10, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

When DVD made its debut in 1996, the already marginalized laser disc format took a precipitous dive. One of the last discs out from MGM through its Image Entertainment deal was this double bill of interesting American-International pictures from the first half of the 1960s. It's easy to find public domain graymarket DVDs of The Last Man on Earth but fans of the fantastic will love the new enhanced 2:35 transfers on these discs. Ironically, they've come out just in time for the end of MGM as we know it; as I write these words the entire studio has become the property of Sony Pictures.

Actually, this review is going to be somewhat of a tease for DVD fans as the disc was recalled before too many copies had been distributed, either through Canadian sales or Best Buy stores in the U.S. Some online message board customers reported finding misfiled copies on Best Buy store shelves, rushing with them to the checkout counter - and watching as they were confiscated after coming up 'withdrawn' in the store's computers. What a time for an inventory system to start working properly! With MGM marketing plans unclear - a half year's worth of DVD scheduling will doubtlessly undergo some changes by Sony - we don't know when this disc will appear again. Some sources have reported September as a new release date. (Note: This disc is now available in Region One, as of October 2005.)

Panic in Year Zero!
1962 / 92 min.
Starring Ray Milland, Jean Hagen, Frankie Avalon, Mary Mitchel, Joan Freeman, Richard Bakalyan
Cinematography Gilbert Warrenton
Production Designer Daniel Haller
Film Editor William Austin
Original Music Les Baxter
Written by John Morton, Jay Simms
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Arnold Houghland, James H. Nicholson, Lou Rusoff
Directed by Ray Milland

One of the key Cold War atom-scare films, Panic in Year Zero! goes the logical next step beyond On the Beach's simple acknowledgement that the world could be annihilated by a nuclear war: It attempts to depict actual conditions that might come to pass if the bombs fell. After a decade of public service films depicting order and optimism after a nuclear exchange, 1 this American-International film was one of the first to suggest that an attack would precipitate an immediate breakdown of society. Carefully framing its story within the experience of an 'average family' similar to a complacent 1950s TV family, John Morton and Jay Simms' story can't wait to suggest that civilized law would break down to one simple rule: Every Man For Himself.

Synopsis:

The Baldwin family gets quite a shock as they leave for a camping vacation in the Southern end of the Sierra Nevadas - behind them they see multiple mushroom clouds annihilating Los Angeles. After shaking off his initial hesitation, Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) marshalls his wife Ann (Jean Hagen), son Rick and daughter Karen (Frankie Avalon and Mary Mitchel) to grab up supplies before rural shopkeepers know what's happened. They hide out at a remote campsite to avoid the chaos, crime, looting and rape that will surely result when civilization comes to an abrupt halt.

Panic In Year Zero! tries for a hysterical tone, and would do a lot better if its script and acting were a bit smoother - the film is just too cheap-looking to last as any kind of classic. Just the same, the grabber premise is just as gripping now as it was in 1962, when the undertaker living on my street was building a fallout shelter in his back yard. The Baldwins' station wagon and trailer seem to crisscross the same two lane roads north of Los Angeles, and the same five or six cars have to suffice to represent a flow of panicky Angelenos heading for the hills. In one supremely unconvincing setup, the station wagon is stopped at a rural intersection because of the unbroken flow of traffic zooming by - represented by mismatched grainy shots taken of an L.A. freeway!

But even if the visuals sag, actor-director Ray Milland keeps the dramatic tension high. Jean Hagen (Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain) is fine as the mother slow on accepting the idea that old rules no longer apply and survival is now the name of the game. Frankie Avalon is unconvincing as a teenager but handles fairly well the business of literally riding shotgun for his pistol-toting father. As the original Variety review pointed out, sister Mary Mitchel and pretty refugee Joan Freeman (of Tower of London and Roustabout) share a first for a mainstream American release - both are raped.

Survivalism as a major industry really didn't start until a little later, with magazines dedicated to helping one store food and ammo for the impending (desired?) apocalypse. Panic In Year Zero! must have seemed like a primer to millions of wide-eyed young males wondering what they'd do in a landscape of universal hostility. There's not too much moral distance from guarding one's own bomb shelter with a shotgun, to the marauding scavenger-rapists of movies like No Blade of Grass. 2 Harry Baldwin takes advantage of one gas station owner unaware of the crisis. At his next gas stop, a greedy proprietor tries to enforce his new price - $3 a gallon, up from 34 cents! 3 Harry buys out a greedy grocer (O.Z. Whitehead - good casting) and then is forced to rob decent hardware retailer Ed Johnson, who figures later in the story as another unfortunate refugee. Honest man Milland holds a gun on Johnson, a shocking act to see an 'average American father' doing in a 1963 movie. Even more ironic is the fact that Johnson is played by Richard Garland, the reformed sniper spared by Quaker Gary Cooper in Friendly Persuasion.

As with most lowbudget AIP filmmaking, Panic In Year Zero! develops its premise only so far and then wraps things up in a less than satisfactory manner. Most exposition about the atom war is delivered through the Conelrad radio station (the voice is said to be that of Hugh Marlowe). With all the human scum supposedly prowling the roads, we're only given a few hints of the kinds of trouble could occur. A township puts up a roadblock against all outsiders, a credible development with precedent of towns overrun by motorcycle 'clubs' in the early '50s - the Brando film The Wild One was based on such an incident. But the limitless possibilities of lawlessness are distilled way down into three punks who murder and rape on a small scale. The leader is played by perennial Juvenile Delinquent Richard Bakalyan. The Baldwins encounter the hoodlums twice, and it is inferred that the Baldwins (especially his ravaged daughter) would have been better off had they executed them on the spot. Jean Hagen ends up counseling not one but two rape victims when they pick up Joan Freeman's Marilyn Hayes ... who becomes a romantic possibility for young Rick, of course.

The picture ends with at least some hope in the form of harsh martial law. The overall attitude, if Willis Bouchey's doctor is meant to be a authors' spokesman, is that America needs martial law now. Bouchey fills the Baldwins in on what's been going on while they were hidden in the hills. It seems that drug addicts have been running wild! I guess that's the worst thing the writers can think of. I'm sure the atom war was started by those darn junkies, right?

Panic In Year Zero! scrupulously avoids any scenes requiring more than minimalist production values yet still delivers on its promise, allowing audience imagination to expand upon the narrow scope of what's actually on the screen. It sure seemed shocking in 1962, and easily trumped other more pacifistic efforts. The Day the Earth Caught Fire was for budding flower people; Panic In Year Zero! might as well have been made as a sales booster for the gun industry.


MGM's copy of Panic In Year Zero! is a flawless enhanced transfer from prime elements. Half the enjoyment will be seeing this title in its proper 'scope aspect ratio - I have an old pan-scanned Orion VHS and it looks simply terrible. The sound track properly replicates Les Baxter's overstated, blaring soundtrack. The one extra is a trailer with exaggerated text titles in a font that might be called 'Hysteria.'

The Last Man On Earth
1964 / 87 min. / L'ultimo uomo della terra
Starring Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart
Cinematography Franco Delli Colli
Production Designer Giorgio Giovannini
Film Editor Gene Ruggiero, Franca Silvi
Original Music Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Written by Logan Swanson (Richard Matheson), William Leicester, Ubaldo Ragona from the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Robert L. Lippert
Directed by Sidney Salkow

In his interview extra, author Richard Matheson explains that the screenplay adaptation of his frightening book I Am Legend bounced around Hammer for a while before being abandoned in a censorship clampdown - surely the one that followed the shocked reception to The Stranglers of Bombay and Peeping Tom). Hammer handed it off to onetime production partner Robert Lippert, who made it as an Italian co-production.

The Last Man on Earth was therefore not an AIP original; it was distributed in Europe by 20th Fox. It's a handsome production which could have been a classic if it didn't try to make Italian locations stand in for the San Francisco area. Vampire hunter Robert Morgan asks a soldier on an army truck (marked simply, 'USA') if he's been to Market Street, when everything we see looks like urban-suburban Rome: signage, motorcycle cops, etc. The montages of deserted streets littered with corpses look like a conscious attempt to imitate the eerie ending of Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse, an intuition that's supported by a shot of the same futuristic 'mushroom house' featured in the earlier art film.

What we get is an atypically morbid account of one man's struggle for survival in a different kind of post- apocalyptic environment - the one human living in a world of mindless zombie vampires.

Synopsis:

Medical researcher Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the last person alive in his city after a horrible plague has robbed him of his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli) and child, and forced him to live a nightmarish existence fending off hordes of zombie-like plague victims that behave much like vampires. He hunts them down by day, burns those who fall lifeless at his doorstep, and scavenges for necessities - mirrors and garlic to keep the zombies away, gasoline to power his generator. Then he makes contact with Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), one of a group of plague victims who have found a way to stay alive and human. The problem is, this new breed considers Morgan a dangerous man, and wants him destroyed.

Warners and Charlton Heston remade this story as The Omega Man, and through the 80s and 90s we heard of a planned Arnold Schwarzenegger remake that hasn't yet happened (although California is starting to look a lot like this picture). Everyone including the original author once agreed that the 1964 version of I Am Legend was a dud, but now that it can be seen in its full aspect ratio, I think that unfair judgment will change. The Last Man on Earth was even dismissed by Variety as "plodding" and "poor," when the words "prophetic" and "atmospheric" now seem more appropriate.

The film is quite deliberate in building up the grim daily routine of the last man on Earth: Fill the generator, check on the garlic, sharpen some new wooden stakes, dump corpses into the landfill - every day the same old grind. Vincent Price is often criticized as bad casting in such a physical role, which overlooks the fact that he's much more vulnerable than would be an action-man type like Heston or Der Governor. We expect those guys to make all the right moves, whereas we understand when Price goofs on things like putting the car away before the sun sets and the ghouls come out.

The nightly onslaught of slow-walking zombies that lay siege to Morgan's house is a chilling precursor (and obvious inspiration) for George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. "Morgan ... Come OUT!" the creatures wail, as they try to break down doors or pry open windows. Lucky for Morgan, none of the monsters has the strength to lift a heavy object, or the intelligence to outwit the house's sole occupant.

Morgan's daily routine mostly makes us think he'd be better off in some kind of high-rise where he need only block a heavy door or two to lock out the undead rabble - city folk call this 'exclusivity.' After it has been established that Morgan is systematically staking the vampire-like creatures by day, we get an extended flashback showing how the disease took the world by surprise. A movie with less exploitative aims might have tried to intersperse these flashbacks along the way, but the direct method used here spares us from an arty approach. The flashback supplies the background of loss and dislocation that makes Morgan such a morose character; Price handles it all quite well.

I doubt that Sidney Salkow did a heck of a lot beyond let loose ace cameraman Tonino Delli Colli and watch the good footage roll in. Delli Colli's lighting is always good, and some interiors during the nighttime sieges are excellent. The 'scope lensing keeps the cramped Morgan household from becoming boring. The only flaws come in some exteriors, where traffic can be seen moving around the background of this supposedly dead world.

As with Panic In Year Zero!, The Last Man on Earth spins to a climax just as things are starting to become interesting. Morgan makes contact with a member of a new tribe of plague victims who have suppressed the zombie side-effects through the use of an intravenous serum - in this picture, the world is saved by drug addicts! A little late in the game, Morgan realizes that he is immune for a reason (a mysterious bat-bite in his past) and his own blood can cure the world. Unfortunately, he is number one on the new tribe's hit list. His name is Legend mainly as a vampire killer, and the black-clad vigilantes want him dead. After eighty minutes of interesting developments, the film winds up in a hurried chase to a symbolic finale in a church. Morgan gave his life for us, you see ...


MGM's new The Last Man on Earth is on the flipper side of this double-bill disc. The transfer is once again a thing of beauty; we can conclude that neither picture was subjected to much reprinting. The audio job is one of those studio redub jobs that makes good dubbing sound false, simply because every line is 100% on mike and there are no background presences. The Sawtell/Shefter score is okay but not particularly memorable.

This title has no trailer but does have a short Richard Matheson interview that covers his participation in the development of the film. Keep in mind that Matheson was always deeply negative about films made from his books; in 1972 he spoke before a LA County Museum screening of The Incredible Shrinking Man to say how terrible it was. He's since seen it and changed his mind. The Last Man on Earth is no timeless classic, but it's definitely a unique little chiller with some progressive ideas, and it should receive the recognition it deserves.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,

Panic In Year Zero! rates:
Movie: Good Genre interest: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
The Last Man On Earth rates:
Movie: Good Genre interest: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview docu with author Richard Matheson
Packaging: Single flipper disc in Keep case
Reviewed: April 8, 2005

Footnotes:

1. For the amazingly funny and intelligence-insulting 'public information' films of Cold War mollycoddling, see The Atomic Cafe and the extras on the discs of Invasion U.S.A. and Atomic War Bride/This is Only a Test.
Return

2. The subgenre eventually turned into escapist mythmaking, with the Road Warrior series.
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3. Younger people may find this hard to believe, but through much of the 1960s the price of a gallon of gas held steady, between thirty and forty cents. I once bought some cheap stuff for 25 cents per ... and my father knew exactly what I'd done when my Volkswagen sputtered its way back home. Of course, if gas really neared $3 a gallon, we'd know that civilization as we know it would be coming to an end, don't we?
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