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Panic in Year Zero
A text book example of sixties era Cold War paranoia turned into film, Panic In Year Zero takes place in Los Angeles after the City Of Angels and every other major city in the United States and in fact the world has been devastated by a nuclear attack. As this is happening, the Baldwin family are set to go out on a vacation, planning to camp outside the city out in the wilderness. Here Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland), his wife Ann (Jean Hagen) and their kids Rick (Frankie Avalon) and Karen (Mary Mitchell) decide, despite current events, to continue with the trip as planned. Harry figures that L.A. is going to be a madhouse and that society will fall. As such, maybe getting out of the city for a while isn't a bad idea and hey, they've already packed.
Of course, as Harry and his family head out into the sticks where they figure they'll be able to live, at least temporarily, in relative safely they soon learn that the violence and insanity of the fallout are quickly spreading far outside the city limits…
This might have been put together on a modest budget but Milland, who both plays the male lead and directs the film, does a great job of bringing the screenplay by Jay Simm and John Morton to vivid life in high contrast black and white. What's most interesting about the film is how we see the Baldwin family evolve as the situation determines they do. Of course, they leave the city to hopefully stay out of the insanity that Harry knows is going to hit and hit hard, but before you know it he's being pushed to do what he has to do in order to keep his family alive and safe. This goes against his moral code to be sure, but desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures and if the situation calls for violent action, so be it. Much of the story focuses around the way that Harry deals with this change in both his surroundings and his own moral code. He doesn't like that he's been put in this situation, but he's going to do what he needs to do in order to look out for the other members of his family.
Milland plays this part well. He's very serious in the part, bringing his reliable screen presence to the role in good measure. As the story takes he and his family into some decidedly dark territory Milland is able to anchor the film with a very believable and very human performance. Jean Hagen is good as his wife and a young Frankie Avalon is also fine as his son, with Mary Mitchell also turning in fine work here. The movie is careful enough to make us care about these people and in turn about their plight and this is a big part of what makes the movie as suspenseful as it is. Before it all hits the fan, the script has made sure we like the Baldwin's, so that once they are in the very definite peril that they wind up in, the audience is properly invested in them, enough to care about their plight. Had this not been handled as well as it is, the movie would probably feel dated and hokey but even with some obvious budgetary limitations on display (an effective but very obvious matte painting mushroom cloud being a good example) the movie remains seriously involving.
Well paced and very nicely shot the movie does suffer from some inappropriately jaunty music supplied by American International Pictures' ‘go to score' guy, Les Baxter. The music stands out as a bit too cheery given what's happening to the Baldwin's and those they encounter, but otherwise this grim blend of science fiction, drama and strong suspense has aged quite well.The Blu-ray:
Panic In Year Zero is presented in a nice looking AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. This is a nice improvement over the previous standard definition presentation of the film as it contains noticeably more depth and detail than older DVD release (part of the long gone MGM Midnite Movies line) was able to provide. Contrast looks very solid here and black levels stay strong. The whites never bloom or look too hot while detail and texture show a lot more than we've seen previously on home video. Some minor print damage shows up here and there, a few small scratches and some specks, but overall the image is pretty clean. There are no signs of edge enhancement, noise reduction or compression artifacts to complain about and the upgrade in picture quality this release offers is considerable.Sound:
The only audio option for the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track and, as stated earlier, it is the English language version. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided. Dialogue is clean and clear and the levels are properly balanced. There aren't any issues with hiss or distortion and for an older mono dubbed mix, the audio here sounds just fine. The score contains a bit more punch than it had on DVD, which is nice, and it manages to do so without burying the dialogue.Extras:
Extras on the disc start off with an audio commentary courtesy of film historian Richard Harland Smith. As is typical of his commentary tracks, this is a well prepared piece that offers up plenty of interesting trivia as well as the requisite background information on the key cast and crew members. He also makes some interesting comparisons to other movies that deal with similar subject matter, talks up Milland's directing abilities as well as his acting in the film and provides a decent amount of critical analysis into what makes the picture work.
The disc also includes a nine minute feataurette called Atomic Shock: Joe Dante On Panic In Year Zero in which the filmmaker talks about his appreciation of the picture and offers some insight into what he thinks makes it work as well as it does. Additionally we get a trailer for the feature, trailers for X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes and The Premature Burial (both of which star Milland), static menus and chapter selection.Final Thoughts:
Panic In Year Zero really is a Cold War era classic of paranoia and distrust. It holds up well even by modern standards as a tense thriller, nicely shot with a solid cast. Kino's Blu-ray offers up a really solid upgrade over the previous DVD release and includes some new extras as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.