One of the recurring themes in Atomic Film is that of the strong patriarch. From THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED  to ATOMIC TRAIN [TV-1999] fathers have helped women and children cope with the Bomb. Of course there are exceptions, but if William Devane [TESTAMENT 1983] is the deadbeat dad of the genre, Ray Milland has got to be father of the year.
From the moment the bombs hit in PANIC IN YEAR ZERO, Milland's Harry Baldwin leaves little doubt that come what may his family will survive World War III. Baldwin's sure handed speed dialing of the car radio to CONELRAD sends the unmistakable message that this is one citizen who took the Civil Defense flyers seriously.
It is that same car radio dial that provides this film with its most distinctive and lasting image. The movie opens in extreme close-up of the dial set against a crashing Les Baxter jazz score. By the time the words of the title rip into the frame, we already know we are in for something special.
When we first meet the Baldwins of suburban Los Angeles, they are preparing to go on their annual fishing vacation to Shibes Meadows in the Sierras. Harry is trying out his reel before loading it into the trailer. It is early morning and wife and mother, Ann (Jean Hagen), is hurrying the sleepy teenage kids (Frankie Avalon as Rick and Mary Mitchel as Karen) to the car. The scene is reminiscent of "Leave it to Beaver" or any of a number of other fifties family sitcoms.
Almost as soon as this deceptively calm subtext is established, the film takes off like a rocket and never stops. This IS an American International release, after all, so we knew the "Panic" would have to start sooner rather than later. Milland's direction and pacing is a model of economic efficiency that would put today's independent filmmakers to shame.
Two hours into the family trip and five minutes into the film IT happens. Several flashes of bright light cross the windshield of the sedan. Harry immediately pulls over and gets out. Ever the optimist, Mrs. Baldwin suggests that perhaps the flashes came from Las Vegas. But her husband knows better and points out that the flashes came from the direction of Los Angeles, not Vegas. Suddenly Harry declares, "The radio, if anything's wrong, they'd have it on the air."
When nothing can be found on the radio, Harry attempts to use a pay phone where he encounters a broken record of an operator. Mrs. Baldwin, worried about her shut-in mother, urges her husband to head back. Harry agrees, but when they turn the car around they immediately see a huge mushroom cloud over L.A. "We've had it dad, haven't we?" asks Rick (Frankie Avalon). Harry just stares at the special effect dumbfounded. Unsolicited, Rick informs his family, "I've heard those go up thirty miles." Harry preempts his son from sharing another grim factoid, by trying the radio again. This time they hear the soothing tones of the CONELRAD signal followed by an urgent, but silky-voiced announcer:
"This is the Emergency Broadcasting Network. All normal forms of communication appear to have broken down. Although there has been no official statement, the light flashes and resulting cloud formations would indicate that Los Angeles and surrounding areas have been attacked by nuclear bombs or missiles. I repeat this is not an official statement..."
Several CONELRAD broadcasts punctuate the film and serve as vague clues as to just how long the Baldwins' ordeal lasts.
When Mrs. Baldwin chides Harry for refusing to go back to help her mother, he replies testily, "Cut it out, will you? I didn't ASK for this, did I?" It's a rather tame argument considering the dire situation, but by fifties sitcom standards, it is an unholy row. The incredibly oblivious daughter then wonders aloud, "What's the matter with everyone?" Her parents remain silent but her sibling explains simply, "Panic, sis, they're panicking." Indeed. Karen remains inappropriately petulant throughout much of the film. Her dialogue, as you will soon read, suggests Gidget gone nuclear.
The screenwriters, one of whom was responsible for THE GIANT GILA MONSTER , deal with the non-family characters' initial reaction to the "war" in divergent ways. In one early scene at a gas station a man tells Harry gravely, "I heard Los Angeles being torn apart and thrown in the air." A pretty graphic image to be sure. But later, in a diner, a cigar puffing gentleman talks of the bombs like one would discuss a bad storm: "...blast woke me up, first one hit Civic Center..." This contradiction is settled once and for all by film's end, but it still leaves the viewer's head shaking.
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