It’s amazing what a solid script can do for a movie with no production design to speak of and that was filmed in two weeks.
Panic in the Year Zero! was one of the first post-apocalyptic movies of the post-war scifi craze. It looks like it was meant to be just the bottom of a double bill. Cheap to make, easy to pre-sell, and quick to turn a modest profit. What the producers ended up getting wasn’t a great film, but one that holds together shockingly well despite the decades of films in the same genre.
The movie is the story of a family of four (mom, dad, and two teenage children, a boy and a girl) who leave their home in Los Angeles for a weekend fishing in the country with their camper attached to their car. As they drive away, there are flashes of light which draw their attention. The realization hits them that they’ve been attacked as the light dims and they see the formation of a mushroom cloud (literally the only “major” special effect in the whole movie). Since they’re in the remoter parts of California, they use the lack of communication and confusion to build up supplies. As they go, Dad gets more and more adamant that they need to look out for themselves and no one else.
They buy $200 worth of food, and then try to buy $200 worth of hardware and a gun for another $200. The hardware store owner won’t let them take the gun because of state laws on waiting periods, so Dad and Junior end up stealing all of the guns. The family escapes to a remote spot they know, and try to wait out the events.
There, they find that they’re not alone. The hardware store owner also (coincidentally) knows the spot and runs there with his wife while some young hoodlums have shacked up in a nearby farmhouse and are terrorizing the countryside. Dad descends further and further into savagery, refusing any aid to the hardware store owner, and finally gunning down the young terrorizers in essentially cold blood. They’ve been shut off from civilization literally, and he’s shut himself off from it by choice as a means of survival. His wife has grown scared of him, his son enamored of the violence, and Dad has grown to hate himself.
I think the movie should have taken this further. Exploring the question of whether the cost of survival is worth it, but it choses to end on a more hopeful note with radio broadcasts that the war with Russia is over and people can report to centers for recovery.
The movie is shockingly well written. Even in its opening moments, I was pulled in by the fact that the two children were introduced so naturally and easily by their parents. The characters are rather sharp (except the daughter, who’s largely a non-entity in the film), and the descent into a certain constrained level of barbarism is well done.
Again, a strong (thought not perfect) script can overcome a lot of production based obstacles.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4