Panic in Year Zero! (1962)





A classic "after the bomb" movie today, a story of death and desperation in a time of great tragedy, presented in all its gorgeous black-and-white widescreen glory by the fine folks at MGM Universal. It would be interesting to watch this one back-to-back with This is Not a Test, another similar movie from the same year. Toss those two into an all-night PA movie-night along with Threads, The Day After, and Testament, and by the next morning you can feel pretty confident that you will either have the skills to survive a nuclear apocalypse, or be assured that you are so unable and spineless that you will quickly be killed and eaten by mutant alligators within a week.

On to the show...

Our story concerns a perfectly ordinary middle-aged man named Harry, his boring Captain Janeway-lookalike wife, and their two blandly regular teenage kids. It's totally on purpose that this is the "everyfamily", as the film is trying really hard to make the point that the horrors of war can and will affect everyone equally. As we open they have just left their suburban Los Angeles home off on a camping and fishing trip in the lower Sierra Nevadas.


L to R, son, Harry, wife, daughter.

They are traveling in a shiny new 1962 Mercury Monterey Custom sedan towing a 15-foot Kenskill travel trailer. This combo gets almost as much screen time as any of the principle characters, so you'd better get used to seeing it. The Monterey actual proves itself to be a pretty capable post-nuke all-purpose vehicle, and I might have to put it right up there with Max's Falcon and the Landmaster as my favorite PA people-movers.


I would prefer a silver Airstream.

As they are driving along through the foothills, they see "lightning flashes" and hear "thunderclaps" back towards the city. Their radio is just static and the payphone along the road is out of order, so they begin to suspect that something bad just happened. Then they see a huge mushroom cloud over LA and they know that the dastardly Rooskies have bombed their fair city!


Damn godless commies!

The rest of movie is like a Duck and Cover-type Civil Defense film as we focus on this one family's survival. And, so, I present to you...

H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #1: Never go back.

Providence smiled on Harry for already being outside Los Angeles when the bombs hit, he's not going back now. Harry's wife, however, is worried about her mother, who also lives (lived) in LA. Harry wisely writes off his mother-in-law as either dead or soon-to-be dead (or perhaps turned into a brain-eating zombie). Any effort spent trying to get to her will surely result in their own deaths.


The wife on the phone. At least I think that's a phone. Pam, is that a "telephone"?


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #2: Don't go with the flow.

Everyone else is fleeing the city, you should too. With a major metropolitan area under attack, it's obvious that all the roads leading out of the city will be jammed with cars. Instead of trying to drive back towards the city to save loved ones and your cat Faraday, thus endangering those people wise enough to escape, just turn around and keep fleeing. But, and this is the primary point here, don't attempt to "follow the herd", so to speak, stay off the main roads whenever possible to avoid the inevitable massive pile-up and resultant loss of mobility. A handy roadmap kept in your car will show you those out-of-the-way county and state blacktops that are sure to cut hours off your escape time. Some helpful notes on driving: seatbelts are for un-American fascists, and when smoking unfiltered Pall Malls in a car with youngsters, make sure to roll up the windows.


Never see cars without b-pillars these days.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #3: Top it off.

Harry knows he has to get as far away from the chaos and disorder of Los Angeles as possible, and that requires a full tank of gas. He stops at the nearest gas station and fills up. It's just 34 cents a gallon at this moment, but will shoot up to 3 bucks a gallon within a few hours as unscrupulous station owners jack up the price to take advantage of desperate people (that's 21 bucks in 2009 money!). When Harry doesn't want to pay $90 for a tank of gas, he just punches out the station owner and runs off (war profiteering is despicable, that guy deserved to be punched). Too bad his car gets 4 miles to the gallon while towing that trailer, he's going to have to punch a lot of gas station attendants... And maybe he should think of trading his highway sedan with the two-inch ground clearance for something with more off-road ability?


Did you know they used to put boron in gasoline?


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #4: Food is key.

First order of business, get some grub. To stock up on food, Harry drives to an isolated town off the main roads and takes advantage of the owner of a little market to buy out his entire stock. He buys bags and bags of canned foods and non-perishable staples, not tasty, but it will keep them alive. Even though the shopkeeper doesn't yet know about the war (he slept in), Harry chooses not to tell him about it, which was nice of him. Note that, according to Harry's logic, fresh eggs are bad, but apparently beer is fine. [Editor Pam: Beer is non-perishable, eggs aren't, duh. Besides, be honest, which would you rather have, eggs or beer?]


He better use that cash now, because it's going to be useless soon.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #5: Guns rule.

Harry also knows he needs firearms to protect his family from radiation-scarred mutants and Bolshevik paratroopers. He goes to a small hardware store in the same town and cons the owner into showing him his entire stock of guns. When the owner won't take his out-of-town check, Harry just punches him out and steals the guns. I'm beginning to like Harry, he's a hands-on go-getter kind of guy, showing some real American grit and spit.


He does say he'll pay later, but he's lying.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #6: You can't help the dead.

See a crashed car on the road up ahead with a wounded man lying nearby? Too bad, that's his bad luck for being dumb enough to crash. And for that matter, he just destroyed a perfectly good automobile, one that could have been used to transport soldiers to the front line or to go around collecting War Bonds. Clearly that driver was a Rooskie spy sent here to disrupt our transportation infrastructure. Got what he deserved.


And he didn't use his turn signal!


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #7: Know your role.

Is your wife being naggy and snippy again? Is she questioning your every decision, undermining your authority at every turn? Well, riding out a holocaust requires that everyone be on board the same train (the one Harry is driving, of course) and there can be only one track to follow. Harry wisely sees that he has to put his wife in her place before her grumblings begin to erode his power any further.


Harry don't need no backtalk.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #8: Children should be seen and not heard.

Now that you've got your wife back where she ought to be, is your teenage daughter suddenly becoming a whiney little bitch? Is she complaining about having to rough it in the woods or making snarky comments about your leadership style? Back of the hand to her! Of course, you're going to need those fertile teenage girls if you are going to repopulate the world, so don't be too hard on her. Doctor Strangelove was so right on that one.


Do not annoy this man.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #9: Shoot first, don't ask questions at all.

So, you're parked alongside the road, minding your own business, when a convertible full of punkass juvenile delinquents attack, what do you do? Do you reason with them based on a shared humanity, perhaps even appeal to their sense of authority and America patriotism? Or do you have your son shoot one of them in the shoulder with a shotgun and then run the lot of them off with threats of further violence? Oh. Hell. Yes. Be sure to berate your son later for not blowing the guy's head off, and then berate him more for acting like he enjoyed it. Tips on roadside fights: never, under any circumstances, lose your fedora, and always load your shotgun with solid shot, not bird-hunting buckshot, you want whatever (whoever) you shoot to stay down.


Juvenile delinquents, you can tell by the way they tilt their heads.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #10: Never stop moving.

So a town along a state highway has thrown up a log-and-barrel barricade to keep "city folk" from getting into their small town. Smart move, to be honest, that's what I'd do. But Harry needs to get through, so he just guns the motor and crashes the barricade, shotguns ablazin'. It's ok, though, clearly those people were Trotskyite agitators attempting to disrupt traffic flow along vital roadways. You must always be vigilant for the Red Menace, McCarthy taught me that.


Pay no attention to the close-range return fire from the townspeople, that quarter-inch aluminum trailer with your wife and daughter in it will be fine.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #11: Ends justify the means.

So you need to get across a major interstate to continue on your back-roads journey? Since it's clear that none of the million cars zipping past in all four lanes is going to slow down and let you and your trailer cross the highway, it's time to step up and be a man. Get some gasoline and set fire to the road! Sure, some cars will catch on fire, a 180-car pile-up will result, dozens of people will burn to death in the ensuing conflagration of twisted metal, others will be stranded without transport, but, hey, screw them, at least you got your car safely across the road, am I right? Always assume that any innocent victims you do happen to kill are actually communist fifth column agents, it makes it easier to sleep at night.


Whatever it takes, buddy.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #12: Every man for himself.

So the car right ahead of you stalls out and the doddering old couple behind the wheel is roughly tossed aside by frantic drivers and their car pushed off the road? You'd be wise, like Harry, to leave the old folks stranded there on the side of the road. You don't have the room (well, except in that empty trailer you're towing) and they will just stink up the joint with their hemorrhoid cream and pipe tobacco anyway. They'll be fine, someone will stop and pick them up before night falls. And the ice weasels come out...


Yeah, Harry, just ignore the helpless old man to your right.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #13: Hide your tracks.

So the primitive camping site you've arrived at is too exposed? Well, just tear down the sign to the campground and lock the gate behind you then. I'm not sure you are fully understanding the principle behind H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival. It's about survival, nothing else matters. Let the commies on their collectivized farms stand around as the mutants swarm the gates, we Americans will head for the hills with our guns and our womenfolk.


The less people know the better.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #14: Cover your avenues of attack.

Be like Harry, be proactive about clearing your free-fire zones. Harry uses an axe and a rope to tear down a wooden bridge over a gorge, effectively cutting off access to his camping area to potential attackers. And don't worry about the bridge, maintaining vital transportation infrastructure is not as important as keeping yourself alive, you know. I'm beginning to think you are not really serious about staying alive after WWIII. Are you a communist?


Stalin was right about one thing, a scorched earth policy is most effective.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #15: Caves make excellent fallout shelters.

So you need a safe place to live now that you've abandoned the city? Go for a cave, it's secure, fairly weatherproof, solidly built, and will keep much of the fallout away. It's also temperature-controlled, in case you have to stick it out through the Nuclear Winter. The downside is that it gets muddy when it rains and there's only one way in or out (plus all the radioactive mutant bears looking for a place to hibernate). But, hey, if it was good enough for your Neanderthal ancestors, it's good enough for you. Also, make sure you pick a cave that is internally lit by stand-up spotlight rigs hidden behind rocks.


Half the population of West Virginia still lives in caves, right? I read that on wikipedia.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #16: Don't put your eggs all in one basket.

Only have a limited amount of food and supplies? Don't concentrate your stockpile, spread it out in case you get attacked and have to flee your cave. Harry digs six caches of food and supplies around the area. He tells his family that if any of them are captured they can bargain their way out with a promise of food, but he's really just hoping to buy time to set up an ambush.


Digging a hole.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #17: Know what's important.

"I've run out of cigarettes? NOOOOO!!!! NOOOOO!!!! Oh god oh god oh god!!! NOOOOO!!!! I can't breathe I can't breathe!!! NOOO!!!! Maybe I can smoke this bark???"


He better ration those.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #18: All government is local.

They have a radio and listen in to the Civil Defense broadcasts and to Conelrad (which I love!). From them they learn that the war is pretty much over, that both us and the Rooskies are smashed, and that the Gub'mint is trying to "reestablish order". The fatcats in their bunkers also decree that this point in time will now be known as "Year Zero", which is typical Gub'mint pointlessness in Harry's opinion. What he really needs right now is a flying column of the 34th Infantry Division to come and rescue him, not some empty promises and grandiose plans of "eventual recovery".


AM stations only, FM is for Reds.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #19: Trust no one.

At some point another family (the Johnsons) wander by, other survivors trying to hide out in these same hills. Harry smartly refuses to let them move into his cave, and even turns away their request for food. You just can't allow your feelings to distract you from the survival plan, extra mouths mean less food and more potential for discovery. The Johnsons will later get killed by bandits, but that's not Harry's fault, he's got his own family to worry about.


Harry tells Johnson to leave.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #20: A wife's place is in the kitchen.

Just because the world was devastated by holy atomic fire doesn't mean the husband/wife dynamic needs to change. Even though they are living in a cave, the wife is still solely responsible for the cooking and the cleaning (as it has been ordained). Harry's job is to sit around and smoke cigarettes and brood, when he's not bossing his kids around, that is. It's important to retain a sense of normalcy in the face of danger, so get crackin' on that bacon casserole, woman.


And she better not even think about showing up to the dinner table without her hair done and her make-up on.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #21: Finish what you start.

After hearing some shots, the menfolk check out a nearby farmhouse and see that those three juvenile delinquents that harassed them on the road earlier are now camped out there. It's them that killed the Johnsons and presumably whoever was living in the farmhouse before them. Now is not the time to attack them, however, as they've lost the upper hand already. It's clear now that Harry should have killed those three punks when he had the chance, however distasteful it would have seemed at the time to shoot unarmed men. You just can't afford to allow armed thugs to exist in your area of operations, just bad tactical sense.


The farmhouse.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #22: Don't leave women unattended.

Not long after, Harry's hot daughter wanders away from camp for some reason and is attacked by the juvenile delinquents. They apparently rape her, or at least try and rape her, before they are scared off by rifle-fire. I hate to say this, but the blame here lies squarely with the daughter, she was told repeatedly not to leave the immediate area of the cave without armed escort, but she chose to ignore that advice. Still, though, not cool, dudes.


Well, maybe she wasn't actually raped. She says "They tried..." several times while she's hysterical, and the boys were still dressed when they were run off, so I think she was just assaulted. Again, not that it makes it any better.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #23: Gunfights are all about numbers.

So you want to exact revenge on the juvenile delinquents that attacked your daughter? And you know they are camped out in that farmhouse nearby? Well, logic would say that you should wait until dark to attack since the numbers aren't in your favor (equal, actually). But revenge rarely can wait that long and Harry and his son attack in broad daylight. It works out, however, and while one of the punks is not there, the other two are shot dead in cold blood by Harry. Don't mess with this man's family.


A little backstory on Harry and his firearms proficiency would be nice, was he in the military?


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #24: Save the pretty one first.

They find an attractive young woman tied up in the farmhouse, a sex slave held captive by the punks. They free her and offer to take her along, and she agrees after some hesitation. It's odd that all movie long Harry has staunchly refused to bring new people into his group, but here he takes in this girl without batting an eye (Marilyn is her name). Of course, all those other people were old and wrinkly, and Marilyn has perfect skin and sexy hair, so maybe that's why.


Marilyn in her bra. Look away! Look away!


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #25: Self-reflection is for communists.

Oh, Harry, what are you doing now? Ok, sure, so you've had to do some pretty bad things in the last week, things you never imagined you'd have to do. You've killed people, you've stole stuff, you've pretty much become the Unabomber, but at least your family is safe. Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that, you know the drill so don't act like you don't. If you want to sit by yourself in the dark and cry about your luck, fine, but pull it together when you're around the rest of them, they are relying on you to be the strong, stoic one.


It's ok for women to cry, they're chicks, after all.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #26: You can't stop biology.

Even in the depths of atomic Armageddon, boys and girls will always be boys and girls. Harry's son has the heebygeeby hots for Marilyn, but she's a bit standoffish as she's been through a lot lately. Note: if your teenage son is actually a relatively-unknown Frankie Avalon, be thankful that this nuclear war will keep him from starring in a series of horrible beach blanket bingo movies with Annette Funicello.


Never go PA camping without ample supplies of pomade and aftershave lotion.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #27: Timing is everything.

A week passes and news comes via the radio that a military base has been set up in a town 130 miles away. While most of the family wants to pile in the Mercury and drive there post haste, Harry is more cautious. He worries that the long trip there will be fraught with peril and it's too soon to take that risk. There is no democracy in this group, his own version of family martial law has been imposed, and Harry decides that they will stay here in the cave until things calm down a bit.


Why leave when you have ready access to fresh water?


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #28: Never bring a stick to a gunfight.

Now, remember they didn't get all the punks before, one got away. The third juvenile delinquent now shows up, brandishing a gun and looking to square accounts with Harry's family. He shoots the son in the leg but Marilyn guns him down a second later, relishing the chance to get revenge on the thug who abused her. How the guy managed to sneak up on the son is better left unsaid (but it involves being distracted by Marilyn's insanely perky boobs).


Jerkface punk, must be a commie.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #29: You can't replace doctors.

In any post-apocalypse scenario you can come up with, qualified medical professionals are worth more than anyone else (just slightly edging out diesel engine mechanics and hot Asian girls). Harry has to bring his gravely wounded son to the nearest town where Marilyn knows that a doctor is still living. The meaningful conversations Harry has with this wise old man remind him of both the hope of a return to civil society and of the continued dangers from desperate people. The doctor is particularly worried about "dope addicts" causing trouble after the bombs fell (myself, I'd be more worried about Russian commandoes, but that's just me).


The doctor looks like Colonel Potter.


H-Bomb Harry's Rules for Post-Apocalyptic Survival, Rule #30: Go Army!

H-Bomb Harry's last rule is to always trust in the US military. In the final analysis, after a nuclear war only they have the ability to restore order and keep the peace. Gub'mint officials may make the speeches and sign the papers, but it's the boys in olive drab who make it happen. Harry eventually stumbles across a US Army patrol and his family is finally safe. The soldiers are happy to hear that they stayed "up in the hills", because they "can't get the radiation sickness" then. Not so sure about the accuracy of that statement, but I'm prepared to believe anything the Army tells me...


You were required to cock your helmet to the side when you got your sergeant's stripes, that's just historical fact.


The end.

[Editor Pam: You have my vote for national head of Civil Defense, Nate. With you in charge, we have nothing to fear from atomic bombs. Now what are your plans in case of a Godzilla attack?]

Written in February 2010 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.



comments powered by Disqus

Go ahead, steal anything you want from this page,
that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...