Today, I have two movies. They're offered together as one rental from Netflix. Gems from the early 60s, both "capitalizing on our fears of apocalyptic destruction." Each reminds me quite a bit of one of my very FAVORITE films, Night of the Living Dead.
Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
A family on a fishing trip learns that nuclear war has broken out, and tries to hide deep in the woods or a cave.
Who would have thought a film so campy as to include an exclamation point in its title would be this compelling? Ray Milland plays your average 1950s-style family man with a plan to take the wife and kids on a trip to the mountains. They've got one of them fancy newfangled camper-trailer deals hooked up to the family roadster and everything!
Well, not long after the crew gets out of Los Angeles, the Big One hits. Yeah -- a full-blown nuclear war. They see mushroom clouds on the horizon and know its time to really shove off. As general chaos descends on the country, our heroes rob a hardware store, shoot a few people, and set up a little camp in a remote cave as they wait for law and order to return.
What an excellent movie. For the full 90 minutes, I was waiting for some disappointing, ironic revelation to come -- like, say, that there wasn't really a nuclear war taking place, and all of this panic was for nothing. You know, that kind of thing. It's what usually happens in these sorts of movies. But, no; not this time. Instead, the Big One really HAS come, and people have started to act like animals. Mr. Baldwin must get his family across a panic-stricken California to safety. I really liked this guy. He's the old-fashioned, Take Charge kind of American family man. Maybe some of his decisions are wrong, but by God, at least he makes them.
Of course, Baldwin's behavior raises a variety of moral questions. He rationalizes setting fire to another traveler's car, punching out a gas station attendant, and shoving a gun in a store owner's face on the grounds that HIS kind of people will be needed to rebuild the world "when civility returns to civilization". Isn't he just another part of the problem, even if well-meaning?
In the end, Baldwin DOES get his family through the nightmare, and he DOES help some others along the way. Frankie Avalon plays the teenage son eager to do right, despite nearly getting a lust for blood after shooting a marauding beatnik at one point. It was interesting to see that side of him. I also loved the snappy, retro dialogue and kitschy jazz score. The only downside to Panic in Year Zero! is that I probably wouldn't want to watch it again. Panic is the kind of movie that would probably drag a bit on a second or third viewing. Still, I recommend this film highly.
4 out of 5.
The Last Man On Earth (1964)
A scientist is the last person left alive after a horrible virus outbreak. Everyone else has turned into zombie/vampire-like creatures. They torment the main character while he cowers in his home at night, while he hunts and kills them during the day.
The Last Man on Earth is classic Vincent Price in all his weird, dark glory. Price plays Doctor Robert Morgan, a guy who is apparently the only survivor of a pandemic that has turned the rest of the world's population into vampires. Each day, he carries out the same routine of picking up supplies, searching for vampire nests, and burning the bodies of undead that he finds lying in the streets. At night, he barricades himself in a house while ghouls surround the building and taunt him. We're also given information on how this whole situation unfolded through multiple flashbacks.
A horror movie quite like this would never be made today. In fact, they TRIED just a few years ago, with Will Smith's crummy remake of The Last Man on Earth, called I Am Legend (both, incidentally, are based off the same book). Part of the reason why the more recent version wasn't as effective, I suspect, was that it didn't star Vincent Price, who puts his creepy, tortured stamp on every frame of the 1964 film. While I usually look down on voice-overs as a narrative device, in the case of Last Man on Earth, I'll make an exception, since the VOs are provided by Price.
Price's descriptions of the grim tasks Doctor Morgan must carry out each day, along with long scenes of him stalking the streets of a totally empty city, make for a truly eerie experience. And the nighttime vampire attacks are effective in a simmering sort of way that today's horror filmmakers don't seem to understand (the vamps in this movie actually act a lot like Romero's zombies in Night of the Living Dead). Eventually, Doctor Morgan meets a woman who has also apparently survived the outbreak (or, HAS SHE?), and things get a little convoluted from that point on. Regardless, The Last Man on Earth is undoubtedly a horror classic worth checking out. Considering that it can be rented along with Panic in Year Zero! from Netflix for the price of one, there's no reason not to see this picture. Enjoy!
3 out of 5.