Panic in the Year Zero/The Last Man on Earth (MGM)
For as long as I can remember, I have loved post-apocalyptic survival movies. It feels like only yesterday that I stood gawking in wide-eyed youthful exuberance at the poster for The Road Warrior at the Pueblo Drive-in. Nuclear obliteration? I’m in. Worldwide famine? You got me. Apocalyptic pandemic? Now you’re speaking my language! So imagine my joy when I discovered that not one, but two of my favorite post-apocalyptic thrillers were coming to DVD on a double feature disc. The films? The incredible one-two punch of Panic in Year Zero and The Last Man on Earth.
Panic In Year Zero (1962)
Panic in Year Zero is easily one of my favorite movies of all time. Produced by the legendary American International Pictures, the film stars Ray Milland (The Man with X-Ray Eyes) as Harry Baldwin, an average joe who gets thrown into the worst imaginable scenario: nuclear war and its anarchic aftermath. As the film opens, Harry and his family are vacation-bound when a thunderous boom fills the air and a mushroom cloud looms over where Los Angeles used to be. Man, talk about putting the kibosh on family barbeques and happy hikes in the woods. As soon as Harry spots the cloud he springs into action--securing food, weapons and supplies for his small family.
As once perfectly reasonable people descend into a state of chaos, Harry and his family literally head for the hills. But with no law around, a pack of young toughs have taken to killing unsuspecting motorists on the lonely roads. With the help of his son Rick, (played by a young Frankie Avalon, displaying some wicked acting chops!) Harry escapes the trio of no-goodniks and holes up his family in a cool hidden cave. But what other survivors roam the hills--and what plans do they have for those they encounter?
Some might be quick to write this flick off as just another cheapie piece of exploitation, but that’s a big mistake. Directed by Milland himself, the film resonates with a dark and gritty tone--years ahead of its time. Things really get rolling when the young toughs assault Harry’s daughter and he kicks into full survival mode--whipping ass and taking names. If you dig bleak films, this one has bleak written all over it. Which brings us to ...
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
All I have to say is, if you have never read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson then you need to get on that pretty quick. The direct inspiration and godfather of every zombie-themed movie made since the original Night Of the Living Dead, the book describes a plague-ravaged Earth and one man’s fight for survival. The book has been made into a movie twice already (The Last Man On Earth and the sub-par Omega Man starring everyone’s favorite nut-ball Charlton Heston.) In fact, the book is currently being made into a film once again, this time starring that master thespian Will Smith. I can just hear it now ... “Zombie vampires? Aw, hell naw!” I shudder at the thought of what’s being done to such an incredible story.
The Last Man on Earth stars horror icon and owner of the coolest laugh ever, Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, the last man on Earth. A super-plague has devastated all of humanity, leaving a horde of zombie/vampires in its wake. Dr. Bob spends his days foraging for food, looking for other survivors and impaling the vamps with handmade wooden stakes whilst they slumber. As the desperate lone survivor, most of the film’s dialogue appears as inner monologue, allowing us to feel first-hand the fears and frustrations of humanity’s last hope. The complete isolation Morgan feels, coupled with the stark and unforgiving environment, make for one hell of a depressing flick. Of particular note is the abandoned city-scape, accomplished entirely without the high-end computer effects used to achieve the same effect in 28 Days Later.
While the DVD is seriously lacking in the special features department, we do get pretty fricking sweet widescreen prints of each film and the sound is cherry as well. Simply put, you need to go out and watch these movies--after reading the Matheson book, natch.