Panic in Year Zero! - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Panic in Year Zero! - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

    Civilisation? Some civilisation! All our friends are probably dead. Everything's gone. Everything's changed. Including me ...”

    At a time when post apocalyptic movies seem all the rage again - we've had the animated “9” and the FX-showpiece of 2012, and both The Road and The Book Of Eli are now making that trek across the terrain known, universally, as Armageddon - it seems appropriate that we can now take a look at the newly released score for Ray Milland's own startlingly grim Cold War treatise on the collapse of civilisation and the end of the world, the hard-nosed black-and-white drama, Panic In Year Zero.

    Made in 1962 and released just before the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis, on a shoestring budget and with Ray Milland both directing and starring in it as the practical-minded but terrified survivalist father who takes his family on a dangerous road trip to find safety in the hills once the sprawling Los Angeles gets blown sky-high, the film was something of small-scale cause celebre at the time and, like Roger Corman's eerie The Day The World Ended, Sidney Salkow's faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson's “I Am Legend” in The Last Man On Earth, with Vincent Price, went on to gain a limited cult appeal. Like The Road (which this film has a lot in common with), the reason for this cataclysmic destruction is not precisely pinned-down - some vague war against an unnamed enemy - and just as with John (The Proposition) Hillcoat's adaptation of the great Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the threat comes not from some irradiated mutant strand of life (Them!) or some alien pestilence sweeping away mankind (The Monolith Monsters), but from fellow survivors, themselves, and the lawless depths of depravity that many will sink to in order to make it through each day in the new wasteland. Milland directed with a sparse realism and his visualisation of such a doom-laden mass-ordeal is actually quite stylish and quietly gripping in its inward-looking tone of despair, pragmatism and renegade retribution. If you ignore earlier moments when we see the same four or five cars speeding around hilltop lanes in a rather lame attempt to convey the madness and chaos of Hollywood's fleeing acolytes (think of that VW we see about half a dozen times in the classic chase from Bullit!), then you will find that Milland's first-helmed feature (after a couple of episodes of Thriller) is surprisingly brutal and emotionally hard-line. The film does not paint a pretty picture of how people cope under stress - but, with Milland's take-no-prisoners stance and devoutly protective nature, it is, as far as I am concerned, very realistic in its cold and merciless depiction of the measures that individuals and families must take.

    Anchored, as it was, in the Cold War ethos and featuring Frankie Avalon as the energetic, loyal and gutsy son, Rick, the film is, inevitably, dated. But another element that entrenches the period in which it was made was the jazz-infused score from Les Baxter which, during its theatrical spin, served to rigidly enforce for audience-members that this story was taking place right there and then and in a world that they knew resolutely as their own, and not some distant future or fantastical alternate reality. It may have been SF fantasy, but Milland was intending it to be taken seriously as a stark warning about the ramifications of nuclear war and the effects that such a conflagration would have on those that were lucky (or unlucky) enough to have lived through it. And you have to give him the benefit of the doubt here as his film is agreeably bleak and uncompromising, fitting in with both the new ideals of the harder edge of sixties cinema and the frighteningly paranoid atmosphere that the United States was living under. Basically, once society breaks down, you can't trust anyone and it is, literally, every man for himself went Milland's, and his character's, vigorous and unshakeable assertion.

    Les Baxter has had something of a revival lately. We've had the great score for the Jules Verne adventure Master Of The World and his rather bizarre sortie into Lovecraftian menace with The Dunwich Horror (CD reviewed separately), though this particular offering is considerably more contemporary and accessible. He brings into play a small and somewhat traditional big beat-band of piano, woodwinds, trumpet, trombone, French Horn, guitar and drums/percussion in an ensemble of less than twenty, which he also conducts. The resulting sound is fast, snappy and tight, the complete polar opposite of the grand orchestral verve that had held sway over the movies in the thirties, forties and fifties and, it seems, was actually quite prescient of the coming seventies when film scoring would go on to take on a much more pop/jazz/contemporary sound courtesy of the likes of Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry, Enter The Dragon, Starsky and Hutch) and Jerry Fielding (Scorpio, The Enforcer and The Big Sleep). Jazz through and through, Panic In Year Zero is much like a warm Californian evening's lounge session with a gaggle of young hipsters riffing relentlessly on some musical exploration none of whom know the final destination of. Indeed, it has that smoky, liquor-tainted mood that just may not end at all.

    Certain spoilers will inevitably appear throughout this review, folks, so please be warned.

    Propelled by a driving 6-note line over an ebullient, churning beat that is used to depict the Baldwin Family's ever-dependable Mercury Monterey and, as a direct consequence, their harsh odyssey across this dangerous landscape, Baxter's main theme develops in the first track and is used, like a backbone, as the foundation for the rest of the score. Most of the other themes, motifs and phrases are born out of this, or somehow find themselves linked to it in some way. This is a typical late 50's, early 60's big band rhythm and something that would be entirely familiar to film-goers of the time from television scores and stage accompaniments they'd heard, although it was something that had only been used marginally as the musical colour for a full feature film. Composers like Leonard Rosenman, with his work on Rebel Without A Cause, Elmer Bernstein on The Man With The Golden Arm and even Alex North on A Streetcar Named Desire had brought this lively style into movies already, but their scores had actually been considered quite experimental and possibly not as intentionally “hip” as this sort of thing would eventually grow to be. Baxter, in many ways, was deliberately producing the sound of the times and by placing it over the top of the story was steadfastly creating the character of the film, itself, and supplying the life-blood of the cast. Although the jazz quotient is big and brash, he nevertheless manages to capture the overall mood of desperation and anxiety as well the many individual dramas that ensue when the Baldwins hit the road. Pulsating percussion pushes forward with the brass signing-off a raucous signature. The guitars riff coolly alongside the woodwind element, conjuring the period and literally motoring ahead. The flavour is effortlessly hip and possesses something of a West Side Story vibe. It feels young and ribald, rebellious and yet determined at the same time, more reminiscent of an early John Barry in its spiky darkness than the smothering, honey-laced, melodic nurse-maiding of, say, Henry Mancini.

    Baxter's tracks, more often than not, contain several cues within them, urging the story and the score along as swiftly and defiantly as Milland's Harry Baldwin who, after he and his family, already en route to the beautific spot in which they habitually take fishing trips, witness LA going up inside the big, iconic mushroom cloud of a nuclear strike. All bets are now off and Harry knows that predators of every kind will be seeking to take advantage of the dire, un-policed situation. But with the road to their secluded sanctuary blocked by shotgun-toting townspeople out defending their borders from trouble-making outsiders, a highway so chock-a-block with speeding evacuees that only a sheet of fire from a bucket of fuel can provide a safe passage across it, and violent encounters almost every leg of the way, the Baldwins' trip is fraught with strife and their very moral standing is brought into question. Perhaps befitting the stoic and implacable character of the world's one remaining “civilised” man, the righteous Harry, himself, Baxter's score rarely deviates from its swaggering theme of “ever onwards”. The notable exceptions to this dynamic fixture come mostly during the more emotion-fuelled second half, but some smart asides still punctuate the first.

    Track 2 contains a great little section that produces a real shiver of dread. Ominous trilling woodwinds, uncomfortable piano clusters and instinctive guitar scuffing, together, develop a sense of cold fear. Terrific pat-patting on tom-toms deliver a low tide of rolling agitation, although this element is gone much too quickly for my liking. A snare drum then urges the cue forward, the score going on to commence its relentless drive into hostile land. Through various encounters that inevitably turn nasty, the Baldwins gather supplies, weapons and fuel and this gives Baxter the chance to let rip with snatches of rapid-fire piano, brass clusters and guitar swerves emphasising each set-to and heated negotiation. He has the guitar and the brass tumble over a brushed snare, occasional lulls for soft flute and glissandi, but the conscious thrust is wrapped around his powerful 6-note central figure - the theme for the Baldwins, the car and the film.

    Tension is exacerbated and another theme introduced when the family encounters a trio of “Hoods” on the road in Track 6. Baxter adds a layer of menace, still catchy and still part 'n' parcel of that driving main theme, but instead of being something of a more surly and threatening musical detour, the theme becomes slightly softer and more insidious. The sax provides a throaty, muscular current of casual violence as they lean on Harry, but Baxter is careful not to overplay the sequence, letting the canny turnaround of events largely speak for themselves, brass ripples and low trombones lending a vague shadow of “lapsed cool” to the proceedings.

    Track 8 becomes more atmospheric and slightly eerie as the family find their haven and take measures to ensure its privacy. After some woodwinds and occasional trumpet flurries, the track settles into a pensive, covert mode. Furtive piano and some fine flute-led ambience provide a measure of unease amid contemplative optimism. The family fortify their position - a cave - and Harry sets about instilling some degree of routine. Clunky dialogue from Milland makes this segment of the film a little preachy and almost pseudo-educational, but Baxter maintains a great little sense of weird new harmony for the Baldwins. Solo French Horn and a slow strumming guitar signify the explorations of their realm by Harry and Rick in Track 9, and, accompanied by a sprightly phrase from the flute and some commando notes from the piano, an unlooked-for reunion of sorts takes place as they meet the guy from the hardware store they virtually emptied earlier. Although tension is still high, Baxter's music interprets the encounter without danger or melancholy. These portions of the score don't sound anywhere near as heavily jazz-crafted, acting as moody underscore and tonal signposts for each new chapter in the family's survival. But this can't last as jeopardy fully returns when we realise that the Hoods have taken up residence at the country retreat just over the hill and have even murdered the farmstead's owners. After all his efforts, Harry's luck has hardly swung in the right direction, has it? Baxter infuses this intimidating development with a harder tone to cement the fact that the dilemma is sure to rise to a head and that trouble is most surely brewing. The discovery of more murder victims - quite a sobering and heavy-hitting scene, this - is rigidly enforced with harsh brass and then a sombre lyric from the flute. More shock is treated with timpani and a trumpet blare, before the jazzed-up theme for the Hoods returns, complete with brazen sax and trilling trumpet and a perpetual sizzle from the cymbals. It is not the conventional “bad guy” stanza, but this recognition still serves just as well, the sax and brass combo reaching a heated crescendo when two of them happen across Harry's teenage daughter Karen (Mary Mitchel) by the river and treat her to their brand of rough hospitality. Once again, Baxter does not conform to the usual scoring etiquette. The violence and anger of the scene play out with the Hoods and the main theme jostling one another in a high-flying and busy riff of clattering drums, ripping brass and blurting woodwinds. However energetic and pulsating this motif gets, there is an arrogance and a brusqueness about it that fits the brutish mentality of the two scumbags, Baxter nailing the cocksure vigour of the rapists without pandering to the darkness of the scene as so many other composers would have done. The lengthiest track on the album, this is also the closest that he comes to a conventional scoring narrative.

    Brass and guitar lead into a confrontation at gunpoint as Harry and Rick go on the warpath and corner the two goons responsible. This first cue in Track 11, entitled appropriately enough Bang Bang, also boasts a nice slow build-up on the piano before hitting a bombastic flurry for bleating trumpet and woodwinds as retribution is rightfully served. The second cue, Marilyn, depicting the upsetting discovery of a young woman who has been kept hostage in the farmhouse and systematically brutalised by the Hoods, plays out very much like the score to an old Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episode, something by the likes of Dominic Frontiere, perhaps. Slow and thoughtful, it shimmers with poignant reflection and the faint and feeble hushed debut breaths of what could become a romantic theme. Whilst Harry is a dark angel of vengeance and all for leaving the stricken girl behind, Rick is the one who redeems the grim situation by insisting that they take her back home with them. Milland deserves kudos for this unexpectedly macabre character trait that he imbues Harry with, and, even if Baxter's score firmly envelopes the poor Marilyn and the sympathy that we and Rick are bound to feel for her, the former Oscar-winner (for 1945's The Lost Weekend) provides a steely-eyed and unpredictably volatile bitterness that totally convinces.

    With idly plucked acoustic guitar, swooning woodwinds and a soft melody for French Horn, this apprehensive romantic theme develops in Track 12. With Marilyn eased into the Baldwin Family and Harry coming to terms with his own darkness, Baxter sets about instilling a sense of camaraderie amidst the leafy idyll that they have constructed far away from the madness and despair of the bombed-out cities. Somewhere beneath this cosy sort of pastoral fugue lurks another slight edge of danger. Everyone knows that there is another Hood, and the most aggressive and murderous one at that, out there in the wilderness - as well as all the other threats that surround them. Muted brass takes the forlorn baton as Rick tries gently, but valiantly to win Marilyn over. This strangled sort of Americana spits in the eye of the jazzy broadside that so often squalls its way to the top of the score.

    Carl, the last of the trio of killers, suddenly reappears and tries to reacquaint himself with the startled Marilyn and a struggle ensues with Rick, who is armed with an axe. Furtive brass and commando-trained guitar stealthily sneak up on us in Track 13, Chop Chop, accompanying Carl's last-ditch villainy. A longer cue here than heard in the finished film, this track soothes its way out with a long, slow waltz-like rendition of the love theme as Marilyn cradles a badly wounded Rick after the brief, but furious final scuffle. Just as Harry Baldwin must now accept that the family must move out in search of other civilised folks if they are to save Rick's life, Les Baxter then returns to the jazzy main theme as, once again, the Mercury Monterey is revved-up and they are forced to hit the road. Now intermingled with the fresh romantic theme, the impetus is a combination of slow-seeping anxiety, faith in their own inner-resolve and that driving momentum that Baxter's ensemble have proved so enamoured with.

    Track 15 is made up of three cues. The first one drops into a serious section of nervous apprehension as another obstacle presents itself to the Baldwins as they travel down one of those ubiquitous Californian mountain roads, sharp headlights bringing them to a halt almost as forcibly as the harsh orders barked at them from out of the night and the machine-gunfire that accompanies them. Milland and Baxter then allow the main theme to assuage our nerves as we all realise that, Southern Comfort-style, it is the Army and not shotgun-packing rednecks that are at-hand to aid survivors. The second cue continues in this vein of sad, yet optimistic musing as we hear from the soldiers about the state of the nation's recovery. The film has been a strangely unsettling and provocative ride through American paranoia - the shock of which is not the swift degeneration into anarchy that the population exhibit, but the fact that Ray Milland, working from a screenplay by Jay Simms and John Morton, has tapped into precisely the human condition that triggers it all off in the first place. Perhaps all-too conveniently, he ends the film with hope for salvation, but, cleverly, he leaves us in no doubt that the cost for Harry's “civilisation” has been terribly high, as the final cue in the track returns with the main theme.

    The score then bows-out with a fuller rendition of this main driving theme in Track 16, running for almost an extra minute-and-a-half and providing the musicians with a vigorous and more developed workout that is purely lounge-inspired.

    Baxter would work with both Ray Milland and Frankie Avalon again in later years. He would score the effective bayou-set 1972 ecological horror, Frogs, for director George McCowen that would star a crotchety Milland, as well as a young Sam Elliott, and even the riotous 1962 teen-romp of Bikini Beach that would showcase Avalon in his heyday as a heartthrob for the-then sun 'n' sand flick supremo, William Asher. His music for Panic In Year Zero is poles-apart from the type of score you would get for a similar story made nowadays and, to be honest, it is probably a lot more upbeat than the film's events would suggest. Yes, there is danger. Yes, there is some suspense. But that rolling, persistent beat becomes a source of reassurance, even when it has been corrupted by the variation Baxter incorporates for the trio of thugs. And yet, having just re-watched the film, I can sincerely state that it does fit very well with the on-screen action. A stylistic flourish has the film begin with a simple black screen as the main theme develops. And, in one of those distinctly period embellishments, its title is then hammered across the frame in total blaring time with the music - stark, immediate and, inevitably, a touch clichéd. By contrast, the end credits play out, beneath this same theme, over a mercy-dash travelogue that you really think will deliver a satisfying final pay-off and, tantalisingly, refuses to, leaving us to merely assume the future safety of the family.

    Brilliantly produced by Ford A. Thaxton and remastered from MGM's vaults by James Nelson at Digital Outland, La-La-Land's limited release of Panic In Year Zero is well-packaged with some interesting and detailed notes from Randall Larson, some fine stills from the film and great interpretive cover art. As I have said on many other occasions, there has never been a better time to be a score collector. Not only do we have the soundtracks to most of the new releases that come along, but all the studios seem to be falling over themselves in order to open up their once-hallowed vaults to restorers, producers and sound engineers who can now unearth such rare and less well-known scores as this, as well as many old classics that have been crying out for a lavish revisit. Panic In Year Zero will not, by virtue of its jazz composition alone, appeal to a large section of score-fans, but it remains a terrific and worthwhile release just the same. I, myself, am not an avid aficionado of this type of music, but there is a definite mood and atmosphere that Baxter is able to put across and it is eminently enriching to sample something new and a little different once in a while. This captures a tone that is in cahoots with Milland's own cynical vision, hip yet dark, rebellious yet unrelenting.

    Please note that this edition is severely limited to only 1200 copies worldwide. Fans of Les Baxter and collectors attuned to the variety of musical interpretations that the cinematic annihilation of Mankind can inspire would be advised to act quickly on this release.

    Full Track Listing

    1.PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! Main Title 2:06

    2. Vacation/Radio Improvisation / To The Phone booth /
    Atomic Tonic 2:52

    3. Atomic Subdominant 2:43

    4. Atomic Dominant / Just A Thug / Traffic / The Wreck 4:26

    5. Trigger Happy 2:15

    6. The Hoods 2:07

    7. Stop Sign / Waiting / Wall of Fire 2:20

    8. Bridge / To The Cave /Atavistic 3:26

    9. No Girls / No Civilians / A Boy and His Gun 3:27

    10. Johnson's Act / The Slip / The Rape 5:36

    11. Bang Bang / Marilyn 3:18

    12. Rabbit Traps / Rabbits Due / Some Civilization 3:08

    13. Chop Chop 1:44

    14. First Aid 1:54

    15. The Army / Five Good Ones / PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! End Credits 4:03

    16. PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! Main Theme - Extended Version 3:29

    Total Running Time: 49:33


    A score with, perhaps, a slightly limited appeal, Les Baxter's evocative Panic In Year Zero is still a great addition to the ever-swelling ranks of suddenly unearthed musical treasures that have been buried for so long that many have since forgotten all about them. Ray Milland's movie is small-scale but concerned with BIG issues, intimate but played out against one of the most colossal and emotive of dramatic hooks. For those of you enamoured with the “wasteland chic” of The Road and The Book Of Eli, it is well worth seeking out this early incarnation of the theme. In some ways, Baxter's score makes the apocalypse hip and vibrant but, in so doing, it also helped to bring the dire consequences of such a calamity home to many more people than it may, otherwise, have reached.

    Not only “of the time” but weirdly deconstructing it in the same breath, the jazz from this small ensemble rides out the inter-personal storm and provides an unstoppable and infectious momentum that works superbly in the film and as a crazily toe-tapping musical escapade on album as well. La-La Land, once again, come up with the goods and prove themselves to be a label that can not only support much-loved, well-known and oft-requested soundtracks (Innerspace, Extreme Prejudice, Big Trouble In Little China, Mars Attacks! etc) but also the smaller, less familiar entries from composers who took their work just as seriously as the bigger names, such as Laurence Rosenthal's The Island Of Dr. Moreau (reviewed separately), the joint effort for Batman: Gotham Knight, Akira Ifakube's King Kong Vs Godzilla and Barry DeVorzon's Night Of The Creeps.

    Les Baxter's Panic In Year Zero certainly grows on you, and is well recommended.

    The Rundown





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