See the Film, Hear the Music: Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

I’m hoping this will become a bit of a regular thing – when the score to a classic film comes out on CD for the first time/in a definitive edition, it’ll nudge an opportunity to revisit or see the film for the first time.

I had seen Ray Milland’s Panic in Year Zero! (1962) years before, but a second viewing actually surprised me, because it’s one unusually bleak little film with a central character who never really evolves into a better person. He remains stuck in survivalist mode, and he’s a bully to his family while they stay alive in the mountains outside of Los Angeles after a massive nuclear strike.

AIP marketed the film as another drive-in B-flick, but it’s much smarter than what the trailer sold, plus there’s some grim subtext that managed to remain in the final shooting script.

Panic was released on DVD by MGM as part of their apparently now-dead Midnite Madness series that carried a great collection of exploitation films from the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and were often double-billed with a related film (which in Panic’s case, is another Milland post-apocalyptic thriller from 1964, The Last Man on Earth, the first film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend novel, which I’ll review at a later date).

Many of the MGM DVDs mined the AIP (American International Pictures) catalogue, and for those unfamiliar with the indie studio, it was a profitable, cheap outfit that proved to be a training ground for burgeoning filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Bogdanovich, to name a few.

Many of them worked on films directed and produced by Roger Corman (The Intruder), a ridiculously confident filmmaker who made all kinds of films (musicals excepted) for AIP before an effort with major studio UA – the ill-fated Von Richthofen and Brown (1971) – soured him from active directing, and he stepped away to found New World Pictures, and later Concorde Pictures and New Horizons.

(Elements from the Corman catalogue have a new home video distributor via Shout Factory! so maybe some long out of print titles will finally get definitive releases, as well as be available in Canada by domestic distributors.)

Panic has nothing to do with Corman, but it is a typical example of the occasionally smart production that transcended the usual bug-eyed monster movies and teen escapist fodder that built the company, and like most of AIP’s productions, it was scored by the underrated Les Baxter, a multi-talented composer, arranger and producer whose background went beyond films, and included mood music album of the sixties.

Few of Baxter’s complete scores exist on CD, and even those that popped up on LP were restricted to the 35-40 min. running times of the era, or were represented by a few cues on albums alongside pop songs. That makes it hard to assess Baxter’s skill separate from the actual films, which is why La-La Land’s CD is important to the composer’s fans, as well as sci-fi fans and those deeply fond of AIP.

Baxter was AIP’s in-house composer, and most of his career was tied to the company. Pieces of prior scores were recycled in other films, and he had to contend with tight budgets, as well as the controversial chores in sometimes re-scoring some of the foreign films AIP picked up, recut, redubbed, and sometimes integrated reshot material for the American market.

The downside for fans of director Mario Bava was being stuck with Baxter’s music for the AIP edits of Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), and Baron Blood (1972), for example. I use “stuck” in the sense that for decades there was no way to see the untouched Italian versions until the first laserdiscs and DVDs from Image arrived with the original music scores written by Italian composers.

Sometimes the U.S. versions of AIP’s imported titles used old Baxter cues from other films, but certainly in the case of the aforementioned Bava films, the scores were original, and while they exist in suite form on CD, the films that sported them are no longer available (except maybe in some public domain, budget-line DVD collection).

Apparently MGM claims ownership of the U.S. versions, but they’re doing nothing productive with them, like actually releasing the films so fans can see how Baxter scored the dramas differently than the Italian composers.

That’s one level of Baxter’s scoring output that still remains unsettled, but Panic in Year Zero! contains a lengthy original score, and can be enjoyed on CD as well as DVD, so check out both reviews.



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