Rod Serling’s interest in science fiction and horror pre-dated his work on The Twilight Zone. It can be seen in a very definite form in an episode he wrote for the anthology series Suspense in 1953. The episode in question is Nightmare at Ground Zero, and it’s included as an extra with the season one Blu-Ray release of The Twilight Zone.
The episode is especially interesting in that it features a number of elements that would figure prominently in The Twilight Zone, notable an end-of-the-world scenario and store-window mannequins.
Technically the episode might not include any overt science fictional elements but the entire concept of the story is essentially science fictional. And the horror elements are undeniable.
A mild-mannered man named George Vance makes his living manufacturing life-like mannequins that will be used in atomic bomb tests. The mannequins will be placed inside houses in the test area.
George seems to be more genuinely fond of his mannequins than he is of his wife. That isn’t hard to understand since all his wife does is criticise him, belittle him and generally make his life a misery. As he is placing his mannequins in position for the latest atomic bomb test he suddenly sees a way of escape. A rather drastic way, but he is a desperate man.
The question is, will he actually go through with it?
George Vance is a rather typical Rod Serling protagonist, a meek but sensitive soul oppressed by an uncaring world. And the technique of using a doomsday scenario to bring his characters’ inner conflicts to a crisis is one he would use again.
Nightmare at Ground Zero is in fact very much like a Rod Serling episode of The Twilight Zone.
The picture quality on this episode is very poor. That is not surprising given that the Suspense series went to air live and the only recordings made were kinescope recordings, made by filming the picture from a television monitor. Since the episode is offered to us as an extra it would be unreasonable to complain about the image quality. We’re lucky to have such recordings at all and this one offers us the opportunity to see an early Rod Serling attempt at the kind of television he would later become famous for.
Nightmare at Ground Zero is a very effective piece of television and is most certainly worth watching.