"Damnation Alley" (1977) Review

Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster | Source

DAMNATION ALLEY (1977) - Directed by Jack Smight

We're digging deeeeep into the bargain bin for tonight's installment, ladies and gentlemen. The cult post-apocalypse saga Damnation Alley is one of those "B" films that used to get a ton of cable-TV play in the late 70s and early '80s. I saw it numerous times as a kid and I thought that it was pretty kick-ass back then. Watching it again nearly 30 years later, I could only roll my eyes at how easily impressed I must've been when I was ten years old.

Supposedly based on a classic sci-fi novel by Roger Zelazny (though it reportedly bears little to no resemblance to said novel), Damnation Alley starts off at an Air Force missile base in Bakersfield, CA., where a launch team made up of youthful Lieutenant Jake Tanner (a pre-"Airwolf" Jan-Michael Vincent) and grizzled veteran Major Eugene Denton (a pre-"A-Team" George Peppard) report for watch duty in their missile silo as usual. Almost immediately after they clock in, the proverbial poop hits the fan, as the base's radar suddenly detects hordes of enemy missiles bound for the good ol' U.S. of A. Seriously, it's that abrupt. A technician looks away from his blank radar screen for a second and when he turns back, *BLINK* there they are! Tanner and Vincent get the green light to launch their missiles in a retaliatory strike, and then we're treated to several minutes' worth of stock footage showing missiles leaving their silos, soaring into the sky, and then... mushroom clouds. Lots and LOTS of mushroom clouds. That's right, folks, it's the End of the World As We Know It (cue the R.E.M. song...).

Oddly enough, the assemblage of character actors portraying the base's commanders and generals show absolutely no emotion whatsoever as they stand in front of big computer screens watching the world dissolving before their very eyes. At the very least you'd expect someone to say "NOOOOOO, not Pittsburgh! My sainted old Mother lives in Pittsburgh!" but nope, they simply watch city after city blink out. Is this meant to demonstrate how modern technological warfare has utterly dehumanized our military men, or is it simply poor acting/direction? I go with Option 2.

Anyway... we then shift to two years later. Tanner and Denton are still at the air base with the rest of their squadron. What choice do they have? There's nowhere else for them to go, since the entire country has been transformed into a crispy, radioactive wasteland. Tanner apparently likes to pass the time by racing through the desert on his motorcycle, teasing the hilariously phony looking giant mutant scorpions (!) brought on by radioactive fallout. One fateful day, however, a careless airman falls asleep with a cigarette in his hand, which sets one of his Playboy centerfolds on fire (yes, really) and causes a catastrophic explosion that completely destroys the base. I swear, I am not making this up. The total population of the base has thus been reduced to four souls - Denton, Tanner, artistic Airman Keegan (Paul Winfield) and the bland, mustachioed Airman Perry (Kip Niven). Since only two of these guys have top billing on the film's poster, you can pretty much guess which ones are going to be the heroes and which are going to be this flick's equivalent of the Red Shirt Guys on any random episode of "Star Trek."

All hail... the LANDMASTER!!
All hail... the LANDMASTER!! | Source

With no reason to stay in Bakersfield anymore, the quartet decide it's finally time to move out. Fortunately, Denton and Perry have been busy over the past two years, plotting out a route across the country on a 100-mile wide swath of land (which Denton dubs "Damnation Alley," thus justifying the film's title) where the radioactivity has supposedly died down enough that they can venture through it without becoming instantly microwaved. Their planned destination is... Albany, New York, of all places. Why Albany? It's the only place where Denton has been able to pick up a radio signal from, meaning there may still be survivors there. Their mode of transport on this dangerous journey will be (cue dramatic music) the LANDMASTER One and Two, a pair of totally bad-ass, giant armored all terrain vehicles that look like Hummers jacked up on steroids and Red Bull. The Landmaster vehicles were the thing that appealed to me most about this film as a kid. It's a shame they never manufactured toy versions of them, because I definitely would've wanted one.


"Hi-Yo, Landmaster...AWAY!"

So our heroic quartet sets out across the desert, but before they get very far Landmaster Two crashes in a radioactive storm which kills Airman Perry (Didn't I tell ya?). Keegan joins Tanner and Denton on the remaining Landmaster and they continue on, stopping off in the ruins of Las Vegas to hit some abandoned one-armed bandits. There they encounter another lone survivor, former casino lounge singer Janice (Dominique Sanda) and invite her along on their journey. Later on, In a deserted Salt Lake City, the crew stops for gas long enough for Keegan to get devoured by bloodthirsty swarms of radioactive mutant cockroaches (again, I swear I am not making this up) that have eaten every other living thing in the city. On the road again through the middle of nowhere, the team picks up teenage survivor Billy ( Jackie Earl Haley, coming off of a stint in the "Bad News Bears" flicks here before becoming the Replacement Freddy Krueger), then another fuel stop results in Janice nearly getting raped by a gang of radiation-scarred hillbillies. Fortunately, Billy's rock throwing skills come in handy here and the group escapes with Janice's virtue intact.

...and it just plods on like this, for a torturous hour and 40 minutes that feels more like four or five. In case I haven't made it totally clear, "Damnation Alley" was a chore to get through. Our two leads, Peppard and Vincent, are as wooden as you'd expect them to be, and the "action" scenes, while probably intended to be mind-blowingly intense, come off as cheap and cheesy due to obvious budget restraints. Supposedly this movie cost $17 million to make, which was a pretty decent chunk of change in 1977 dollars, but even for that much coin, "Damnation Alley" still has the feel of a cheap made-for-TV movie. They must've blown most of their budget on the construction of the Landmaster vehicle (of which loving close-ups are shown at every possible opportunity) and the whiz-bang multi-colored "radioactive clouds" effect that's added to the sky in every outdoor shot, because it certainly didn't go towards decent scriptwriting, casting, or editing.

Even more unbelievable is that 20th Century Fox apparently were expecting THIS movie to be their big money makin' science-fiction blockbuster in 1977, while all but ignoring another movie on their release slate for the same year... you might've heard of it, a little flick called "Star Wars?" Needless to say, when "Star Wars" became a runaway hit, Fox must've looked at "Damnation Alley" and said, "Awww, crap." They promptly sent the film back into post-production for several months in the hopes of bringing it up to the visual standard of their other hit. When this failed miserably, Fox dumped "Damnation Alley" into drive-in purgatory as one half of a double feature with Ralph Bakshi's similarly unsuccessful animated fantasy, "Wizards" before it eventually became a late-night cable favorite. Somehow, the careers of Peppard and Vincent managed to survive this debacle. There's a germ of a good movie in "Damnation Alley," but unfortunately it got lost somewhere on its way to the screen.

Of course, films like these are catnip to B-Movie geeks and fans of the "post-apoc" genre will want to give this flick a spin regardless. Bring your sense of humor and make sure to have some adult beverages handy, because without them "Damnation Alley" is a bumpy ride indeed.

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theJOKERiv 5 years ago

I remember seeing this a kid and thinking it was bad a$$..... and I am remember thinking it was a made for TV movie (a la The Day After)

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

It definitely has a made-for-TV feel, doesn't it? I think a lot of people believe it was a TV movie simply cuz it got so much late-night TV play in the 70s and 80s. Every station that had a copy must've been like "We got nuthin' else to put on tonight? Ehhh, screw it, throw on that movie with the roaches and the cool Land Rover thingie again!"

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

Alright dude! We played Damnation Alley at the theater I worked at. The only thing that stood out in the memory was the opening scene. The two missile silo guys are gettin all laid back talking about the relative merits & potency's of their pot stash's- so 70s man!- when like you wrote, the warning comes in. One of the guys has to eventually pull his service revolver on the other guy who is suddenly reluctant to launch a return Armageddon. Seriously, that and the caterpillar looking vehicle thing they drive around in later Ha-Ha! Great synopsis and memory FatFreddy!

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Glad you liked it, Alastar. Though I believe the scene you described (missile silo guy pulls his gun on his partner) was actually the beginning of "WarGames." Haha. In "Damnation Alley" they're totally by the book about it, like "OK, let's launch these things."

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

Well then, the only thing remembered is the caterpillar vehicle and Kris Kristopherson. That's what happens when a wanna-be movie connoisseur's memory goes up against a real pros. Seriously, thanks for the info Fat Freddy, might have gone through life believing that; and to be honest about it, that's near all I remember of War Games too..LOL

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FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Haha, I haven't seen "WarGames" in ages, but I do remember this much: it was WAY better than "Damnation Alley."

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

I haven't seen this in so long I really don't remember it very well at all. I saw in on VHS in the 80s sometime but it didn't hold my interest. I have only vague recollections of it. This was during George Peppards low period, between the time his A-list movie career faded and his TV success on the A-Team began.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Believe me, you're not missing much, Robwrite. Haha.

Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

I remember seeing this movie at the theater...I was 10 at the time and thought the movie was terrific...and the scene with the cockroaches in Salt Lake City was something all my friends talked about....I later watched this movie as adult I saw just how bad the movie really is....ah the joys of being a 10 year old. Looking at my box office tables...Damnation Alley finished in 49th place for the year with about 43 million in 2011 dollars. Voted up and very interesting.

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx for stopping by Cogerson. It's kind of sad when, as an adult, you see a movie you loved as a kid and you end up thinking to yourself, "Wow, this is awful," isn't it? Haha. We're so much easier to impress at a young age. :)

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FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author


Buildreps profile image

Buildreps 2 years ago from Europe

I always like your movie reviews, Keith! Never saw this movie. But the way the titles are written told me enough. I checked out the trailer. I hope you sell lots of Amazon's:)

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    Keith Abt (FatFreddysCat)519 Followers
    166 Articles

    I have a weakness for cheesy, "so bad they're good" low budget horror, sci-fi or action movies. I watch'em so you don't have to!

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