"Damnation Alley" (1977) Review
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 thought this movie was pretty kick-ass when I was a kid,. but when I revisited it 30 years later, I could only roll my eyes at how easy it was to impress ten year old me.
Based on a classic sci-fi novel by Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley begins at an Air Force missile base in Bakersfield, CA., where the launch team of youthful Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and grizzled veteran Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard) report for watch duty in their missile silo as usual. Almost immediately after they clock in, the proverbial poop hits the fan: the base's radar 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 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... 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 showno emotion whatsoever as they stand in front of big computer screens watching the world dissolve. You'd think at least one guy would say "NOOOOOO, not Pittsburgh! My mother's 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 scorpions (!) brought on by radioactive fallout. One fateful day, however, a careless airman falls asleep with a cigarette in his hand, setting one of his Playboy centerfolds on fire (yup, really) and causing a catastrophic explosion that completely destroys the base. I swear, I am not making this up. Thus, the population of the base is reduced to four souls - Denton, Tanner, artistic airman Keegan (Paul Winfield) and the bland, mustachioed Perry (Kip Niven). Since only two of these guys have top billing on the film's poster, you can probably guess which ones are the heroes and which are going to be this flick's equivalent of the Red Shirt Guys on any random episode of "Star Trek."
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.
As our quartet sets out across the desert, Landmaster Two gets caught 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, where they pick up another lone survivor, former casino lounge singer Janice (Dominique Sanda). 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). On the road again through the middle of nowhere, the team picks up teenage survivor Billy, 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 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 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.
© 2011 Keith Abt