Damnation Alley (1977)
Director: Jack Smight
review by Ian Sales
Legend has it Damnation Alley was expected to be a hit. 20th Century Fox had two science fiction films planned for release in 1977, but the
studio did not expect the other one to make much money at the box office. Damnation Alley, however, had everything going for it. Jack Smight's
previous two films - Airport 1975 and Midway (aka: Battle Of Midway) - had both been successes. Jan-Michael Vincent was an
up-and-coming star, and George Peppard was a well-known face - after all, if Charlton Heston's presence had made Planet Of The Apes a hit in
1968, then perhaps Peppard could do the same a decade later. And Roger Zelazny, on whose novel the film was based, was an award-winning science fiction
writer. What could go wrong?
First, the other film was Star Wars. Second, Damnation Alley is a really bad film. The movie begins at a USAF base in a Californian
desert. This base comprises a command and control centre not much different to NORAD, and an underground missile silo. No hangars or aircraft, not
even a runway. Nor does it seem likely a sandy desert would be the best place to bury a missile silo. Vincent and Peppard are one of the duty teams
for the silo, and it is while they are at their post that the Soviets attack. Nuclear missiles come hurtling over the North Pole, laying waste to
US cities. The US responds - including Peppard and Vincent.
Two years later, nothing remains of the United States. The men of the desert airbase believe they are the only survivors. The desert surrounding
them has not noticeably changed - explaining the location in cinematic terms, if not tactical ones. However, an automated message from Albany, New
York, suggests there may be someone still alive on the east coast. So Peppard builds a pair of continent-crossing 'Landmasters', armed and armoured
12-wheeled vehicles. There is a route across the US that is mostly free of radiation, and Peppard has dubbed this 'Damnation Alley'. Before departure,
however, an explosion kills all the airbase staff except Major Denton (Peppard), First Lieutenant Tanner (Vincent), Airman Keegan (Paul Winfield),
and Airman Perry (Kip Niven).
It is the Landmasters for which Damnation Alley is remembered. Two appear in the film, but only one was built - at a cost of $350,000. The
second is the result of camera trickery. However, 34 years later, the vehicles are not as impressive as they once were. After more than a decade
of US army humvees on our televisions and effects-heavy military adventures in the cinema, the Landmaster looks like something knocked together in
a garden shed. The special effects in the movie are no better - and don't forget that this is the same year Star Wars was released.
The giant scorpions which attack Tanner near the beginning of the film are badly composited in - notwithstanding the implausibility of giant scorpions
in the first place. In Las Vegas, they find a young woman (Dominque Sanda) - beautiful, of course - who has also survived; she fell asleep in a fallout
shelter underneath a casino, while waiting to give sexual favours to a casino boss. Later, the five reach a town whose inhabitants have all been eaten
by oversized cockroaches. The use of real insects - Madagascan hissing cockroaches - at least gives the scenes some verisimilitude, though the entire
sequence is risible.
A later encounter with mutated hillbillies is just too clich�d to convince. If Damnation Alley has one saving grace, it's that the optical
effects used to represent a radioactive sky are actually quite effective. And so they should be: the film spent almost a year in post-production
having them added.
Since bombing at the box office in 1977, Damnation Alley has become something of a cult film. There are those cult films which are good but
too far from typical Hollywood product to generate mainstream success. And there are those cult films which are simply bad, and it is their very
badness which is often the cause of their appeal. Damnation Alley falls into the latter category. Science fiction novels adapted for the silver
screen rarely make good movies. Damnation Alley is not unusual in that respect. All the same, you'd be better off reading the book.