Judge Dave Ryan can't afford Damnation Alley; he rents out a modest studio on the Boulevard of Mild Reproach.
"This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: Killer Cockroaches!"
Once upon a time, there were two science fiction films who lived under the same roof. In this case, the sign on the roof read "20th Century Fox," and for identification purposes, let's call the two films "Goofus" and "Gallant." Gallant was the studio's golden child that year—a professional production, based on an acclaimed writer's work and given a more-than-substantial budget for the period. Goofus was an original production with a mostly inexperienced cast and crew, had been given a budget that was significantly less than Gallant's—and still it was thought too much money was being spent on Goofus—and beset by production delays. Gallant was going to be the studio's tentpole release for the Labor Day-to-Christmas filmgoing season; a surefire hit with blockbuster effects and star power. Goofus was an afterthought; the studio hoped it could maybe make back its cost of production, if they were lucky. Even the director's close friends thought Goofus was a bit of a mess. But even in its rough, trouble-beset form, Goofus was starting to win over the studio bigwigs. It was a problem child, but a problem child with potential. Not the surefire potential of Gallant, but potential nonetheless.
Spring came, and as the lengthening days chased the chill of winter from the air, Goofus presented itself for release. Gallant, still in post-production, was on track for its fall debut, so the studio was happy. With limited fanfare, the studio released Goofus for the world to see.
This is not the story of that film. That film was Star Wars. This is the story of Gallant, a.k.a. Damnation Alley. The other Fox sci-fi film for 1977.
Facts of the Case
It is the present day, or at worst a little bit into the future. The world is at peace, at least until the surprise nuclear attack comes. And come it does, leaving the Earth tilted off its axis. Radiation and harsh weather cover what used to be called the USA.
Deep in a missile base, a group of Air Force personnel have survived the apocalypse intact. The base antennae have picked up signals coming from Albany, NY—a repeating tape recording, but a definite sign that someone else has survived. Major Sam Denton (George Peppard, Breakfast at Tiffany's) has been heading up a secret project building two all-terrain vehicles to cross the country via a narrow radiation-free belt in the Midwest—nicknamed "Damnation Alley." Assisting in the construction of said vehicles is a man after Denton's own by-the-book heart, Lt. Tom Perry (Kip Niven, Magnum Force).
A freak accident blows up the base and most of the people in it. Denton, Perry, and their machines survive, however, as does Denton's rakish former missile-silo partner Lt. Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent, Airwolf), and a former base guard named Keegan (Paul Winfield, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Denton and Tanner, of course, do not get along. Tanner is a free spirit who likes to ride his dirt bike dangerously close to bad-process-effect giant scorpions; Denton could be described as "ramrod straight," but for the fact that analogizing his straightness to a mere ramrod would be insulting. Keegan often winds up playing the role of lukewarm water to Tanner's fire and Denton's ice. Perry just looks vaguely ticked off at anyone who isn't Denton.
The four men set out in their two Landmasters for far off Albany. Along the way, they run into a pretty lounge singer who survived the apocalypse in a Las Vegas casino vault (French model Dominique Sanda, 1900), a boy fending for himself on an abandoned farm (Jackie Earle Haley, Watchmen), a bunch of hootin', hollerin', 'n' rapin' redneck hillbillies (sans the hootin' and hollerin'), killer cockroaches, bad-process-effect mini-tornadoes, Detroit, and a largely unexplained killer flood.
No Landmasters were harmed in the making of this film.
Let's get this out of the way: Damnation Alley is not a good movie. But it's not really a bad movie, either. It's just a typical Seventies-style sci-fi blockbuster, cut from the same cloth as Logan's Run or Planet of the Apes. It's got a respectable cast of B to C-level talent (at that time), competent directing from industry veteran Jack Smight (Airport 1975, Midway), and a coherent story, albeit one not totally faithful to its source material (a lesser-known novel by noted sci-fi author Roger Zelazny). Everything adds up to an hour and half of quality Seventies summertime action film—entertaining enough, but utterly forgettable.
So why do so many people of a certain age (say, 40ish) have such a fetishistic love for Damnation Alley, such that this should-be-long-forgotten film has been given the full re-release treatment by Shout! Factory? What is so magical about the long-unawaited pairing of George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent? Is America just desperate to see more of Kelly Leak's throwing arm? What's the big deal?
There are two answers to that question. First, Damnation Alley is the last of its breed. After Star Wars, never again would audiences accept a science fiction film as simplistic, formulaic, and effects-free as Damnation Alley. The state-of-the-art had changed permanently. By the time it was released, the film was already obsolescent—a shining example of the "bad old days" before Star Wars. I mean, what do you think the kids of 1977 would rather watch—a Dark Lord of the Sith emerging with his white-clad stormtroopers from a laser-blasted hole in a Rebel starship…or bad process-effect scorpions? From a literary standpoint, the story is not mythological or epic in nature, as was Star Wars. Instead, it's a fictional travelogue with a dash of the picaresque novel thrown in for good nature. To put it another way, it's not a hero's journey—it's just a plain old journey.
Lacking in any real narrative drama or epic scale, you wouldn't see a big-budget release like this film today. If it were produced for the big screen, it would likely be a smaller, more cerebral film. In the source novel, Zelazny used his post-apocalyptic travelogue to explore how various elements within today's society would reassemble themselves after a society-destroying catastrophe. Today, this aspect of the novel—which was jettisoned in its entirety in the adapted script—is likely the only part of the entire story that Hollywood would want to pursue. In fact, a similar (albeit superior and much darker) post-apocalyptic novel was made into exactly such a film: Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Films like Damnation Alley are still being made, mind you—it's just that a full cinema feature budget wouldn't be expended on this script today. It would be a made-for-TV or direct-to-video movie, with commensurate production values and cast. Today, this would be Mega-Truck vs. Hillbillies of the Apocalypse, and would star Rick Schroeder, Debbie Gibson, the guy who played Horshack on Welcome Back Kotter…and Jan-Michael Vincent.
So Reason the First for Damnation Alley's nigh-inexplicable persistence is the fly-in-amber aspect of its anachronistic feel and style.
Reason the Second? OMG OMG OMG THE LANDMASTER!!!!!!!
The real star of Damnation Alley is unquestionably the Landmaster, the 100% real all-terrain 12-wheel articulated megatruck that carries Our Heroes from the desert Southwest to upstate New York. This isn't a model, or a set-dressed Winnebago—it's a gosh-darnit honest-to-goodness real live vehicle of the awesomesauce variety. It's a sweet ride that will tickle the fancy of your inner 6-year-old boy every time it comes on screen. (Remember, though. that if a stranger who isn't the Landmaster tickles your inner 6-year-old boy's fancy, you should tell a policeman or other grown-up immediately.)
The Landmaster, which I guess is technically a practical effect, is the one special effect that actually came off well in Damnation Alley. Which is a good thing, since its construction consumed a good chunk of the film's budget. ($350,000 to be precise.) Unlike many large-scale Hollywood practical effects of the Seventies (I'm looking right at you, Bruce the Shark…), the Landmaster proved to be reliable from a mechanical standpoint, and was a frequent visitor to Southern California sci-fi conventions for years after the film's release. (Apparently, it's owned by a private collector in the San Francisco area these days.) Most important, though…it's just cool as heck.
The Landmaster's acting is, of course, impeccable and beyond reproach. As for the rest of the cast…let's just say this film won't show up on anyone's career retrospective clip roll at the Oscars. Of the principals, Jan-Michael Vincent turns in probably the best performance, largely because he's playing the same role he played in virtually every one of his screen credits: the cocky daredevil with the smug grin. A role I suspect was very much like the real live Jan-Michael Vincent circa 1977. I'm guessing that Tanner is supposed to be the "hero" of the tale—he does get to save the damsel in distress—but fleshing out his character doesn't seem to be on the script's list of priorities.
It's not as if Denton fills that void, either. Peppard was at both a personal and professional nadir in 1977—he didn't get treatment for his raging alcoholism until 1978, and his A-Team-fueled career renaissance was five years in the future. Here he's not bad per se, he's only bad in hindsight. We've known Peppard could act since Breakfast at Tiffany's. We now know how well he can play this sort of character thanks to The A-Team. So looking at Denton, with his cliched Southern accent (think Foghorn Leghorn on quaaludes), his seemingly perpetual lack of affect (only the pretty girl manages to trigger a response other than "stern" or "pissed off"), and the (for lack of a better word) indifference he shows towards conversation, exposition, or anything that would help us develop any sort of connection towards him…this is George Peppard? This character could have been played just as effectively by a much less talented actor. What was going on here? Okay, we probably do know the answer: booze, and probably a bit of contempt towards the script and the genre. But it's a little jarring to see it play out on the screen in front of you. He's enough of a professional that it would be unfair to say he "mailed it in," but this clearly wasn't Peppard's finest moment.
The late Paul Winfield was always good for a competent performance. He's actually pretty good here. The only nitpick I have is that there are a few moments where he's clearly overacting. Worse still, it's not overacting in the Shatner sense…it's overacting in the Huggy Bear sense. Maybe it's a Seventies thing, but there's a little too much Blaxploitation jive-turkey-ism in Winfield's performance. Maybe that's accurate for the character—I didn't know any enlisted African-American airmen in the mid-'70s, so I can't say. I do know that it seems a little beneath an actor like Winfield to play the character with such broad and coarse notes. But on the whole, Winfield is memorable in a good way, even though he doesn't really have a lot of quality screentime in the film.
Damnation Alley was 16-year-old Jackie Earle Haley's first major role after his sudden leap to stardom as The Bad News Bears' Kelly Leak (other than that film's quickly-produced sequel). There weren't any signs here that he would, thirty-odd years later, become the respected, intense, and sought-after character actor he is today. On the other hand, it's a lot of fun to watch the film and narrate it via gruff Rorschach diary entries…("December 4th. Topeka Kansas. All dead. Husks of wheat harvested by man's hubris. Tanner more concerned with pretty girl than with corpse of society. Dedication to his perverted fantasies in face of horror—disgusting. Cesspool of his vices alive and well in Hell. Wish radiation would seek out the black in his soul; cleanse it permanently. Well…at least truck still runs.")
As for Dominique Sanda…well, she's a very, very pretty woman. And she screams a lot. Let's leave it at that. I hate to be too critical of someone who isn't speaking their primary language.
Shout! Factory does its usual—and by now, expected—good job in creating a worthwhile package for this DVD release. First, there's an all-new anamorphic original aspect ratio video transfer for the film. While Damnation Alley hasn't been through a full restoration, it has been cleaned up a bit for this release. Call it a "high TV" quality transfer—nowhere near reference quality, but the flaws present are only those to be expected from an unrestored Seventies-era film. Some scenes show a good amount of grain, but colors are bright enough, if not always crisp. Many of the defects almost certainly derive from the heavy post-production done on the film. On the other hand, the bad-process-effect scorpions (truly hideous effects that were added when the planned effect—large-scale puppets—proved even worse) have never looked better. In all, Shout! has given us a transfer that's about as good as we could expect, without a full restoration. That's about all we can ask of them.
Damnation Alley was originally presented—in limited release—in what Fox called "Sound 360." This was an early form of surround sound, using four tracks (center, left, right, and rear) on 35mm film to generate a full circle of sound around the audience. The technique was not used again by Fox; Dolby Labs' Stereo Surround system, which had debuted in 1976, eventually became the industry standard. (The fact that Star Wars had won the Oscar for best achievement in sound with a 70mm Dolby Stereo mix didn't hurt either.) For this release, the original 4-track surround audio proved to be unusable. Instead, Shout! has given us two remixed surround tracks, a DTS ES 6.1 Surround track and a Dolby 5.1 Surround track, apparently based on the stereo mix of the original film. They are competent mixes—front-heavy, as one would expect from a stereo-based surround mix, but with good use of the rear channels where appropriate. A Dolby Stereo mix is also included. No subtitles or alternative spoken languages are provided.
For extras, Shout! has given us plenty of behind-the-scenes information about the making of the film, but precious little else. On the plus side, both of the film's producers are present to speak. Paul Maslansky (Police Academy) provides the lone commentary track; Jerome Zeitman (The Starlost) sits for a featurette interview. Both describe the film as a near-insurmountable challenge from the get-go—Fox was never completely happy with them, the script, or the special effects, turning Damnation Alley into a drawn-out money-sucking affair—which is nice and juicy stuff if you're a student of the non-artistic side of filmmaking. But if you're looking for more, there's nothing much here. Landmaster fans will be pleased to find a featurette interview with Dean Jeffries, its designer; interesting, but a bit on the short side. Trailers and TV spots round out the package.
Why is Damnation Alley a cult film today? Well, probably because a lot of us saw it when we were kids, and were too young and unsophisticated to see how rote and formulaic the film really is, but not yet too old to be permanently imprinted by the Landmaster's ultimate coolness. (Remember, we were also highly impressed by Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which is, in hindsight, clearly a spoof. Right?) Or maybe it's just goofy fun. Honestly, I don't know. Every time I watch this film, I finish it and wonder why I ever wanted to bother with it. Yet in a few weeks or months, I'll once again be saying, "Hey, I haven't seen Damnation Alley in a while."
And so goes the circle, ad infinitum, ad astra.
(But really—the Landmaster is super cool. I can't emphasize that enough.)
Guilty, except for the Landmaster, who is released with a full pardon.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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