‘Damnation Alley’ Is Best Viewed With a Few Pals and a Few Drinks

When I daydream about living in a post-apocalyptic world, I’m trying to avoid radiation, find food and water, and dodge robot killing machines. Unfortunately, the Terminator movies have left a permanent impression on my brain. What I haven’t considered are the possible effects on the insects and other wildlife.

Thankfully, the silly cult film Damnation Alley has arrived on DVD to broaden my horizons. Released in 1977, this adaptation of the Robert Zelazny novel sends a small band of military guys and stragglers across the US wasteland. Along the way, they encounter strange sights, including out-of-control weather and dangerous monsters.

The story begins with a slow-moving prologue that shows the officers in a remote bunker observing the end of normal life as they know it. This tedious opening is perhaps the least-exciting depiction of an apocalypse in film history. The characters seem resigned to the incoming missiles and monotonously recount the failed attempt to thwart the inevitable disaster. Honestly, all we really needed was a few title cards explaining the situation.

Thankfully, the story picks up quickly once we’ve entered the post-apocalyptic world. The rebellious Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) zooms across the desert with a girl as his motorcycle passenger. They’re pursued by giant scorpions right out of Clash of the Titans, which are always good to see. The effects aren’t believable, and it’s obvious that Vincent is not riding next to actual scorpions. However, the cheesy shots are a lot more exciting than guys staring at blips on a screen.

Following a strange accident involving a sleepy officer and nudie magazines, the small group boards a Landmaster vehicle for their daring journey. Utilizing 12 large wheels that rotate as it covers the rough terrain, this unstoppable roadster is the film’s true star. The passengers include Tanner, his friend Keegan (Paul Winfield), and the tough-as-nails Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard). Along the way, they stop in Vegas and discover Janice (Dominique Sanda) while clowning at a casino. Later on, the whiny Billy (a young Jackie Earle Haley) reluctantly joins the crew. This trek passes by some dangerous natural phenomenon that may stop them completely.

Their destination is Albany, which is the source of a surprising radio broadcast. Before getting even close to New York, they must face the deadliest enemy yet — killer cockroaches.

The Landmaster’s arrival in Salt Lake City seems pretty uneventful, and the group splits up to look around. This sets them up for an attack from the deadliest cockroaches in existence. They’re larger than your average bug and attack in large packs that are nearly impossible to avoid. This sequence is the highlight of the movie because it goes all the way towards excellent B-movie territory. Other parts try to deliver a more legitimate story, but that’s not possible given the level of the visual effects.

I was stunned to discover that Damnation Alley’s budget was around $17 million, which is huge for that time period. By comparison, Star Wars delivered incredible thrills for only $13 million. It’s a bit unfair to compare this film to that landmark achievement, but the similar timing makes it a requirement. In fact, several of the speakers on the extra features spend a lot of time talking about Star Wars. Lucas and his team’s technical success made competitors from the special-effects old school like this movie look vastly inferior.

This film’s director was Jack Smight, known for ‘70s dramas like Midway and Airport 75. He does a competent job shooting the action but doesn’t add much flair or inventiveness. There are some crazy moments here, but they straddle the line between legitimate drama and all-out silliness. The script isn’t sharp enough to deliver the serious material, so the better move would have been a campier approach. For example, another dangerous interlude brings the group into contact with redneck survivalists. Although they do provide some menace, it’s such a by-the-numbers sequence that it’s only mildly interesting.

This DVD release from Shout! Factory includes some interesting conversations with some key behind-the-scenes participants. Each featurette lasts 10-15 minutes, which is just about the right amount of time for the material they’re covering. “Survival Run” offers candid recollections from Co-writer Alan Sharp, who showed up to rewrite the original script. He calls this film “below the median” of his career but still gives some interesting thoughts about his experiences. In “Road to Hell”, Producer Jerome Zeitman describes the beginnings of the project and some difficulties faced. He’s more positive about the movie but also speaks honestly about the movie. Finally, “Landmaster Tales” documents the star vehicle with input from its designer Dean Jeffries.

The other major extra is a feature-length commentary from Producer Paul Maslansky, who’s generally very positive about Damnation Alley. It was stunning to hear him talk about the original plans for a major Christmas release. There were some major reshoots to work on the effects, but that also hurt because it placed their release during the Star Wars heyday. I might not agree with Maslansky about the movie’s success, but he delivers an interesting commentary.

Damnation Alley is a solid choice to catch with a few pals while drinking a few and relaxing. There are enough cheesy moments to warrant the short running time. The colorful weather effects also would likely match nicely with some mind-altering drugs, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The problem is the lack of a clear direction from the creative forces guiding this movie. Everyone, including the actors, doesn’t seem to understand what kind of movie they’re shooting. Vincent has a little fun, but the rest of the actors (especially Peppard) play it straight. They don’t need to ham it up beyond belief, though a bit of fun couldn’t have hurt. Instead, we’re left with a fairly enjoyable movie that entertains but leaves almost no impression once it’s ended.

RATING 5 / 10