DAMNATION ALLEY (1977)
Jan-Michael Vincent (Tanner), George Peppard (Denton), Dominique Sanda (Janice), Paul Winfield (Keegan), Jackie Earl Haley (Billy)
The third world war left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.
There are a lot of doomsday films that are downright awful, but many attract a lot more hate than they deserve. No movie in this genre attains more unfair hatred than Damnation Alley. I have never figured out what everyone seems to have against this movie. I’ve even seen it unfavorably compared to The Day After Tomorrow. This is my attempt to turn around public opinion and get more people to see this movie for the underrated gem it really is.
Damnation Alley concerns a group of soldiers operating a missile base who survive the destruction of almost every major city by nuclear missiles. Shortly afterward, the last idiot on Earth masturbates himself to sleep holding a lit cigarette in the flammable gas room. The bunker the soldiers are holed up in explodes, leaving only four men alive after the blast. They set off in two massive all-terrain vehicles, called Landmasters, to get to the last place they’ve heard a distress signal from: Albany, New York. Between them lies almost the entirety of a war-torn country filled with deadly mutant creatures, incredibly powerful storms, and the last awful dregs of the dying race known as mankind.
Now don’t mistake my defense of this movie for fanboy devotion or nostalgia blinders. Damnation Alley is riddled with problems from one end to another and I acknowledge each and every one of them. Let’s start with the gorilla in the room: Damnation Alley is ostensibly based on a novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny. The novel concerns Hell Tanner, the last of the Hell’s Angels, who is pulled out of jail and sent on a suicide mission across the country in a convoy of weaponized armored cars to deliver medicine to a plague-stricken Albany facing giant bats, monitor lizards, incredible storms, raiders, and his own apathy toward his fellow man along the way.
Zelazny’s novel was passed to screenwriter Lukas Heller, who cut it down to screenplay size and cut out a lot of stuff that just wasn’t possible in a movie in the 1970s. Heller’s draft was then passed on to Alan Sharp, who used the draft as a template and added more characterization. I’m not sure who changed what but suddenly Tanner was a good old boy charmer with a dirt bike and was one of a group of soldiers stuck in a missile base rather than a former member of an infamous biker gang. All of the mutants were cut out (the movie features giant scorpions and armored flesh-eating cockroaches, neither of which were in the novel), and the story was pretty much rewritten from the ground up with only the skeleton of the trip, the goal, and the title remaining.
The first and biggest problem is definitely the writing. Zelazny, Heller, and Sharp were all writing their own story and they kind of conflict. They say a camel is a horse as designed by a committee and Damnation Alley is definitely a camel, but nobody really breaks down what seems to be wrong with the writing so I’m going to attempt to. The first problem is with Zelazny’s novel.
I love the book, I have a nice hardcover edition (that I bought for far too much money) currently adorning my shelf, but while it has many strengths, narrative isn’t one of them. It’s a basic A to B journey story where a bitter apathetic man learns to appreciate others and most of the story is spent with him sitting in the cabin of his car frying bats with a flamethrower until it breaks down at nearly the end of the story and he has to venture out on foot. The appeal is in the little details Zelazny sprinkles throughout, there’s some amazing world building going on but Hell Tanner and his story are pretty rote. There wasn’t a lot to turn into a movie here, so I’m not sure why people (Alan Sharp included) insist that a more faithful take would have been better.
Not having access to Heller’s draft I can’t say for certain what his vision was at all. I know that chunks of the story feel like a shitty 70s disaster movie but that could easily be the fault of director Jack Smight who made the 1975 version of Airport (the movie which Airplane is almost directly spoofing) which is the quintessential shitty 70s disaster movie. I will say though that Sharp really does something with the script: yes Tanner has been transformed into the sort of person who would be played by Jan Michael Vincent, and exposure to radiation causes George Peppard to grow a Maine accent after the intro for no apparent reason, but he adds character to the story that was sorely lacking from the book. He also adds my favorite thing about this movie: optimism.
It’s usually considered a flaw of Damnation Alley that the whole thing feels rather cheerful for a post-apocalypse movie, but I disagree. It’s not a cozy catastrophe like Earth Abides or even like the book where everything ties up neatly for the protagonists and they’re never in any real danger, it just doesn’t show them dwelling on the awfulness that is their existence. The movie is less an adaptation of Zelazny’s novel but more an on-land remake of On the Beach. The thing is, On the Beach is so unbelievably dour that it reads almost like a melodramatic parody. The characters of Damnation Alley are fully aware of the hopelessness of their situation, but they don’t let it crush their spirit; any thread of hope is worth pulling on and they remain optimistic that things can and will get better. That’s Damnation Alley’s big philosophical message: Just because it’s the end of the world doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, and I’ve always appreciated that.
The other big gripe often thrown at Damnation Alley is in regards to the special effects. On the recent DVD/Blu-Ray releases of this movie, producer Jerome Zeitman discusses the production of Damnation Alley and talks about how almost everybody in the business simply thought it couldn’t be done. This was his first big movie and he didn’t know much about special effects and the production was rushed but he did what had to be done. There are a lot of dodgy effects that involved splicing footage of one thing over a background (such as the scorpions) and the glowing sky effects look like someone did them directly on the each frame with a highlighter. The miniature work is so-so and there are some truly atrocious blue-screen effects being used inside the Landmaster’s cockpit. The fact that Damnation Alley came out five months after Star Wars from the same studio and with a a much higher budget really just drives the final nail into Damnation Alley’s coffin with this, but I think that’s a bit unfair.
Anyone who knows anything about Star Wars‘ troubled production knows that nobody expected it to look as good as it did, and I’ll go ahead and postulate it was the need to do amazing things on a shoestring budget that spurred the necessary creativity to make that movie work as well as it did. Secondly, it wouldn’t matter if Damnation Alley had the budget of Waterworld, it was far too ambitious for the special effects world at the time. Damnation Alley has a special effect of some sort in nearly every frame of the movie and some of them are pretty decent. The pyrotechnic work is very well done, the cockroaches were handled well and are genuinely creepy (and the scene features a lovely attention to detail where not only the bodies are gone but every scrap of fabric and rubber as well), the model and miniature work is decent, and then there’s the movie’s greatest boon: The Landmaster.
There are a great many memorable vehicles in doomsday movies but The Landmaster is probably the greatest for one primary reason: it’s real. With the exception of the mortar tubes and rocket launchers, The Landmaster is a fully operational vehicle designed by stunt coordinator/vehicle designer Dean Jeffries. Each wheel well contains three wheels on one large rotating hub that allows the vehicle to cruise smoothly over rough terrain and fairly deep holes even though it has no shock absorbers. Since all the wheels are stationary, it steers using a pivot point between the front and back ends that sort of works like a hinge. The rotating wheel hubs also double as paddle-wheels for locomotion when the vehicle travels in water. It is incredibly cool looking and still works to this day.
Damnation Alley has its problems, its climax comes well before its ending, the effects are corny, and the story is a mash-up of a goofy sci-fi adventure, a 70s disaster movie, and a thoughtful apocalypse movie. Still, the gripes leveled against this movie are blown way out of proportion. The fact that Damnation Alley even got made is a miracle but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It’s not a bonafide classic but it’s a fun little movie and not only appealing to people who saw it when they were 10. It’s a mess, but a beautiful one and if you’re an apocalypse fan like I am, you’ll find something to enjoy here.
Damnation Alley was out of print for decades until Shout! Factory picked up the rights a few years back and released a very nice DVD and Blu-Ray edition. It’s also available on Amazon Insant Video.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“‘In the beginning…’ [chuckles] It’s a little late for that.”