Put on your best SPF 400 radiation block and hop in your Landmaster. It’s time to head into Damnation Alley!
Damnation Alley is probably one of the best examples of bad timing. Planned by 20th Century Fox as their big sci-fi film for Winter 1976, it was delayed until October of 1977 when their other sci-fi film (Star Wars) was continuing to break box office records.
The trailer depicts the events after an all-out nuclear war between the United States and presumably Russia. The world is a wasteland and only five people survive (one woman and 4 men). They must face the obstacles of tornados, floods, mutated insects, and who knows what as they drive around in their super RV-looking tank. It’s an action/adventure/apocalypse film that seems quest driven, perhaps a bit like Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
At Tipton Air Force Base in California, officers Denton (George Peppard) and Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) check in for their shift in the basement levels of this missile base. Denton tells Tanner he’s put in for a change of shift because he just doesn’t like him. As they begin testing their console for their shift, a series of missiles appear on the master board. Tipton and other silos launch a counter strike against the enemy missiles, but only stop about 40%. Nuclear armageddon comes swift.
A series of inter-titles explains that after World War III, the Earth tilted on its axis leading to many unprecedented storms and floods, along with strange colored skies. Approximately two years later, the survivors at Tipton AFB spend their days maintaining what they have left, and avoiding giant mutated scorpions. Keegan (Paul Winfield), who along with Tanner have resigned their commission in the Air Force, stay nearby. After a heated exchange between two Air Force officers, one falls asleep while smoking on his bunk which happens to be next to two flammable containers. The resulting explosion destroys the remainder of the base, killing the General, and everyone but Denton, Tanner, Keegan, and Perry (Kip Niven).
The four survivors set off in two Landmasters–giant, gas-guzzling, armored and amphibious, personnel carriers with three sets of tires on each axle–for Albany, New York, where Denton has been hearing radio-chatter since the war. Denton tells Tanner they need to head East through a 100-mile stretch of radiation-weak desert called “Damnation Alley” in order to safely get to Albany. The pair of vehicles soon encounter a series of funnel clouds as a freak storm overwhelms them. Tanner drives through in Landmaster 1, while Perry digs in. Landmaster 2 is flipped and Perry is killed. An injured Keegan is picked up by Landmaster 1 and they head for Las Vegas.
At Circus, Circus they trio spend some moments playing the slots and having fun for once, when a woman appears. Janice (Dominique Sanda) is a French singer who was stuck in Vegas after the destruction. They take her with them and continue on through more strange weather, like a torrential rainstorm with red lightning. In Salt Lake City, stopping to fill up with gas, they encounter armor plated cockroaches which consume Keegan, and threaten to eat the tires off the Landmaster. Tanner and Janice avoid the bugs on his motorcycle and the three continue further East.
In the wastelands of middle-America, the survivors find a small run down shack inhabited by Billy (Jackie Earle Haley) who has survived after both his parents have died. They convince him they’re nice people and the four continue on. Stopping again for potential supplies and facilities at Ellen’s Cafe, the survivors are accosted by a quartet of scary mountain men with rifles. They attempt to rape Janice and steal the Landmaster, but Billy uses his rock throwing skills to knock one hillbilly out. He then gets Denton’s gun back to Tanner. They waste no further time, and head off.
Stopping again in Detroit to find spare parts to repair an axle, the group becomes separated in a junkyard as another storm hits. They manage to all return to the Landmaster just as a tsunami strikes, tossing the vehicle under, and through, the water. Luckily the amphibious nature of the APC allows them to travel across the giant lake they’re in. When the storm clears, the skies have returned to their normal color, with the Earth having apparently righted itself. Denton picks up a radio message from Albany, and Tanner and Billy set off on the motorcycle to greet the townsfolk who look as if nothing has happened to them.
“All the dead are dead. And the living are dying.” – Mountain Man #1
History in the Making
Damnation Alley was a film that 20th Century Fox had high hopes for. Originally planned as a large budget film for winter 1976, problems with the post-production effects instigated a move to October of 1977. Designed then to be one of two sci-fi films released by Fox in 1977 (the other being Star Wars), it was supposed to be the studio’s golden child. After all, Star Wars was a small, independently produced film that Fox was only distributing. Damnation Alley was their film. Unfortunately history has proved differently. The film suffered from sub-par special effects, incoherent plotlines–as scenes were excised to make way for more shots of the expensive Landmaster prop, attempting to be more like Star Wars, and just a poor script.
The film ended up with no real tension, and no particular character development except the thinnest guise of who each person was in a stereotypical fashion. Lots of time was spent on shots of the missiles being launched and exploding, or exterior shots of the Landmaster land-mastering instead of getting to know why this journey was important to the characters. Also for a multi-million dollar film, a lot of stock footage shots or clips from other films (like Earthquake) were used. It seems more like a film made and written by student filmmakers rather than the director of Airport 1975 & Midway, and the writers of The Flight of The Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen.
Each character got exactly one moment to shine, except for perhaps Tanner, who’s portrayal by young sex symbol Vincent, allowed him to have more moments on screen than others. The distrust between his character and Denton is set up in literally the first sequence, but other than a few moments of tension when they first set out in the Landmaster, the two have zero issues working together. Billy is shown as a superstar pitcher, throwing rocks at the crew of the Landmaster, and becomes a hero when he uses the same trick to knock out the mountain man threatening Janice. Janice is the only woman in the world as far as the characters know. The mountain men are eager to have sex with her, but Denton and Tanner never think or discuss anything other than being perfect gentlemen. Keegan becomes a token black character that is killed in their first encounter with the post-apocalyptic world. It’s all just too trite.
Since the film is supposed to be more of an epic journey, there’s not a lot of time spent on the characters that inhabit this post-apocalyptic world. It depicts a barren wasteland in post-World War III America similar to A Boy and His Dog, but doesn’t provide anything in the way of the lifestyle or survival tactics for the characters. The Landmaster keeps stopping for gas, but then running away because of issues before they can fill-up. The humans never have to scrounge for food. Supposedly the Air Force base had food for all the survivors for two-plus years, and the Landmaster held all the food for the ever growing number of survivors they found. As far as post-apocalyptic survival stories, this one was boring, as everything came extremely easy to the characters.
The most exciting part of the film is, as the producers thought, the Landmaster. It’s a crazy looking vehicle that was made as a practical prop (as well as miniatures), which could actually drive through the desert. Unfortunately the longer it’s seen, the less amazing it becomes. It has a couple of cool gadgets, including the missile turrets on top, but that doesn’t make it any more spectacular. The real-life vehicle was designed by Dean Jeffries who created the custom cars for the Logan’s Run television series, the Monkee-mobile from The Monkees, and the race cars from Death Race 2000. Its design was fresh and futuristic and would inspire work from other designers for shows like Ark II, and Megaforce. As an expensive prop, it was reused many times for other shows, both seriously and for comic effect.
Even though the first 15 minutes are about the destruction of the world by nuclear armageddon, at no time is there any discussion by the characters about the state of the world. It’s as if the trauma of an apocalypse wasn’t so bad. Avoiding giant, minivan sized scorpions is just another day at the office. Oh no, it looks like the red lightning is back. Did you pack the umbrella?
The characters discuss their individual trauma a bit: Billy mourning the loss of his parents, and Janice losing the sleazy Las Vegas producer that she survived the attack with (who was strongly hinted as forcing her to sleep with him to get a job, just before the missiles flew)! But there’s no real moment of connection with the characters. It’s a very dry story about getting from point A to point B. Everything is about advancing the plot and not the characters. Even though things are set up for characters to create friction with one another, like Denton and Tanner, everything quickly smooths out and everyone likes everyone else.
The Science in The Fiction
Damnation Alley starts by letting the audience know that the Earth has been tilted off its axis. Denton repeats the same information to Billy, but adds, “if it comes back, everything could come back to normal.” Billy adds that nothing good ever just happens by itself. But gosh darn it! That’s exactly what happens in Act Three! The world just fixes itself and everything is going to be ok! See kid? Just because your parents died, not everything is horrible!
The planet being knocked off its axis could potentially provide the weather systems that are depicted in the film. Probably not as extreme, however. It’s strange that a tsunami should happen in Detroit (it came from Lake St. Clair or Lake Erie perhaps?). And then washes them to within a few dozen miles of Albany? Hardly. The lack of survivors is another strange point. With the number of missiles that hit the east coast in the film–Washington DC, Trenton, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston–how is Albany, New York looking so intact (and so much like Santa Clarita, CA)?
The film would also have audiences believe that two years after a catastrophic nuclear event that the radiation would be enough to cause scorpions to grow so large, or to change cockroaches into armored carnivores? The ridiculousness of the events surrounding the trip East is ludicrous.
The Final Frontier
Damnation Alley looks like it could be a fun film. Unfortunately not even some interesting actors could save this dreary, low-stakes film. George Peppard, known for excellent films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Blue Max would soon go onto lead the 80s action squad in The A-Team, as well as take a trek in a different sci-fi film, Battle Beyond the Stars. Jan-Michael Vincent would also find an audience on television in the 80s on the action oriented, sci-fi-adjacent show, Airwolf. Paul Winfield would return as the doomed Captain of the USS Reliant in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the police Lieutenant hunting the killer cyborg in The Terminator. Finally, young Jackie Earle Haley, fresh off his work in The Bad News Bears, would go on to reinvent himself in the early 21st Century, shedding his boyhood image and starring in such sci-fi films as The Watchmen and the 2014 remake of Robocop.
With all the remakes and reboots, a new version of this film (or even a more faithful adaptation of the original story by Roger Zelazny) could be made and be a much better and more enjoyable film. As 1977 winds down, filmmakers who were crafting their sci-fi films prior to the opening of Star Wars are starting to see the new landscape of film opening up. It’s no longer appropriate to make a film the same way as everyone else anymore. New ideas and new techniques are emerging fast, and it’s the creators that embrace this newness that will win the day at the box office.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.