Damnation Alley (1977)

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Damnation Alley
Dir. Jack Smight
Premiered October 21, 1977

Reader beware: the issues within this film cannot be fully discussed without going into spoilers.

Picture this: Major Denton (George Peppard) and Lieutenant Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent) work at an ICBM facility in the Mojave Desert when the unthinkable happens– doomsday. World War III. The Air Force tries to intercept the missiles, and successfully destroys 40% of them, but it doesn’t matter; the Soviets have more missiles than targets, and all of America’s major cities are leveled.

A couple years later, the world has changed. The earth’s axis has shifted, turning most of North America to desert. The continent is subject to brief massive windstorms, auroras fill the skies day and night, and the landscape is plagued by giant scorpions and carnivorous (if normal-sized) armored cockroaches.

The remainder of the Air Force contingent are still living on base, but are totally bereft of purpose. When the garrison is (inexplicably) blown up by a dormitory cigarette fire, Denton, Tanner, and two other survivors (Paul Winfield and Kip Niven) head east on “Damnation Alley,” searching for a rogue radio signal in Albany and perhaps the promise of civilization. To do this, they travel in state-of-the-art “Landmasters,” a sort of cross between tanks and RVs, picking up two other survivors (Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley) en route.

Pretty promising, right? And before the release of Star Wars, 20th Century Fox was certain that Damnation Alley, adapted in name only from a 1969 novel by Roger Zelazny, would be their big science fiction hit of the year. But when Star Wars came out, and performed as well as it did, Fox postponed this movie’s release from summer to fall, recut it to the point of near-incomprehension, and put out a deeply compromised, hopelessly inadequate film to audiences that had now grown tired of post-apocalyptic paranoia.

However, one can’t really chalk Damnation Alley’s failure up to Fox’s cold feet. Even if half an hour’s worth of crucial plot and character development hadn’t been excised from the final cut, it still would have been badly written, directed, shot, edited, and acted. Consider the movie’s opening salvo. Where other great blockbusters of the age grabbed the audience’s collar with fanfare, suspense, or mystery, Damnation Alley opens with a boring scene of mundane goings-on at the base, with a bland courier-bold title sequence that, Jerry Goldsmith score notwithstanding, makes the whole tableau feel like a Cannon film or an episode of Airwolf. As father figure Denton, George Peppard, who is usually quite fun, is totally checked out, giving the proceedings of World War III an irritating weightlessness. Everybody else is a stock character.

The special effects failure is especially dispiriting. Most of Damnation Alley’s practical effects were rendered useless by the desert sand, so the movie tries to get by on the most haphazard composite shots and inconsistent color correction. The nonstop auroras that distinguish the film are achieved entirely through primitive blue screen technology, which constantly runs aground when the actors stand in front of it or whenever the camera moves.

In the rare case that something does work, it comes at the expense of all else. The truly imaginative Landmaster vehicle was a technical marvel for the time, and miraculously suffered none of the mechanical problems that plagued the rest of the production. Unfortunately, the film devotes way too much time to gushing over the machine, as if the audience too will empathize over the troubled production.

But Damnation Alley’s real middle finger comes in its ending. After braving a desertified, irradiated landscape, the gang are caught up in a humungous, continent-sized storm that turns Detroit into a giant lake, from which they wash ashore…and find everything back to normal. Greenery, clear skies, no shitty brown filter. Albany is nice and peaceful and full of people and has pristine roads and suddenly Albi isn’t racist anymore. No payoff, no explanation, freeze-frame, roll credits.

I first became aware of Damnation Alley through John Kenneth Muir, so I’d known about Fox’s hopes for the picture for a while. But after seeing it, those hopes are completely baffling. It isn’t just that Damnation Alley missed the mark and fell prey to changing trends; it’s simply complete garbage, and had no more chance at blockbuster status than, say, Orca. Cutting out huge chunks of plot and padding out what’s left by tediously extending every single shot is just icing on the cake.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Tanner reminisces about listening to Mexico-based pirate radio.

How Did It Do?
According to Muir, and an unsourced section of the film’s Wikipedia page, Damnation Alley had a budget of $17 million. That would’ve made it the third most expensive movie of the year, but a 1989 book on 20th Century Fox claims that the budget was only $8 million, and that’s way more believable. Either way, it lost money, grossing just $4 million; surprising no one, Looking for Mr. Goodbar won the weekend.

The film’s biggest winner, unsurprisingly, was the Landmaster, which went on to be reused in films, TV shows, advertisements, and video games as recently as 2001.

Contemporary reviews are basically impossible to come by, but a lot of contemporary critics seem to enjoy Damnation Alley as a guilty pleasure or out of yearning for what could have been. It’s got 50% on RottenTomatoes. Me, I’d rather get my camp and creative yearning from somewhere more fun…

Next Time: Death Bed: The Bed That Eats

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