Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Damnation Alley (1977)

I last saw Jack Smight's DAMNATION ALLEY when I was about fourteen years old when my parents took me to see it at the local drive-in (I believe it was the bottom half of a double bill with JAWS 2). I remember kind of liking it but my memory of the night is a bit hazy. Besides, I was fourteen and I pretty much liked everything I saw. It's even possible that I didn't even stay awake through the whole thing. So when Shout! Factory recently released the film on Blu-Ray and DVD (its first legit home video release since the VHS days) I figured it would be as good a time as any to revisit this mostly forgotten piece of my childhood.

The movie doesn't waste any time getting started. at a military outpost in New Mexico we're introduced to George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent, two Air Force officers who's job it is to launch nukes at the enemy in case of war. And wouldn't you know it - within minutes of the start of their shift a full fledged nuclear war breaks out. That's what happens when you trust Jan Michael Vincent with the bomb. Flash forward two years and America is a desolate wasteland. Radiation has caused the sky to turn a different color every five minutes and Vincent is forced to outrun packs of giant scorpions on his motorcycle. When the military base is destroyed due to someone smoking a bit too close to some dangerous chemicals, Peppard, Vincent and Paul Winfield decide to hit the road in a totally rad military RV decked out with all the options, including a missile launcher on the roof. The decide to head for Albany, possibly the last city in America, but first they'll have to drive through the war ravaged remains of the US highway system, otherwise know as Damnation Alley. Along the way they stop and pick up Dominique Sanda as a Las Vegas lounge singer whose career was rudely interrupted by the apocalypse and Jackie Earle Haley, as the kind of streetwise yet lovable kid that only exists in movies. Together they face killer cockroaches, hordes of mutated mountain men (if six people can be considered a horde) and unpredictable weather patterns as they head for an uncertain future in Albany. 

The thing that struck me about DAMNATION ALLEY this time around is how retro it feels. Not 1970s retro, which would make sense, but 1950s retro. It's very easy to imagine this film with Leslie Nielsen in the George Peppard role and Ricky Nelson subbing for Jan Michael Vincent. Everything about it screams 1950s Sci-Fi movie from the stoic performances and cheap looking special effects to the plot which shows a total disregard for logic or science. This is a world where radiation mutates animals but pretty much leaves humans alone. Speaking of radiation, no one has radiation sickness and there's no evidence of a nuclear winter. Not that any of this is necessarily a bad thing. It's obvious that the makers of this film were trying to make an exciting action film, not a docudrama about the horrors of nuclear war. Still, Roger Zelazny, whose novel this was based on, went on record as being very unhappy with this adaptation of his work and maybe this is part of the reason why.

DAMNATION ALLEY was shot in 1976 and was supposed to be 20th Century Fox's big holiday movie for that year. Due to problems related to completing the special effects it missed its release date and by the time it was finally released in October of 1977 it had been overshadowed by another Fox science fiction release, a little film called STAR WARS. This film has taken a lot of heat over the years from critics and audiences alike but I think its flaws are part of what gives it its charm. I found it to be an enjoyable (if very silly) little film. As long as your expectations are adjusted accordingly this perfectly fine escapist entertainment, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. 

For more overlooked films visit Todd Mason's blog.


  1. I think the "very silly" part is what upset Zelazny so...he had his goofy moments, but this was the first film to be based on his work, and it was also the film reviewed in the first new issue of THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION I purchased, and probably the funniest ravaging review it fell to then F&SF a/v reviewer (and WBAI/Pacifica radio drama guy) Baird Searles to publish in his decade in the gig (he was after Samuel Delany [and long after Charles Beaumont, with William Morrison doing live theater, in the late '50s] and before Harlan Ellison). "The Road to Albany"...March, 1978...an issue led off by John Varley's "The Persistence of Vision" (Varley would waste a lot of the next five years plus trying to work on the script for MILLENNIUM, another first movie from an sf writer's work...) and featuring a good story by Manly Wade Wellman (who at least had good tv adaptations of his work before the disappointing film of WHO FEARS THE DEVIL?, aka (film only) THE LEGEND OF HILLBILLY JOHN...

  2. The director Jack Smight also did THE ILLUSTRATED MAN. Haven't seen either, but they don't have good reputation.