In 1977, 20th Century Fox had two sci-fi films on their docket: Damnation Alley and Star Wars. They had high hopes for Damnation Alley and expected it to outperform that silly Lucas-helmed space opera. Oh well…best laid plans and all.
Damnation Alley is one of those awful yet endearing, clunky yet charming films we love. It stars Jan-Michael Vincent and not the drug-addled, slurring mess from Alienator and Hit List. This is the young, charismatic JMV from the Bronson classic The Mechanic. It also stars a mustachioed George Peppard, Hannibal himself from The A-Team, chomping on a cigar but also delivering his lines in an overwrought Southern accent (“Kill-ah Cock-a-roach-ez”). Other actors of note include the great Paul Winfield and a young Jackie Earle Haley, one year removed from his breakout role in The Bad News Bears.
Vincent and Peppard play Air Force recruits Tanner and Denton. Denton (Peppard) is the grizzled, by-the-book veteran, and Tanner (Vincent) is the young, brash hotshot. And of course, Denton just does not like Tanner’s ways. But when shit hits the fan and World War Three breaks out, Tanner and Denton have to work together to launch retaliatory missiles.
The opening scene on the Air Force base is so matter of fact, it’s hilarious. It’s the end of the world and no seems too concerned. There’s no wailing, crying, gnashing of teeth, trying to connect with loved ones. It’s just missiles are launched…let’s intercept them plus retaliate…oops we only intercepted 40%…major population centers hit nationwide….damn, that’s a bad day at the office!
Moving forward presumably a couple of years, and a crawl indicates that the “planet [is] shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust…in a climate gone insane.” And yet the survivors are able to venture out without a care in the world. JMV’s character is tooling around in a motorcycle and Paul Winfield’s character is painting a mural for heaven’s sake. So much for fallout or continued effects of radiation damage.
If humans aren’t affected, scorpions certainly are. As JMV tools around the dessert landscape on his bike, he navigates through a number of giant mutated scorpions that look like they were plucked straight out of an AIP film – not a lick convincing. Tanner and Winfield’s Keegan have quit the Air Force but hang around the base drinking. Luckily, the base is stocked with a plethora of booze, which is very, very good. Unfortunately, an errant cigarette from another recruit causes a massive explosion and it’s bye-bye to the base.
The only four survivors are Keegan, Denton, Tanner and another non-descript character. A garage door opens and out rolls two Landmasters – massive, armed vehicles that resemble fortified RVs. Each Landmaster has a state-of-the art guidance system that looks like an old, clunky Texas Instruments calculator. The resemblance is not that uncanny as that’s what they actually are! Kudos to the prop master for that one. Denton gets the idea to head to Albany because…well…just because. Road trip!
Along the way, they make various stops, lose some members of their party, and pick up others. One town is infested with armored killer cockroaches which eat poor Paul Winfield alive. They also encounter lots of environmental threats such as hurricanes and storms.
Will our intrepid travelers make it to the promised land of Albany and live happily ever after? Without verging into spoiler territory, let’s just say the ending is a little too pat and Norman Rockwelly for our tastes. Nonetheless, the Landmaster is an incredibly cool vehicle and Damnation Alley is the type of clunky, goofy sci-fi film – with little care about the science and lots of focus on the fiction – that major studios just don’t make anymore. After Star Wars, audiences would never accept a film like Damnation Alley ever again, but then again, they didn’t really accept Damnation Alley either.
*** (out of five)