Damnation Alley (1977)
Director: Jack Smight
Writers: Roger Zelazny (novel), Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller
Starring: George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Dominique Sanda, Paul Winfield and Jackie Earle Haley

The Plot: Maj. Eugene Denton (George Peppard) and Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) are both launch control operators at a missile silo. On the day that Maj. Denton informs Tanner that he no longer feels the two should be working together (due to their differing personalities), they have the biggest call of their lives. With several enemy missiles currently flying towards several major US cities, they are tasked with firing the deferring missiles that should put these enemy warheads down. Unfortunately this only stops 40% of the missiles, and much of the planet is left completely destroyed in the aftermath. Now Denton, Tanner and the group who survived within the missile silo all have to contend with giant radioactive scorpions, deadly cockroaches and a world that was knocked off of its axis and is now plagued with tremendous flooding and various natural disasters. The group, knowing that their days are numbered if they continue to stay in one place for too long, decides to head out on a whim towards Albany where it is said that there are other living humans. Will they make this immense trek, or will the dead zone known as Damnation Alley take them?

The Review
Seemingly pulled from the massive list of science fiction titles made during the late seventies, Damnation Alley may not be the biggest science fiction film ever made but it does hold a very interesting place in film history. The behind the scenes history as well as the genre-film favorite casting certainly puts this title among the more interesting science fiction films to be released by Shout! Factory recently. Developed by 20th century Fox at nearly the same time as George Lucas’ Star Wars, Damnation Alley was the big budget brother that most figured would earn the studio a great profit. As it turns out, the two films show very different concepts of special effect usage and make for an interesting moral in retrospect. Inspired by a very popular novel of the same name, the big budget world of special FX simply weren’t quite at the point that they needed to be in order to actually present a film adaptation that could paint a large enough picture for this story. I suppose that’s a rather negative attitude, since Damnation Alley does pack with it a certain amount of FX work that was far ahead of its time, but the majority of the work here will simply cause the young jaded members of the audience to roll their eyes. However, if you’re willing to hold back your cynicism for a moment and enjoy the film for what it is there are moments of horror and excitement to be found throughout this classic piece of science fiction.

Post-Apocalyptic films were a dime a dozen in the decade following Damnation Alley, and those films were able to capitalize on better technology and much more simplistic ideas. That is probably where Damnation Alley tends to fail the most, as its simply far too grand and epic to truly fit inside of its ninety minute packaging. If you watch the special features included on the Shout! Factory DVD, you get the feeling that the project was an overall studio picture without much in the way of original thinking (outside of the conceptual basis taken from the book) behind much of its scripting. The studio wanted to package-in every concept that was making money at the time, but in doing so they created a terribly uneven movie. The two products that Damnation Alley best resembles are the very popular brand of disaster films of the 1970’s and of course the rising popularity of post-apocalyptic road movies. Unfortunately with this small runtime, the movie tries to jam in at least two separate movies worth of content. Within the context of a novel, this probably flowed a lot better but within the cinematic world it all simply becomes too episodic for its own good. Combine this along with a Hollywood ending so sweet it will give you diabetes… and you get a very by-the-numbers affair.

Still, in the areas that Damnation Alley succeeds within, it makes for a ridiculously watchable movie. While up until this point I have written out several complaints, which are all true to my opinion, I must admit that this wholly Hollywood production is terribly fun. Jam packed with adventure, excitement and a number of sequences that feel like mini-movies, this is a title that Hollywood could probably never make again because at no other point were all of these genre-milestones as popular as they were at the end of the seventies. As our ensemble of characters make their way across the desert-world of the United States, we watch as they stop into several very strange and different worlds. We see giant radiated scorpions within the desert, the remnants of Las Vegas and a town dominated by killer cockroaches. That’s right, cockroaches. The plausibility of this roach sequence, where we see the streets and buildings of a small American town littered with thousands of roaches, seems both preposterous and silly to the point of being laughable.

The “cockroach” sequence however does give us our first taste of gore, which is slightly surprising for this sort of movie. In fact, the violence is relatively amplified for this sort of project and truly adds to the “horror” element that seems fitting for this little mini-segment. The overall concept for the bit is nice though. It’s as if the filmmakers decided to head into a “mother nature attacks” direction right in the midst of this road movie. This segment even features a daring escape sequence which concludes with rockets blowing through the side of a building and a dirt bike jumping out of a window onto the roof of another building. After this we’re taken into a possible hostage type situation where we see the rugged mountain men of this time and how civilization has fell apart, with the men desperately looking to get back in touch with what they once had. Yet, the sequence feels like something out of The Hills Have Eyes for the most part. Still, with all of this genre-bending going on the overall message is that of fun and excitement, which is certainly a nice thing.

Finally, I should probably mention the cast. While not considered A-List in retrospect, this was quite the respectable cast at the time. Jan-Michael Vincent is about as Jan-Michael Vincent as he has ever been. As an actor, I can understand why his stock never sustained itself, but I do think he was a bit of wasted talent. He always generally has the same look to him in all of his films (that I have seen, at least) and his emotional range was… unique, to say the least. That’s why he always seemed at his best when working alongside veteran actors who, if they didn’t have the larger range of a George Peppard, at least carried the weight, intensity and charisma of Charles Bronson (as was the case in The Mechanic). Still, Vincent does well here and Peppard is quite charismatic as the surly older compatriot who tries his best to keep Vincent’s youthful explosiveness in-check. Jackie Earle Haley also shows up for a small supporting role at the midpoint in the film and helps out with some of the character moments. The moments between he and Vincent are certainly great highlights for the film. The two seem to have a natural chemistry and although Haley wasn’t the definition of a “cute” kid, his youthful charisma helps sell the the movie’s positive energy.

The Conclusion
Although it certainly has its issues, Damnation Alley is a fun ninety minutes. While it isn’t the most artistically profound piece of work you’ll find in the realm of science fiction, it’s certainly a fun trip into the past… or should I say, the future. I give it a three out of five.