Damnation Alley (1977)   2 comments


Jan-Michael Vincent jumps his motorcycle over giant desert lobsters. Need I say more?

A nuclear holocaust wipes out all but a platoon of Air Force officers and men stationed at a remote desert missile silo. The men go on with their lives and search for other survivors by monitoring radio signals.

“Gee Major, what do you want to do tonight?”
“The same thing we do every night, Pinky, uh Tanner…”

Two years go by and then a mundane (compared to a nuclear blast) fire kills all but four of the men. The small band of survivors heads east in twin Oscar Mayer Weinermobiles looking for the promised land in, wait for it…Albany.

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

Well, that’s where I’d go. George Peppard, Paul Winfield, and Kip Niven join Jan-Michael Vincent in this cross-country adventure.

“99 bottles of beer on the wall…”

Along the way, the foursome encounter cataclysmic storms brought on by the earth’s tilting on its axis. The bad weather culls the herd a bit and we’re left with fewer people and only one RV. While stopped in Las Vegas to look for supplies, the trio meet Dominique Sanda, an aspiring singer who happened to be in Vegas when the bombs hit. She’s been completely alone for almost the whole two years and she’s thrilled to see the men. After she tells her story, the men ask her to join them as they do their opposite Horace Greeley thing. At another town in search of fuel and food, they find one of the two things that can survive a nuclear blast. Hint: it’s not a giant Twinkie. Soon, they come upon Jackie Earle Haley, a teenager who’s lost both his parents. Haley lives a nomadic life. He forages for food and squats in cabins and caves. Wary of the travelers at first, Haley soon warms to them and begins to trust them. Then, Haley joins them too.

“What have you done with Buttermaker?”

The crew meet up with less friendly people in another town, but they prevail and can continue their trek. Once again storms strike, but this one seems to right the earth and for the first time, we see a beautiful blue sky and happy, puffy clouds. Things are looking up! Hey! Did you hear the call sign for Albany?

Produced by 20th Century Fox in the same year as a little film called Star Wars, Damnation Alley was the studio’s big-budget science fiction film for 1977. Fox had no faith in Lucas’ film and thought Damnation Alley would be their big hit that year. So much for tea leaves. Director, Jack Smight also directed Harper and Airport 75 and a bunch of television, including Columbo and Banacek. Jerry Goldsmith composed the score to Damnation Alley. Alan Sharpe and Lukas Heller wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Roger Zelazny, who hated the film, by the way.  I didn’t. It’s an interesting story directed capably and acted well. The cast doesn’t overdo it. OK, the giant desert lobsters I mentioned earlier were less than realistic and actually desert scorpions, but when I Iook at giant desert arthropods, I’m less concerned with realism and more with screen time. Also, I think they were hybrids.

“Quick! Get some drawn butter!”

The characters worked too. I believe Peppard as an Air Force officer and I find his character along with the rest of the main characters easy to watch and easy to like. Dominique Sanda, as the lone female in a group of strong men, does not make the typical adventure film moves. She doesn’t lose her head or fall in love with the first guy she sees. She also doesn’t fight with Peppard, the leader. She thinks logically and does what makes sense. It’s great to see such an empathetic and logical female character. Paul Winfield wins my ‘favorite character of the film’ award.

Run, Keegan!

As an Air Force officer with a flair for art and a dry wit, Winfield defies you not to love him.

Damnation Alley has some memorable scenes as well. The one I like the best takes place in a Las Vegas casino where Winfield, Vincent, and Peppard play with the slot machines.

This game’s rigged.

As the men play and start to win money they can’t possibly use, we hear the sounds change. At first we hear the sounds of the one-armed bandits and the men and then we hear the sounds of a normal casino; clinking glasses, conversation, and laughter. The change is subtle at first, but as the scene continues, it becomes louder. We’re inside the heads of these guys who’ve been alone so long that they imagine they’re in a room crowded with people. It’s a compelling scene. Even the effects, which border on cheesy, don’t make me cringe. They used lasers to create cool sky colors that almost look like the northern lights. They also used a lot of matte painting. Sometimes that doesn’t work, but this does for some reason. My favorite effect, the giant desert lobpions or scorpsters, looks pretty darn fake. The locusts in Beginning of the End work better and that was made in 1957.

“You like me! You really like me!”

It doesn’t matter. Jointed, hot dog-related off-road vehicles that use a Texas Instruments calculator as a guidance system, cost $300K, and jump ravines make me happy. Hissing cockroaches and nasty predators with grasping pedipalps help.

My bologna has a first name…

Look for Murray ‘Mayor of Shark City’ Hamilton as a deranged general who has zero lines in the theatrically released film. He gets to talk in the 1983 TV version. I need to find that.

“Amity, as you know, means…what?  My scene was cut?”

I did a podcast recently with Todd Liebenow of Forgotten Films on Damnation Alley. Here’s the link. https://forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/forgotten-filmcast-episode-50-damnation-alley/

Thanks, Todd! I had a lot of fun!

2 responses to “Damnation Alley (1977)

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  1. Reblogged this on clawkent.

  2. Based from the novel by Roger Zelazny set in post-apocalyptic future a group of former military survivors together with a young lady & 13 year old orphan boy side by side travels to the wasteland in search of adventures from California to Canada as their neutral country became the safe haven of survivors with the aid of CB radio operators/radio stations as base of operations to help the remaining evacuees from the nuclear war & their mission accomplished the saga continues.

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