Sci-Fi Dystopia Theatre: Damnation Alley (1977)

This 17 million dollar adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s fast-paced post-nuclear holocaust adventure novel was expected to be a big hit for 20th Century Fox in 1977 and cost almost twice the amount of the other more bizarre space opera that the studio had contemplated shutting down the previous year. When STAR WARS broke the bank, Fox put DAMNATION ALLEY (briefly re-titling it SURVIVAL RUN) on the shelf for a year to re-edit scenes and add an apocalyptic glow to the skies among other spfx band-aids. Upon release, the film’s publicity centered on two things: the massive “Landmaster” — a 12 wheel armageddon RV designed by Dean Jeffries; and the sonic sensation of SOUND 360, another version of the Sensurround system that rumbled through theaters during the disaster movie era. Still, in the wake of George Lucas’s opus, DAMNATION ALLEY received poor reviews and was later double-billed with Ralph Bakshi’s much cooler WIZARDS for a nifty dystopic double-bill. Zelazny was unhappy with the changes made to his perfectly realized SF pulp novel, altering the plot and notably removing the focus from the Snake Plisskenesque anti-hero, Hell Tanner, to a ragtag team who encounter a series of nuclear tainted threats from redneck mutants to giant scorpions.

Directed in standard 70’s big screen television style by Jack Smight (HARPER, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, and AIRPORT 75), DAMNATION ALLEY lacks a strong central POV or understanding of the genre. I don’t think there’s one memorable image. The film was heavily edited so it’s not fair to lay all the fault upon the director; the episodic script doesn’t drive the narrative as opposed to Zelazny’s race-against-time plot. The cast does what they’re asked without compensatory characterization. George Peppard plays the stoic military leader with a shaky Texas accent and Jan Michael Vincent is motorcyclist Hell Tanner, congenial and gorgeous (for a dude). Dominique Sanda plays the beautiful female survivor and Jackie Earle Haley is the ragamuffin orphan. Poor Paul Winfield gets eaten by cockroaches. Out of the actors, Haley registers the most, low key and likable. There’s little for the players to do but react to the myriad catastrophes minus the occasional respite for post-nuclear reflection; the only scenes with any emotional resonance are the opening where the military watches the nuclear war with clinical dispassion and when the characters play dusty slot machines in a deserted casino as the sounds of Vegas rise on the soundtrack. Speaking of, Jerry Goldsmith provides a grand score.

Rare shot of the excised remote-control scorpions

All could be forgiven if DAMNATION ALLEY at least delivered in the special effects department. It’s revealing that a 17 million dollar budget could not provide even a minute of visual awe compared to the 7 million dollars spent on the non-stop wonders of STAR WARS. And for a film of this expense to rely on stock footage of ICBM missiles in lieu of a creative solution within the first few minutes shows the difference between a vision and a committee. The giant scorpions that Tanner cycles through were originally motorized puppets (see lobby card) but were optically replaced by actual insects, a cheap effect that Bert I. Gordon did more convincingly the same year in EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and that Willis O’Brien did magnificently in THE BLACK SCORPION 20 years earlier. The major spfx added in post-production were the psychedelic skies (using lasers) that would look dandy if not so awkwardly placed behind the actors and landscape. Even a sudden flash tsunami in Detroit (?) that submerges the Landmaster can’t compare to Toho’s meticulous 1960’s miniatures.

The film’s chaotic editing is matched by the abrupt climax that feels as if the third act was simply tossed. The wonderful people over at Shout! Factory have announced an anamorphic DVD/Blu-Ray with extra features that should shed light on studio intention and excised footage (some of which turned up in the TV version). While ultimately unsatisfying as apocalyptic adventure, DAMNATION ALLEY belongs to that last gasp of dystopic studio fare before STAR WARS gave audiences a new hope.

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6 Responses to “Sci-Fi Dystopia Theatre: Damnation Alley (1977)”

  1. Frank B Says:

    Another one I’ve never actually seen. Bits on cable, maybe, but I wouldn’t swear to it. It’s possibly a false memory cobbled together from pics in Starlog or Cinefantastique, or implanted by those guys in that secret room under my dentist’s office.

    Had no idea it cost so much. Everything about it screams “Cormanesque cheapie.” Or could there be an actual, specific Cormanesque — or Corman — cheapie I’m confusing it with? Something starring Barry Bostwick and/or Brion James, perhaps?

    Confusion is so confusing.

    • christian Says:

      I think few have actually seen it but snippets. Cinefantastique ripped it up and Starlog had nice pix of the Landmaster, etc.

      Corman had DEATH SPORT around the same time but nothing with Bostwick to my knowledge…

      And the fact I posted a look at DAMNATION ALLEY has nothing to do with May 21…

  2. “Another one I’ve never actually seen. Bits on cable, maybe, but I wouldn’t swear to it. It’s possibly a false memory cobbled together from pics in Starlog or Cinefantastique, or implanted by those guys in that secret room under my dentist’s office.”

    ditto, and i hate it when this happens (and it seems to happen more and more as i get ancient-er and with the advent of youtube/so many clips on the net). particularly when it comes to 70’s movies, i’ll have to wrack my brain trying to remember if i’ve just seen a clp of something or i’m actually remembering the movie itself, or if i’ve even just seen/heard it dissected in detail so that i feel faintly familiar with the plot/characters/story, enough so to plant the seen of doubt whether i’ve seen it…

    having said that i feel like i may have seen ‘damnation alley’ back in the olden days, but i certainly wouldn’t swear by it…

  3. Saw this in the theater when it was released. I remember enjoying it for what it was (though never remotely taking it seriously). I’m shocked it cost that much money. I always thought it was a cheap knock off.

    BTW, I have to ask, what movie is the current banner photo from? The one with the naked guy who looks like he has a fencing mask (or sewing thimble) on his head & has been locked up in a refrigerator?

    • christian Says:

      I’m glad somebody saw it in the theater or drive-in…

      And I knew SOMEBODY would have to inquire about my latest header image…So I’m not telling. Okay – one hint: a 1971 Robert Wise film.

  4. Terribly dull and I love 70’s cheese like this… George Peppard was always an annoying actor me; smug and aloof, he does the same crap here.

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