“All the dead are dead, and the living are dying.”
Sitting Duck’s rating: 3 out of 10 armored Oscar Meyer Weinermobiles
Sitting Duck’s review: One of the most remarkable things about the success of Star Wars is the contrast in how its production cycle was an utter Charlie Foxtrot. From location shooting in Tunisia being held up by rain of all things to George Lucas getting no respect from the cast and crew, you could hardly blame the studio suits at 20th Century Fox for not having much confidence in the production. And perhaps there was a schadenfreude-fueled desire in the prospect of seeing one of those New Hollywood punks go down in flames, which might explain why it got so little promotion on its very limited initial release.
Not that they were too worried, as the studio had another movie in the works called Damnation Alley which they believed was a surefire hit. It headlined real stars instead a bunch of no-names and two washed-up has-beens. It featured a dark and gritty story of a post-apocalyptic future as befitting the mood of the Seventies compared to the puerile nonsense of a space wizard with a laser sword. And while the vehicles in Star Wars were little more than kit model parts randomly krazy-glued together by demented monkeys, Damnation Alley had the pure awesome that was the fully functioning Landmaster.
And I think most of us would agree that the Landmaster is a pretty sweet ride. Who wouldn’t want one in their driveway? It’d keep the HOA from getting too vocal about your lawn decorations.
Well, the joke was on the suits, as Star Wars raked in obscene amounts of cash while Damnation Alley bombed harder than any of the nukes that were launched during its prologue. As for the demise of the New Hollywood movement, that would have to wait until the release of Heaven’s Gate. But did Damnation Alley really deserve the indignity it suffered?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is below.
Our story opens at an Air Force missile silo in California, where Major Eugene Denton (a pre-A-Team George Peppard) and Lieutenant Jake Tanner (a pre-Airwolf Jan-Michael Vincent) go on duty for another day of being bored out of their skulls as Russia once again refrains from pushing the button. Only not today, because this time the Ruskies totally do push the button. As per procedure, Denton and Tanner push their own button. The resulting stock footage nuclear Armageddon hits the Earth so hard that it gets knocked off its axis like a deadbeat father on Saturday night.
Fast forward to two years later. Tanner and Sergeant Keegan (Paul Winfield) have abandoned their posts and now spend their time scavenging the surrounding area and fending off giant mutant scorpions. The rest of the personnel at the base continue their duties, though with a tinge of apathetic despair.
Meanwhile, Denton has been curious about a radio signal purporting to originate from Albany (New York, not Illinois) and wishes to investigate the potentially more livable area. However, doing so on his own initiative would technically be mutiny, which goes against his instincts.
The situation changes when a careless airman falls asleep while having a smoke. The resulting conflagration destroys the base and kills most of the personnel. With Denton now ranking officer without much of a command left, he chooses to go to Albany in the base’s two Landmaster APCs and offers to let Tanner and Keegan hitch a ride. Their journey will take them through Damnation Alley, a relatively narrow stretch of land spanning the continent where the radiation is low enough that no one will spontaneously develop cancerous growths.
One of the fun things about doing these reviews is the stuff you end up learning. After watching it for the first time, I was perplexed by how Denton failed to relieve the base’s CO of command, as the latter was spending his days in a drunken stupor. I found myself thinking that there surely had to be a non-fragging option available for situations like this. A bit of research revealed that there is, but it involves jumping the chain of command by contacting the CO’s superior officer about what’s happening. Obviously, this is not feasible in a post-nuclear apocalypse situation. While the Navy allows a greater degree of acting independently in such situations (as being shipboard makes contacting the outside world trickier), a very good reason will still be expected at the inevitable court-martial.
That was the closest point I got to experiencing joy regarding this flick. Very loosely adapted from the Roger Zelanzy novella of the same name, Damnation Alley probably would have helped if they had given more than a token effort to adapt it. I can appreciate that featuring all the mutated critters from the original story would have broken the bank. Also, my crippling ophidiophobia was thankful that the 120-foot snakes with the circumference of a garbage can were among those not included.
Even so, at the very least the suspension of disbelief would have been within acceptable tolerances with the original storyline. From the idea of a radio signal making it from New York to California without the radiation reducing it to so much static to the handwaving of the Landmaster’s fuel consumption (which I suspect could be measured as gallons per mile) and opportunities to top off, it was just too much for me to accept. Add in the deus ex machina climax and my Suspenders of Disbelief snapped, causing my Trousers (Socks if you’re British) of Credulity to drop around my ankles.
Our cast of characters are a mixed bag to say the least. The best I can say about Peppard and Vincent as Denton and Tanner is that their performances are… okay. But merely being okay is not okay, especially when the rest of the cast fails to reach even that level. Though to be fair, the other actors are hobbled by the cardboard archetypes that pass as their characters. Their initial travel companions of Keegan and Perry fit snuggly within the confines of your typical Sanctimonious Peacenik and Unimaginative By-the-Book Military Officer respectively. Those two can’t be killed off soon enough (though admittedly Keegan being consumed by mutant armored cockroaches was a bit much).
Alas, that wish was granted by a monkey’s paw as they’re quickly replaced with a Token Girl Vegas lounge singer and some snotnosed punk of a kid. The former serves three functions. She’s there to look pretty, to scream, and to serve as rape bait during an encounter with some uncouth survivalists. On the scale of Doctor Who Companion Usefulness, she comes in somewhere between Victoria Waterfield and Mel Bush. And as any Classic Doctor Who fan will tell you, that’s pretty bad.
As for the kid, he checks off all the boxes for what grates my cheese regarding child characters. Most notably in him wandering off for no good reason during the scrapyard stopover, resulting in a needless search when disaster strikes.
To give you an idea of how bad the production values are, consider this conversation I had not long ago on another forum. We were discussing Damnation Alley and one person noted how he first saw it when it was screened on network television in 1983 (presumably done so to cash in on the popularity of The A-Team). At the time, this person believed that it was a TV movie, as it looked too cheap to have been screened in a theater. I can’t blame him for his misapprehension. The biggest disappointment is the scorpions. When I first heard about them, I thought I would be in for some Bert I. Gordon-type nonsense with them being at least the size of trucks. Instead, their scale comes in at a dachshund. Admittedly larger than a scorpion has any right to be, but not all that impressive.
By far the best-looking thing is the Landmaster. The production staff was fully aware of this, which means we get a lot of shots of the Landmaster trundling along. I mean, a lot. I only exaggerate mildly when I say that, if you cut all the gratuitous Landmaster footage, the movie would be short enough to pass it off as a low-end episode of the Eighties reboot of The Twilight Zone.
As bad as this film was, it proved to not be a complete waste. After all, it made me aware of the source material, which sounds far more interesting from the description in its Wikipedia article. And that’s the least a film adaptation can do.
- If your scalp hair and facial hair grey at different rates, either go cleanshaven or full beard
- Four checkpoints to get through to your day job of watching a screen that may show the approach of atomic doom
- Feel proud, Trenton, New Jersey. You’re a higher priority nuking target than Washington D.C.
- What’s worse than an opening exposition text crawl? A fifteen minutes in exposition text crawl.
- When your giant bug sequence falls short of what’s seen in Beginning of the End, you’ve got a problem
- Burning Man after the apocalypse
- Nice dodge on the fuel consumption issue
- The Strip in Vegas never looks as good during the daytime
- Is “saving” such an unwilling punk kid really worth all that effort?
- What two years of no tuning will do to a piano
- Obligatory MST3K Connection: Though difficult to recognize under that beard, one of the survivalists is Robert Donner. Best known for his recurring role on Mork & Mindy as Exidor, he was also bumbling insurance investigator Fingers O’Toole in Catlina Caper and the eccentric morgue attendant in Agent for H.A.R.M.