Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Damnation Alley




Oh did I ever experience a science fiction treat last night.

I had very vague memories of seeing Damnation Alley sometime in the early 1980s as a TV movie. I remember feeling a sense of despondency coming from it, really playing on my fears of nuclear war at the time. It seemed like a dark, ugly portrayal of humanity of the sort that would later be associated with the Mad Max movies. It was most unsettling. So last night as I graded papers, I at last saw it in its entirety.

And I couldn't stop laughing.

The film opens in an underground missile complex in California. George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent play Air Force officers. As Bernard would tell you...at length no doubt...both of those actors went on to have fairly successful and cheesy TV roles in The A-Team and Airwolf respectively. Here, Peppard is the by-the-book leader (naturally) and Jan-Michael Vincent is the rebel (ditto). Also among the military crew is Paul Winfield, a journeyman actor that you'd no doubt recognize from several roles, most notably to me as Captain Terrell from Star Trek II.

Anyway, within the first ten minutes things deteriorate to the DEFCON-1 nightmare scenario and missiles start flying. The crewmen discharge their duty with precision as a monotone voice over an intercom announces targets that have been hit in the continental U.S. Despite the emotionless tone, you know that the announcements are of millions of deaths and unparalleled destruction. Yeah. Did wonders for a young Jonny.

Fast forward a few years. Being in an underground bunker, the crewmen have survived the apocalypse and are trying to make the best of living in a wasteland. Then a signal is detected from the other side of the United States. And where is this radio signal coming from? Albany. New York. Is there somebody else out there? Have other people survived? That's what our cast aims to find out. In order to do that, they introduce the true star of the picture.

The Landmaster. It is a 12-wheeled, custom-built, all-terrain, armored badass built to take these guys across "Damnation Alley"...the desolate wastes of middle America...to the green pastures of Albany.

Hey. Wait. Albany is a state capitol. I happen to know that in a full-tilt nuclear exchange, those would have been primo targets. Albany should be as much of a lost cause as anyplace else. I mean, if they had said the radio signal came from Appleton, Wisconsin, maybe I could buy that. Well there I go, thinking again. And I digress...

They all set out in the Landmaster. They go through what's left of Las Vegas and play a few slots (I'm serious) at Circus Circus. Dear God, why? How could it have been the only casino to survive? Plus, why is Vegas there at all? It should have been leveled when the bomb hit Nellis. Again, I digress...

In the casino, the guys pick up token eye candy in the form of Dominique Sanda. They move on and the Landmaster faces challenges in the form of giant, mutated spiders, weird radioactive-tinged storms, and the requisite post-apocalyptic, coriaceous-skinned barbarians bent on murder, theft, and rape. Worst of all are the killer cockroaches. That last obstacle, however, does at least allow for George Peppard to utter one of the greatest lines in film history: "Tanner this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!"

How does it all end? Well, let's just say it's a deus ex machina that you'd need a lobotomy to accept.

Damnation Alley was released in October of 1977, right on the heels of Star Wars. That's pretty much where the comparisons between those movies ends, especially on the special effects front. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny. I've never read that book, but those who have claim that this film is not exactly the best adaptation.

Somehow, I believe them.


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