Directed by: Jack Smight
Starring: Jan Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Paul Winfield, Jackie Earle Haley
Scene: studio head’s office circa summer 1977. Studio executive: “okay this Star Wars flick is killing at the box office, we gotta get in on this action, we optioned a novel by this Zelany, Zelaney, Z something guy, its a post apocalyptic road movie story and we cast the “I love it when a plan comes together” guy from The A-Team and we’ll get that angsty helicopter guy from Airwolfe, and for some spice a foreign chick.” Studio head: “you need a kid, and bendy buses on steroids.” Studio executive “yeah, we’ll get the weird looking kid from Bad News Bears and they can drive the bendy bus things across the country and we can throw mutated bugs and radiation poisoned hillbillies and freak storms at them. Studio head “great, sounds like the perfect Christmas movie, lets make it.”
The above is a not implausible scenario you might conjure after perusing the copy on the DVD case for Damnation Alley if your a little fuzzy on your late seventies, early eighties pop culture timelines. Of course five minutes on Wikipedia will completely pop this little flight of fancy. The movie predates Airwolfe, and The A-Team, but was filmed after Bad News Bears, and instead of being a cynical effort to cash in on Star Wars it was totally outclassed by the runaway space opera, any way on to the story.
Denton and Tanner, George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent, are just starting their shift at a ICBM launch facility. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, remember those? Rockets filled with enough nuclear ordinance to wipe out entire Soviet cities if the commies were ever foolish enough to strike first. Denton and Tanner wind there way through the many levels of security to get to their duty stations. As they wind they reveal a bit of their personalities. Denton is a straight laced by the book martinet. Tanner is a bohemian free spirit. Or at least as much of a bohemian free spirit as you can be and still have a high enough security clearance to be trusted with the launch controls for one of the original WMDs. Because that’s where Denton and Tanner end up, each manning one of the two keys required to launch a biblical hell storm on the Russians.
Meanwhile in the control room there is activity on the monitors. It looks like the Soviets have decided the doctrine of MAD, which has to be the greatest acronym ever standing for mutually assured destruction, is just a bunch of hooey. The orders come down. Denton and Tanner look up the codes in their code books and orders confirmed, they flick the switches and turn the keys to launch the monster lurking in the bowels of the base with less emotion than you or I would reveal denying the car wash offers when we fill up. Missiles away Denton and Tanner head to the control room to watch the world end. The documentary feel of this footage is so chilling that it’s not even marred by the mandatory mushroom cloud montage. A handy text scroll explains that the earth has tilted.on it axis causing massive storms. So the survivors not only have to deal with the requisite radiation induced mutated creatures there are psychedelics skies and monster storms to deal.with as well.
After the holocaust, life goes on at the base. Tanner and fellow bohemian Weegan, Paul Winfield, take early retirement and live in a bunker separate from the base proper. Denton has been keeping himself busy building a couple of bend in the middle triple axle behemoths in a garage in another bunker that is separate from the base proper. Which it turns out is quite lucky when a careless cigarette ignites a gas explosion that destroys the entire base. With nothing left to stick around for the bohemians and the military lifers saddle up and head for Albany, the source of the last radio transmission the base had received. Of course along the way they pick up a woman, who oddly does not become a love interest for Denton or Tanner, or Weegan for that matter because Weegan succumbs to a tired science fiction movie cliché early in the second act a kid, Jackie Earl Haley.
The story just barely holds up in that world of movie land logic where mutant scorpions can find enough food to grow nine foot long in a nuclear wasteland and it suffers from a typical road movie failing of not knowing how to end so the screenplay is stuck with a run of the mill “umm, were at eighty minutes guys, time to get to the sappy ending” ending. The acting is decent enough, Winfield is great, Vincent and Haley hold there own, but the usually suburb Peppard turns in a rather unsympathetic portrayal of Denton. Remember the prim, officious character that Phil Hartman would sometimes play; it has to be modeled on Peppard’s Denton. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is rousing and the special effects are acceptable as long as you don’t compare them to another science fiction movie that came out a few months earlier. Actually some of the effects are pretty interesting. In most exterior scenes the sky is replaced with a composite of different stormy skies shot with various filters and then they did something clever with lasers. It’s an interesting preCGI look. And of course there is the Land Master, which is the actual star of the movie.
The video is presented in widescreen format. It’s a good clean transfer from a bright undamaged print. The picture is sharp except for some of the effect shots which can get a little soft at times. The color is generally good, but then in nearly every exterior shot the colors have been altered for a dystopian look. I never noticed any moiré, aliasing or other digital artifacts.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS ES 6.1, and Dolby Digital Stereo. All the tracks are in English and there are no subtitles available. The mix is good; you can always hear the dialog over the hiss of the cockroaches and the rumble of the Land Masters. I never noticed any distortion or other problems with the audio.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The DVD comes in a clear Amaray case that shows off the excellent double sided insert Shout! Factory has prepared. The reverse features a portrait of Jan-Michael Vincent sticking out of the top hatch of the Land Master. There is an audio commentary track by the producer Paul Malansky, along with some featurettes about the making of the movie and the vehicle, the Land Master.
The beginning of the movie may seem preposterous to younger viewers. As I was growing up WWIII was always a possibility, but a remote one. On the other hand I have friends just a few years older than I am who figured it was unlikely they would see thirty. Damnation Alley for all its faults is a reminder of why the seventies were what they were. While today there is always the threat of terrorist attacks, big and small ones. It’s hard to imagine a terrorist attack unleashing the devastation demonstrated in the first ten minutes of this flick.
Overall (Not an Average) 6/10
The Movie 6/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 6/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 7/10
Overall (Not an Average) 6/10