It is the Earth Year 1977, and 20th Century Fox is preparing to release a film which will be a quantum leap forward in the evolution of the sci-fi movie. Lavishly budgeted and featuring innovative new photographic techniques, it stars a fresh young lead backed up by a distingished veteran movie star. The studio is certain they have a major hit on their hands.
But before that, they let out a rather smaller project for which they have lower expectations: George Lucas’ Star Wars, which unexpectedly goes on to make twenty times its budget on its initial release alone. Somewhat nonplussed, they make a few changes and release their cherished adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley anyway. It makes less than a fiftieth of the box office of Star Wars and vanishes into obscurity as a result.
Deservedly so, if you ask me, as the film recently enjoyed the first terrestrial UK screening I can remember (courtesy of the ever-surprising Horror Channel) and I was finally able to watch it. I read Zelazny’s original novel twenty years or so ago and don’t recall being particularly impressed by it, but the overall impression I take away from Jack Smight’s movie is one of a startling lack of even basic film-making skills.
The movie opens with a somewhat perplexing sequence of US Air Force officers manning a missile silo in California, during which we meet a few key characters, primarily Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Denton (George Peppard). Apropos of nothing, an incoming Russian missile strike is detected and Tanner and Denton launch their own missiles in response. A Stock Footage nuclear apocalypse duly unfolds.
And the film is already pretty much dead in the water, because it has somehow managed to make the thermonuclear extinction of civilisation thoroughly boring. No emotional context is given to this, no explanation of just what has provoked the war: we don’t see panicking populations or actual cities being vaporised, we just see Peppard and Vincent looking at radar screens and stock footage of nuclear blasts. These are two characters who are still utterly one-dimensional (not that this changes later on) – Vincent is young and rebellious, Peppard is older and does things by-the-book.
One wonders why they didn’t just cut this whole sequence and just start two years after the apocalypse, because it adds nothing to the film that couldn’t have been included in the captions which explain the new status quo of the planet. I suspect it’s just there to boost the film’s running time up to a respectable 90 minutes or so.
Anyway, as the story proper gets going, America is an irradiated wasteland baking underneath fiery skies, and the men at the base are trying to keep it together. Any hope of a revival in the film’s quality is instantly shot down by a sequence in which Tanner, on a motorbike, has to run a gauntlet of nine-foot-long giant scorpions infesting the desert. First of all, nine foot long scorpions?!? (And only two years after the bomb, as well.) Is this supposed to be a serious film or a 50s creature feature? It might be a bit more forgivable if the scorpions were realised in an even halfway decent way: but apparently the scorpion props didn’t work on location and we are left with normal-sized scorpions composited into the live plates. I say ‘composited’; it looks like they just showed the original footage on TV, let the scorpions run around on the screen, and then filmed that.
Well, while the viewer is still recovering from this special-effects extravaganza, someone drops a lit cigarette on a copy of Playboy, which (naturally) causes the base to explode, killing all but four of the men living there: Vincent, Peppard, a character played by Paul Winfield, and another minor character who is clearly going to die before long. Peppard wheels out a heavily armed-and-armoured, twelve-wheeled juggernaut called the landmaster, and announced he is going somewhere. Vincent and Winfield decide to go with him.
The whole movie is basically about their journey, but it’s not until they’re actually underway that anyone bothers to explain where it is they’re going or what might be there when they arrive. It transpires they’re all off to New York, the source of the only radio signal they’ve been able to detect, following a route between the most heavily irradiated zones that Peppard has christened Damnation Alley.
What follows is a series of episodic adventures as they travel across what’s left of the country: they pick up a lounge singer (Dominique Sanda) from the ruins of Vegas, Winfield gets eaten alive by carnivorous roaches in Salt Lake City, and so on and so on. (It’s so episodic that it’s very easy to see how and why the different versions of Damnation Alley – book and film – inspired one of the most famous early Judge Dredd epics, The Cursed Earth.) In the end, and once again apropos of nothing, there is a savage storm, following which the skies and climate return to normal. The travellers find themselves only a few miles from the enclave of survivors they’ve been looking for, and receive a warm welcome.
That’s it, that’s all there is to it: there’s no rising action, no deeper plot, no sense of a climax. They just arrive and the film ends, rather abruptly. None of the characters have appreciably grown or learned anything in any way – they have just trundled through the film, displaying the one or two character traits they have been assigned with monotonous regularity. (Well, most of them: calling Sanda’s character even one-dimensional is being charitable.) The novel’s story of a bad man finding redemption through adversity, perhaps too late, is completely gone.
Just about the only aspects of the film which aren’t actively exasperating to watch are the landmasters and the photographic effects of the burning skies, and the shots of the former barrelling across the wasteland under the latter are by far the best thing it has to offer: ninety minutes of these, as a sort of experimental movie, would be a lot more interesting than what we actually got. I can only assume that Damnation Alley was the victim of studio interference on a massive scale, because this feels like a film which has had many of its vital components roughly extracted (not least the plot), and ill-conceived filler material inserted to fill the gap. Jack Smight also directed probably my favourite version of Frankenstein, so I’m reluctant to blame him, anyway (that said, he also did the film version of The Illustrated Man, which was also pretty duff).
Anyway, it’s hardly surprising that the world today is not feverishly awaiting the release of Damnation Alley: Episode 7, nor that this film is as forgotten as it is. Great SF movies say something about what it means to be a human being; even an average SF movie tells us something interesting about society and culture at the time it was made. All Damnation Alley shows us is that the people responsible for its release were simply incompetent when it came to making movies.