Andrew Borntreger of Badmovies.org fame, in his review for A Boy and His Dog (also linked below), puts forth that "You have to respect any film that starts off with a nuclear war." I'm not here to disclaim that (though I doubt Andrew has ever seen In the Year 2889), but there is no denying that for decades, such movies played on our most singular creeping fear: that someone would piss somebody else off enough to push The Button. There were opportunistic movies like The Day The World Ended that played off that fear in the late 50's, and the temperature got turned up a notch in the early 60's when the Cuban Missile Crisis added a new phrase to the geopolitical lexicon: nuclear brinkmanship. This was the atmosphere that brought us Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, two remarkably similar yet entirely different movies.
By the 70's, things had settled down a bit, but only a bit; one can live in terror only so long before the terror sublimates to a sort of doomed fatalism. We all accepted that nuclear war was a possibility, perhaps inevitable; so, before the phrase was even invented, we all partied like it was 1999. There. I have now officially blamed nuclear politics for the creation of Disco.
When most people mention Damnation Alley, it is to reference one of two things: the opening segment, often sited as "one of the most chilling representations of nuclear war", or the totally boss RV our heroes use to tool around in. More on that later. We're getting ahead of ourselves.
We begin at an Air Force missile base in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and meet the two guys we're going to be hanging with for the next hour and a half: Denton (George Peppard), a fairly by-the-book military type, and Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent), who is, shall we say, somewhat less than by-the-book. They pass through various security points, at one point checking in with another familiar face, Keegan (Paul Winfield), the base artist. As Keegan issues them firearms, Denton asks him what he would charge for an oil painting; he'd like his wife to pose when she gets back from Chicago. As the movie we are watching is called Damnation Alley, wagering that Chicago is not going to survive the next ten minutes is a sucker bet.
Denton and Tanner, it turns out, are the guys who are in charge of the two keys that must be turned in unison to initiate a nuclear launch. It also turns out that Denton doesn't like Tanner and is requesting the younger man be rotated to another duty. This all becomes moot when the base's Big Board begins registering multiple missile tracks coming from a certain evil empire, and Denton and Tanner wind up using their keys, launching the missile stock footage. Their work done, they slip into the command center and watch as the oncoming tracks continue their steady trail toward the map of America - interceptors only take out 40% of the attacking force. An unemotional voice over the intercom tells us which cities get hit, a slow intoning of doom, which cuts to the mandatory footage of mushroom clouds.
I don't know about chilling, but the sequence is what we used to call in the advertising trade impactful. The viewer goes from hearing the name of either his hometown or a town nearby and is swept immediately to a Technicolor (and "Sound 360") representation of what would be happening. I noted somewhat smugly that the missiles never seemed to reach Texas, especially the Houston area - but that's okay, we were nuked anyway, and by our own country, no less, in Independence Day.
Anyway, after that, titles inform us that the combined nuclear explosions tilted the Earth off its axis, with the result that even more people died, the sky has turned into a Pink Floyd Laser Light Show, and the whole world now looks like Utah. The base, secure in its secluded, hardened bunker, survived. The men try to hold to some aimless semblance of normal life. Denton continues to work away in the motor bay, building something, with the assistance of Airman Perry (Kip Niven).
Keegan and Tanner, however, have retired themselves from the Air Force. Keegan spends his time painting tropical landscapes on his bunker and keeping watch on the desert. Tanner keeps taking off on his motorcycle, at one time going as far as Phoenix in his search for survivors. On Tanner's latest return, we find out what Keegan's watching for: the desert is inhabited by giant mutant scorpions (Enjoy the giant mutant scorpions now, while you can; you shall never see them again in this movie).
Things inside the base have gotten somewhat lax, though, and one Airman goes to sleep while smoking in bed... next to a mass of pipes bearing a sign that reads, "WARNING: Flammable Gas!" The resulting explosion is pretty impressive.
The only survivors are the two nonconformists, Keegan and Tanner, and Denton and Perry, who were in the motor pool. Denton wheels out the project that has been occupying him and Perry: they've been completing the two prototype Landmasters, huge all-terrain vehicles with novel three-wheel arrangements, all sorts of high-tech stuff and missile launchers. It is Denton's intention to take the Landmasters all the way to Albany, New York, the source of the only continuous radio signal heard since The War (and it is at this point that we find out The War was two years ago).
So our heroes set out, and run almost immediately into a freakish storm seemingly composed of many small twisters. Tanner decides to bully his way through the storm while the rather more regulation-minded Perry digs in his Landmaster. This was a poor career choice for Perry, as the storm picks up his stationary Landmaster and hurls it willy-nilly, while Tanner and Denton wind up safe and sound on he other side of the storm. Perry's neck is broken; Keegan makes it out with only a lacerated leg (one of the few times the token black character is not the first to die).
The next stop for our trio is Las Vegas, where not only is the Circus Circus still standing, but it still has power. "Boy, nothin' changes," says Tanner. "Bomb or no bomb, the lights never go out in Vegas!" Keegan and Tanner set to playing the slots with wild abandon; even the staid Denton finds himself grinning and pulling the levers of one-armed bandits. This makes a lot of noise, and the noise rouses Janice (Dominique Sanda) - the Last Woman Alive In Vegas. A singer/songwriter at the hotel, she was - ahem- performing for the manager in the fallout shelter when the bombs hit. She never does explain how the power is still on, however.
So now our four heroes trek onto Salt Lake City, which may seem like a roundabout route to Albany, but Denton is navigating what he calls "Damnation Alley", a path that skirts the areas of highest radiation. In any case: Salt Lake City, where they stop to get some gasoline. Tanner and Janice take off on his bike to scrounge for more supplies. Keegan, examining the many automobile hulks lying about, remarks on the strangely clean bones within the cars. "It's been a couple of years," says Denton. "Yeah," mutters Keegan, "but the windows are closed." They start to pumping gas after Keegan attaches the hose to the underground tank, and Keegan notices tons of large cockroaches coming up from the hatch. These roaches resist stomping and they bite. Hard. Suddenly Keegan finds himself pursued by a raft of roaches, and forgetting the skeletons in the sealed cars, hops inside one himself.
Denton rolls the Landmaster over to Keegan's makeshift fortress and uses the standard weapon employed in every crap movie of any note: the fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, its too late for Keegan, who has become a roach buffet (I didn't say the token black lasted the entire movie, did I?). Tanner and Janice, meantime, have been trapped in a department store by the beastly blattidae, and are racing up, floor by floor to keep ahead of them. Thus Denton's cry over the radio of "This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches, repeat, KILLER COCKROACHES!" - surely the most quotable line in the movie - comes as no surprise to them. Tanner has to pull an Evel Kneivel through a top story window to a parking garage next door to escape the carnivorous tide, and Denton uses the Landmaster's mortars to blast through the garage's walls to pick them up. Phew. That was close.
Next stop: a mysterious shack in the middle of nowhere, to pick up a recently orphaned boy named Billy (Jackie Earle Haley), who, true to his Bad News Bears background, is deadly with a thrown rock. (There is a bit somewhere in here that I am missing, something about the Landmaster's nuclear family structure, but frankly, I don't think it's worth the trouble) Then our next stop along scenic Damnation Alley is a gas station, similarly in the middle of nowhere (the nuclear war apparently extended the boundaries of Nowhere, so its middle is likewise huge). There our heroes are surprised by a rifle-toting pack of mutants.
Well, not actually mutants, more like mountain men bleeding from multiple radiation sores (it being Nowhere, there are no actual mountains, but there you are), looking for all the world like they just straggled off the set of Deliverance. It is only thanks to Billy's deadly rock-throwing abilities and his skill at prevarication that Tanner manages to blow out the tiny brains of two of the brigands. Then, as Janice escapes from the gas station, Denton takes care of the last of the mountain men with two rockets from the Landmaster's missile launchers, one of the better examples of overkill I've seen in a while.
By this time the Landmaster's transmission is starting to make loud clanking sounds, but no worry - the great beast was designed to use truck parts! So a quick detour to the wrecking yards of Detroit is called for. Now why people haven't chosen to settle in Detroit is beyond me - the junkyard looks like it hasn't been touched by the nuclear exchange; even the salvaged hulks of cars look quite clean - no layers of dirt as on the other cars we've seen. Denton finds a likely prospect and goes to work with a wrench. Billy goes out exploring, looking for a sidecar for the motorcycle, not noticing that the sky has turned an electric red and is starting to do a fairly good imitation of the last twenty minutes of 2001. It's up to Tanner to fly through the aisles of shifting metal in heightened winds to bring the youngest member of our crew back... and just in time, as not only high winds but a colossal tsunami engulfs the junkyard. It's the first water we've seen in the entire movie; I guess the same absence of nukage that preserved the wrecking yard also left the Great Lakes untouched.
Luckily, the Landmaster was designed to float, "Even," as Denton assures his crew, "if it's half-full of water." He and Tanner force open the top hatch to discover that the sky has miraculously turned blue! Yes, that whole welter of special effects was the Earth shifting back to its normal axis! Just to prove that point, when the Landmaster manages to churn itself to land, it no longer looks like Utah; no, there are trees and grass! Looks remarkably like California, in fact. Hmmmm...
The two men set to working on their respective vehicles by lakeside, when a sputter comes over their radio: it's a live broadcast from Albany! They're not too far away! Tanner and Billy hop on the bike and roar off to meet these new people, much to Denton's ire. "We're sending an emissary," he ruefully says into the microphone. "Please do not think him representative of the rest of us." Meanwhile, down the road, Tanner and Billy meet the survivors as about fifty people come out to meet them in an idyllic, farm-like setting. And I could not help but notice that each and every one of them was white. Make of that what you will. The end.
I probably don't need to tell you that Damnation Alley was based on a novel by Roger Zelazny, which was itself loosely based on an event in American history, the same one which was the basis for the recent animated movie Balto: a diphtheria epidemic in a remote northern settlement prompted a group of men and dogsleds to race through impossible weather and terrain to get drugs to the stricken settlement. In the novel, a load of serum needs to be taken through Damnation Alley to Boston (if I'm recalling correctly), and the only man for the job is motorcycle desperado Hell Tanner, who pilots the Landmaster alone.
This might have made a compelling movie, but the changes wrought for this movie version are not onerous. Starting with the War to gain audience attention is a good idea; the reason the Landmasters even exist is reasonable; and expanding the cast opens up new dynamics. But Damnation Alley the movie fails to do much with these elements.
For instance, unwritten movie law demands that if Denton and Tanner do not like each other at the beginning of the movie, they must at least have a grudging respect for each other by the end. There is a reason this device is employed over and again in screenplays, and that is it's immensely satisfying to the audience - the underlying moral that if we all work together, we can accomplish great things, is not lost on us. This is why the buddy film has been with us so many decades. This expected reconciliation does not happen. We never see the characters change in any way, manner or form, or show much in the way of any personal interaction (outside of grim resolution) after the personable Keegan gets eaten. I would normally applaud the fact that the sole female character is not shoehorned into a romantic relationship with either of the men, but I have to feel that this not due to any desire to break with cliché's, but simply more bad writing - astounding in that Lukas Heller is the top-billed writer, and he turned in fine character work in The Dirty Dozen, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Too, the movie is episodic in nature. Now, the novel was also episodic, but Zelazny was a master storyteller, and each encounter in the Alley served to change Tanner, to open up his humanity more, until by the end of the novel, with the Landmaster irretrievably broken, he has the strength of character to walk the rest of the way, carrying the serum like a pack mule.
The episodes of Damnation Alley are simply that: episodes, with no real suspense or tension built up; there is never any real doubt that Tanner and Janice will escape the killer cockroaches, or that our heroes will whomp up on the hillbillies. I lay the blame for that on the shoulders of director Jack Smight, whose body of work consists primarily of television movies. Damnation Alley, despite its effects, looks and feels like it was shot for the small screen. For instance: in the scene where the radio reveals that there are still people alive in Albany, the actors are blocked so that their backs are to us - we cannot see their faces at this climactic moment. I will, however, give Smight this - I bet he brought the film in on time and under budget.
Post-Apocalyptic movies like The Road Warrior succeeded primarily because they reinvented the Western with a great deal of panache and a character all their own. Unfortunately, the movie that Damnation Alley seems to be reinventing is The Incredible Journey, a 60s family film that followed two dogs and a cat as they trekked across country to their home. The adventures they had were similarly non-threatening, and at least you never expected animals to develop character.
Which leaves us little to look forward to except the special effects. The effects in Damnation Alley are pretty good, especially the sky effects, accomplished without any sort of digital jiggery-pokery. The rest of the money shots, however, are nothing you haven't already seen in a Bert I. Gordon movie, and used in the service of a better story, to boot.
Cool ride, though.
- April 15, 2000