I didn’t want to watch Damnation Alley. It is based on a Roger Zelazny novel, and I’m not fond of his work. But the film was co-written by Alan Sharp. And it was the film right after Night Moves — which I greatly admire. Plus, it’s a post-apocalyptic film, and I’m fond of those. So what hell, right?
The film starts with Air Force First Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Major Sam Denton (George Peppard) as they dutifully launch rockets to counter a first strike from the Soviet Union. So we skip ahead a couple of years where we find the air base little changed. But now, the Earth has been knocked off its axis and so the sky is not blue but purple with a sort of permanent aurora borealis. But very quickly, there is a fire caused by a cigarette and everyone but the four men survive (the other two are quickly killed off). And then they go on a road trip to seek out other survivors. Apparently, doing this before base was torched was out of the question.
There are aspects of the film that I like. A lot of it is very campy. There are human size scorpions. These are done somewhat worse than in Bert I Gordon films. There are also flesh-eating armor-plated cockroaches that can survive being stepped on, but apparently not fire extinguishers. And then there is the almost total lack of any real sign of the apocalypse. We find a casino that is not only still standing, but still has electricity. This absurdity is tossed aside with a bit of dialog, “Boy, nothing changes. Bomb or no bomb, the lights never go out in Vegas.” These are the kinds of things that make idiosyncratic films interesting.
There’s a problem though. This isn’t an idiosyncratic film. It is a big budget Hollywood film. And it has all the tired Hollywood conventions that one would expect. That’s particularly true of the male leads, who are boring from the first scene on. There is, of course, the female lead, although she just kind of hangs out in the movie — never having her relationship with any of the other characters jell. And then there is the obligatory kid who, by 1970s film convention, had to be annoying.
Rather than roving gangs of bikers, Damnation Alley has a group of men who occupy a gas station. They are straight out of Deliverance, but with bad facial hair. They are about as menacing as a villain from Scooby-Doo — and similarly smart. Our protagonists manage to escape these characters thanks to the kid. Somehow, these trained military officers couldn’t deal with them. But far more perplexing is why these guys didn’t check out unfamiliar locations before just wandering into them. You can’t say it is for the plot, because there isn’t much of a plot anyway.
The worst part of the film, however, is how much it is soiled by the later television series, The A-Team. This film stars George Peppard. There really is no difference between the two characters. And they run around in a weaponized vehicle. And both are camp without them showing any signs that they know it. We’re all supposed to think it is cool, not silly.
I can see why the film has become something of a cult classic. It has all the needed elements. And a film with badly rendered giant scorpions can’t be all bad. Then again, a film starring Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent can’t be all good. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.