Damnation Alley Sucks More Than It Should

Damnation AlleyI 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.

6 thoughts on “Damnation Alley Sucks More Than It Should

  1. The only Roger Zelanzy I have read is the short A Rose For Ecclesiastes, which I quite liked. I think I’ve seen part of Damnation Alley on television back in the ’80s. If I am thinking of the right thing there is a scene where someone is bartering with Jan Michael Vincent for pornographic magazines. It didn’t hold my interest. But what little of that film that I watched didn’t have any giant bugs, so who knows.

    • The fire was started when a cigarette fell onto a stack of girly magazines. It’s a funny little film.

  2. The Landmaster, w/ its tri-star wheels, was cool. Watch the scenes of it driving over stuff. Skip the rest of the movie.

    • One thing that bothered me: the two sections of the vehicle are clearly connected with clothe. It is water tight?!

  3. I like apocalyptic stuff, too. As do most Americans, all of us for different reasons. The “Walking Dead” TV audience and “Left Behind” skim-reading audience are likely very different people, although surely there’s some mild overlap.

    It’s funny. In the heyday of 70s/80s apocalyptic film, the message was Nuclear Armageddon. (Although there are subtexts which make people obsess over these things; every time has its own stressful issues.)

    This last year there were several notable apocalyptic artworks, and the message seems as it’s shifting from Bomb to Burn; nukes to global warming.

    A novel by Paolo Bacigalupi, “The Water Knife,” (spell that name three times fast) described a near-future where America has lost all central government and California wages war on upstream states to prevent them from using any water. It’s realistically grim. Grimness is Bacigalupi’s stock in trade. The only book I’d recommend by him is “Zombie Baseball Beatdown,” a YA thing about factory farming and the injustice of immigration laws. That’s as close to optimistic as Bacigalupi gets.

    There was the new “Mad Max.” Worth watching? Kinda. It’s much more beautifully filmed than any other “Mad Max,” and substituting Charlize Theron/Tom Hardy for Mel Gibson is a net plus. Otherwise, it’s just more “Mad Max.” Cars chase each other. If one likes this sort of thing, it’s fine. I enjoyed the actors, cinematography, and stunts. It’s not exactly a profound statement about our new conception of Doom, but water figures more significantly in it than radiation or oil.

    Benjamin Percy wrote “Dead Lands,” about a future where global warming causes the world to launch nuclear war against the US because we refuse to cut emissions. And then when our nation is destroyed, the oil fires keep burning as nobody can stop them. And our stockpiles of nuclear waste all meltdown.

    What’s really brilliant about “Dead Lands” is the framing device. Stark survivors in Missouri dream of some fantasy land called “Oregon” where, they hear, there is running water. A group sets out to find if this is true. They are led by Wilhelmina Lewis and Meriwether Clark.

    The book stumbles, a lot, on life in Missouri and life in Oregon. As the expedition travels hellscape, though, it’s a blast. Bacigalupi and George Miller (the “Mad Max” guy”) don’t do much more than present the dismal future as a given which everyone knows (the best bit in “Mad Max” involves characters discovering a new dismal reality.)

    Percy takes his conception and really gruesomes it out through the Lewis & Clark trail. Each new setting of Awful has its own vivid depictions. There are giant man-sized killer bats (which is why this review made me think of “Dead Lands”), and they aren’t even the worst.

    Do these things appeal to the more depressive sides of our nature? “I fucking told you, when you said both Republicans and Democrats were claiming the slippery-slope argument, that one of them was right! Affirmative action did not lead to socialism, and Rush Limbaugh did lead to Donald Trump.”

    In a way they are very morally lazy. I’d rather be right about how terrifyingly you are wrong than keep plunging on making day-to-day arguments over small things I can maybe, over long stretches of time, convince others to bend on a little.

    In another way they are completely understandable. Goddamnit, you dingbats! Don’t you realize how bad things can get? (And I understand Reagan shifted his nuke-war policy after watching “The Day After.”)

    In a different way they can be cathartic. We hope we aren’t so blinded by hubris we become Oedipus or Lear. Worst-case-scenarios are a means of processing issues, both personal and political, that keep us up late at night. (“If my efforts amount to little, at least I kept things from going THIS BAD.”) Everyone with more than the brain God gave oysters obsesses over how awful holiday family dinners will be, and doing so makes one relieved that family members are merely garden-variety terrible.

    And Those Are My Thoughts On Apocalyptic Stuff.

    • I see water wars as being a distinct possibility. We’ve had violence over water before. And that was over little compared to what we are probably looking at.

      I still find it fascinating that the man who brought us Mad Max also brought us the Babe films.

      The Republicans of that time were actually more reasonable about international affairs. Nixon went to China are really calmed the Cold War. Carter revved it up again. Reagan calmed it down again. It’s curious.

      Sounds like you have an article there.

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