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SCI-FI SUNDAYS – DAMNATION ALLEY (1977)

It’s Sci-Fi Sundays time once more, and this week Jonathon Dabell casts his eye over Damnation Alley (1977), starring Jan Michael Vincent and George Peppard, adapted from a cult novel by Roger Zelazny.

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Major Denton (George Peppard) getting angrier by the minute, in Damnation Alley (1977)

Roger Zelazny was a very well-regarded sci-fi author, and he reportedly had high hopes when an adaptation of his 1969 novel Damnation Alley was announced. Zelazny saw an early script by Lukas Heller and came away feeling his book was being honourably adapted by the execs at 20th Century Fox. The allocation of a substantial $17 million budget boded well, as did the recruitment of director Jack Smight (on a box-office roll after helming recent hits Airport ’75 and Midway). For reasons best known to themselves, the Fox bigwigs brought in Alan Sharp at a late stage to rewrite the script. Sharp’s version veered drastically from Zelazny’s original story, omitting many important elements, and was considerably altered from the draft script penned by Heller.

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Janice (Dominique Sanda) and Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent are motorcycle-bound, with the Landmaster in the background, in Damnation Alley (1977).

Fox had two sci-fi films in production in 1977. One was George Lucas’s Star Wars, which, they felt, had only modest hopes of doing much business. Their other big ’77 sci-fi release was Damnation Alley, which they genuinely believed was going to be the ‘safer’, the more ‘box-office successful’ of the two movies.
In a post-WWIII wasteland, survivors at a silo in the Californian desert have all-but abandoned their duties, and spend their time scavenging for food and equipment. Following the worldwide holocaust, the planet has tipped on its axis and is subject to frequent freak storms, while giant mutated scorpions have evolved which stalk the landscape. Even the sky is no longer blue, appearing instead as a purplish Aurora-Borealis-like puddle of swirling colour and chaos.

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Left to right: Billy (Jackie Earle Haley), Janice (Dominique Sanda), Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent) and Denton (George Peppard) beside their Landmaster. Damnation Alley (1977).

After picking up a message from Albany – the first human contact they have detected during two years of monitoring – Major Denton (George Peppard) and First-Lt. Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) decide to abandon their base in California and head across the country to where the signal came from. Aboard two Air Force ‘Landmasters’ (tank-like vehicles designed for travelling across all terrains), they set off on their mammoth journey. Fellow survivors Tom Keegan (Paul Winfield) and Tom Perry (Kip Niven) join them on the journey, and en-route they pick up two more survivors in the ruins of Las Vegas, Janice (Dominique Sanda) and Billy (Jackie Earle Haley).

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Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent) and Denton (George Peppard) face a long drive across post-apocalyptic America in search of possible survivors

The journey is fraught with danger. Denton plots a route to the other side of the war-ravaged country, working out what he considers the safest way, the course which will subject them to the least radiation and threat. He christens his suggested route ‘Damnation Alley’… hence the film’s title.
Despite the budget, the capable cast, and the grand expectations of the studio, Damnation Alley emerges a huge disappointment. Production difficulties with the giant scorpion models meant enlarged footage of normal-sized scorpions was superimposed over the actor’s scenes, and the effect, it must be said, is wholly unconvincing. The decision to create the swirling purple skies was made late in the day, and substantial time and money was required to add the effect to the film’s many outdoor scenes. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the ominous sky ends up as unconvincing as the giant scorpions. Neither of these technical problems should necessarily have spelt doom for the movie, though – if the story development and characters had been effective, if the narrative had been gripping and exciting, viewers may well have been willing to forgive a few dodgy visual effects.

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Theatrical poster for Damnation Alley (1977).

Alas, the problems with Damnation Alley are more fundamental than that. It’s boringly repetitive, for one thing. The structure consists of the heroes driving for a while, reaching a well-known city, having a run-in with mutated creatures or crazed survivors, then moving on. This cycle continues endlessly and predictably throughout, with little nuance or shade to break things up. Also, there are many moments which are hopelessly silly. Such as a scene near the end where the world magically rights itself again and the sky goes back to normal. Or the scene where they finally reach Albany, and everything seems to be safe and normal there. Albany is on Earth, right? And therefore it has been subject to the same physical turmoils and ravages as the rest of the planet? So how come everything is so hunky-dory in down-town Albany, while chaos reigns supreme everywhere else? Even Jerry Goldsmith’s score (apparently very rare to acquire, and a real ‘Holy Grail’ item among soundtrack collectors) is pretty sub-standard for the usually-reliable composer.
In the end, Damnation Alley¬†emerges a weak sci-fi entry. It was trounced at the box-office by its ’77 rival Star Wars, and quickly sank into relative obscurity. Shame, really, as there’s a decent concept lurking here somewhere which should have been much better than it turned out in the end. A missed opportunity all-round.

MoM Rating: 3.5/10

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