In 1977, 20th Century Fox had two science-fiction adventure movies in the pipeline for release. The first was Star Wars, which came out in May with relatively low expectations and became an immediate, industry-changing sensation. The second was Damnation Alley, which Fox had originally thought would be its big year-end holiday blockbuster. Based on a well-regarded Roger Zelazny novel and directed by Airport 1975 and Midway helmer Jack Smight, Damnation Alley was intended to be a rousing post-apocalyptic actioner featuring mutated bugs, freaky marauders, and a badass armored vehicle—part Planet Of The Apes, part Them!, part On The Beach, and part Vanishing Point. But after Star Wars hit, Fox worried that Damnation Alley looked too cheap, so before it came out, the studio had it re-edited to emphasize the cool technology, and had a special-effects team use superimpositions to give the skies, landscapes, and monsters an irradiated look. None of the changes mattered. By the end of ’77, the nation was still Star Wars crazy, while Damnation Alley quickly dropped down to the minor leagues of second-run theaters and block sales to cable.
Seen today, Damnation Alley isn’t such a terrible film, it’s just out of place. The effects are awful—Irwin Allen television show awful—and the cast is overmatched. Jan-Michael Vincent and Paul Winfield bring some scruffy charm to their roles as former Air Force officers making their way across the country in their tricked-out “Landmaster,” but George Peppard is too stiff as their unnecessarily Southern-accented ex-C.O., and Dominique Sanda and a young Jackie Earle Haley don’t add much as passengers the Landmaster crew picks up along the way. Mostly the film just feels too skimpy. The first third is largely taken up in establishing the nuclear devastation of Damnation Alley’s world, leaving just an hour for the heroes’ perilous road trip across lands infested with what Peppard calls “killa cockroaches.” By the time the action really gets cranking, the movie is half-over.
Still, it’s fascinating to watch Damnation Alley in the context of where pulp cinema was headed in the decades to come. Damnation Alley arrived a year ahead of Dawn Of The Dead, two years ahead of Mad Max, and way ahead of the scores of “ragtag band of survivors seek shelter in a ravaged future” thrillers that cluttered video stores in the ’80s and ’90s. There was no tradition yet per se, for the movie to adhere to or reject. But in that absence, Smight and company didn’t really forge new ground or make their own rules. Instead, they gave a half-hearted science-fiction wash to a handful of stock characters and a cheesy bugs-gone-wild B-movie premise, while another set of Fox employees were in the process of re-energizing the genre, in a galaxy not far away.
Key features: Brief interviews with one of the producers, one of the stunt coordinators, and one of the screenwriters (the latter being Alan Sharp, who also wrote the scripts for Night Moves, The Osterman Weekend, and Rob Roy, and is amusingly dismissive of this particular item on his résumé), plus a commentary track by producer Paul Maslansky.