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Peter’s Retro Rewind: Damnation Alley (1977)

Damnation Alley Movie Posterby Peter Nielsen

“Tanner! This is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches! I repeat… KILLER COCKROACHES!!”

This movie starts with a bang! Literally!

Only minutes after Damnation Alley opens, the world as we know it has ended. Two Air Force officers, Tanner and Denton, have just started their shifts at the missile silo when all hell breaks loose. Multiple nuclear missiles are detected on their way over American soil and retaliatory missiles are subsequently launched. World War III is a fact and because of the violent nuclear holocaust, the Earth is tilted on its axis and is later constantly ravaged by severe storms.

The sky looks weird and is always changing, both in color and in pattern. It’s like some sort of psychedelic light-show which is apparently caused by the new tilting of the Earth, radiation, and the strange weather-conditions.  This is the post-apocalyptic world in which our few survivors find themselves.

You guys coming or what?

You guys coming or what?

It’s now two years later. They’re still living on the base because it’s kept them safe and there were enough supplies to sustain them for a long time. Tanner, who’s played by Jan-Michael Vincent, sometimes drives off on his motorcycle, which isn’t all that safe considering the giant scorpions roaming around the base. It’s a shame they didn’t do more with the giant mutated bug-theme in this movie. That would actually have been cool. But this is, unfortunately, the only time we get to see the scorpions. The scene doesn’t look too good though, so maybe not showing the scorpions more was a good thing.

Major Denton, played by George Peppard from Battle Beyond the Stars” and the hit 80s TV-show The A-Team where he played John “Hannibal” Smith, has picked up a radio transmission coming from Albany. He decides to find the source. But before they can all leave, there’s a large explosion at the base, killing everyone but four men. Denton and Tanner, his friend Keegan, and a young lieutenant named Perry set out in two, giant, 12-wheeled armored vehicles called “Landmasters”.

I mentioned earlier that Tanner is played by Mr. Vincent, and I’m sure you recognize him! He was in the original The Mechanic from 1972, starring opposite Charles Bronson. He also had the starring role in the TV-show Airwolf. Paul Winfield, who plays Keegan, has been in The Terminator and The Serpent and the Rainbow to mention a few.

The motley crew of the Landmaster

The motley crew of the Landmaster.

The real stars of the movie aren’t the actors though, it’s actually the Landmasters. Or… the Landmaster! Singular, because they only built one. But through movie-magic, they made it look like there were two of them.

That Landmaster though, is one impressive piece of machinery, let me tell you that! It has a hinged, middle-section that, apart from making it look cool, also helps it turn and maneuver over the rocky terrain. The wheel arrangement was actually fully functional and custom-built for the film. This helped the Landmaster “crawl” over boulders, for instance.

On the DVD is a short featurette about the vehicle. During the first major test-run with it, everything worked perfectly. They went full-throttle (50mph) over rocks and pot-holes and never felt a thing. The wheel-formation rotated smoothly whenever it hit an obstacle. Pretty impressive if you consider the fact that it weighed a massive 10 tons! The Landmaster still exists and has made various “guest” appearances in commercials and different events over the years.

Janice and Tanner going off to explore.

Janice and Tanner going off to explore.

It’s currently in the care of a private collector, who restored it to its original condition. According to the featurette on the DVD, it was unfortunately vandalized in 2009. I’m not sure if it has been restored. Man, I hope it has, because as I stated before… It is a VERY cool-looking vehicle!

A short while after the four men leave the base, one of the Landmasters is lost in a violent storm. Lt. Perry is also killed in the accident, which actually didn’t come as a great surprise, since he practically had “red-shirt” stamped across his forehead. They move the supplies to the remaining Landmaster and take off again.

A quick stop is made in Las Vegas where they pick up a woman named Janice, who’s been living alone at one of the casinos since the bombs fell. She’s played by Dominique Sanda (Novecento (1900), The Crimson Rivers). Later on they also come across Billy, a young boy whom they take with them on the way to Albany. The actor portraying Billy is Jackie Earle Haley who’s been in Breaking Away and Watchmen. He played Rorschach in the latter!

Beware of giant mutated scorpions!

Beware of giant mutated scorpions!

Damnation Alley isn’t a bad movie, but… it’s not a great one either. It had potential to be much better than it was. Don’t get me wrong here, I still enjoyed it as I did when I first watched it many years ago. Although, I would have loved to see the original version before it was re-edited by the studio.

This edited version was due to the massive success of another little sci-fi movie also released by 20th Century Fox in 1977. Yes, boys and girls, I’m talking about Star Wars!

The studio didn’t think that one would amount to anything and was kind of taken aback when it turned into the smash-hit we all know it became. Because of that, the studio went back to re-edit Damnation Alley and, apparently, cut out a couple of key-scenes. It ultimately tanked at the box-office.

It’s a shame really, because it isn’t that bad! The movie itself looks good, and the scenes with the Landmaster driving through the barren landscape are memorable. The ending is a bit disappointing though. It just ends… I wanted to see a little more. But apart from that it’s an ok little sci-fi flick.

Damnation Alley is VERY loosely based on the novel of the same name, written by Roger Zelazny. I read it many, many years back and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I still have it on my shelf! Only the basic premise was kept from the novel, and I read that Mr. Zelazny wasn’t too happy with the end result. He liked the first draft of the script, but re-writes were made and he didn’t see the finished script until the film was released in theaters. I kind of liked both the novel and movie. And since they’re so different, you really shouldn’t compare them.

So, my friends… what do you think? Have you read the novel? Have you seen the movie? I’m eager to know your thoughts, so please… the comment section is all yours!

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About Peter Nielsen

Peter was born in Denmark in 1968, but moved to Sweden at the age of six, (not by himself of course), and has lived there ever since. He’s married and has five children, so spare time is somewhat of a luxury. His main interests in life, apart from his family, are long walks, books and movies. Any movie! He has preferences, but he’s not particular as long as it's good or... so bad it's good... he just LOVES MOVIES!