Damnation Alley (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Signal One Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (25th February 2018).
The Film

Damnation Alley (Jack Smight, 1977)

In a desert ICBM base, Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard) and First Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) are responsible for monitoring and managing the launch computer. When news is broken that nuclear warheads are on their way to the US, a retaliatory strike is ordered and Denton and Tanner are commanded to launch the base’s ICBMs.

Two years later, the Earth has been tilted on its axis by the nuclear explosions, and most of North America is an irradiated wasteland, the major cities having been annihiliated. However, the desert base is still populated, led by the commanding officer, Landers (Murray Hamilton). Tanner has taken to living in a building outside the main compound with his buddy Keegan (Paul Winfield), making journeys into the deserted towns and cities on his motorcycle and traversing a landscape that includes giant scorpions. Meanwhile, Denton has remained loyal to the chain of command.

A recorded radio signal has been intercepted at the base; the signal seems to be coming from Albany. One day, a fire starts in the main compound, caused when Haskins (Mark L Taylor) falls asleep whilst smoking. The majority of the missile’s command is killed. Following this event, Denton reveals to Tanner his top-secret project: two vehicles called Landmasters, capable of traversing unstable ground, ascending and descending 60 degree inclines, and also being amphibious. Denton tells Tanner that he plans to take the Landmasters across ‘Damnation Alley’, the irradiated landscape stretching from the West Coast to the Eastern Seaboard. Denton will drive one of the Landmasters; Perry (Kip Niven) will drive the other. Tanner and Keegan are welcome to come along: Tanner will ride with Denton, and Keegan will travel with Perry.

Whilst Denton sleeps, Tanner takes the driving position. When the Landmasters hit a tornado, Tanner takes the risky decision to drive through the storm, whilst Perry ‘digs in’ his Landmaster. Tanner’s choice pays off, and he and Denton travel through the tornado unscathed. However, Perry’s Landmaster is flipped over; in the process, Perry dies, though Keegan is later rescued by Denton and Tanner.

The Landmaster arrives at a casino partially buried by the desert. There, they find Janice (Dominique Sanda), a former singer who survived the nuclear bombs because at the time of their detonation she was in the casino’s fallout shelter having sex with the manager, who had promised to help her further her musical career. Janice agrees to travel with them.

They move on to Salt Lake City, where the Landmaster stops in order to siphon petrol from some of the vehicles on the roadside. Keegan finds the skeletonised bodies of a family in a nearby vehicle and notices that the bones are strangely ‘clean, like they’ve been polished’. The group soon find out the reason for this, when they are attacked by mutated, armour-plated cockroaches which trap Keegan in the car that contains the skeletons. Denton attempts to rescue Keegan but is unable to save him.

The Landmaster continues on to a shack in the desert, where they encounter a young man, Billy (Jackie Earle Haley). Billy tells them that he was on the road with his father for a long time, until his father fell from a cliff. Billy has been wandering on his own for four months. Denton and Tanner take Billy on board too.

Further along, the Landmaster arrives at a deserted roadside petrol station and café. The travellers investigate the building but are accosted by four men with shotguns and severe radiation burns on their faces and bodies. These four men separate the travellers; one of them attempts to rape Janice but is stopped by Billy. Using his wits, Billy manages to pass a revolver to Tanner, and the Landmaster’s inhabitants overcome their assailants.

The Landmaster heads for Detroit: one of the vehicle’s gears needs replacing, and in Detroit Denton hopes to find a semi-articulated truck from which he can strip a replacement gear. However, they are threatened again, this time by a severe storm and tidal wave which carries the Landmaster away. However, the vehicle is amphibious, and the Landmaster heads to land in the hope of finding the source of the mysterious signal in Albany.

The film is based on Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel of the same title. It’s an ambitious story, the film’s budget struggling to realise the fallout from nuclear annihilation as depicted in Zelazny’s book: irradiated giant scorpions; hordes of flesh-eating cockroaches; nuclear winters and nightmarish light storms. The physical effects are serviceable though the optical effects often look more than a little funky.

In Zelazny’s novel, following the dropping of ‘the bomb’, civilisation in North America is divided into two enclaves: one is based in Boston, the other in Los Angeles. ‘Damnation Alley’ is the irradiated landscape between these two communities, in which flora and fauna have become mutated and deadly, and both compete with strange atmospheric phenomena. Hell Tanner, a member of a motorcycle gang, must traverse this ‘alley’ in order to deliver a serum to Boston, when the community in Boston is hit by the plague; Tanner is persuaded to do this by the promise of a full pardon for every criminal act he has committed in the state of California. As the synopsis of this film adaptation might suggest, the script by Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller deviated substantially from the source material, though it retained Tanner’s surname, his motorcycle and the concept of a journey across an irradiated landscape.

Alan Sharp’s scripts during the 1970s had been notable for their pointed political content and narrative and thematic complexity. Sharp wrote some of the best American films of the 1970s, his outsider’s perspective on American culture enabling him to comment on American myths and genres (in particular, the Western) with striking lucidity: The Last Run (Richard Fleischer, 1971), The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda, 1971), Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1972) and Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975) are all among the most distinctive ‘authored’ American films of the 1970s; Ted Kotcheff’s Billy Two Hats (1974) is a lesser picture but Sharp’s script is still, well, ‘sharp’. However, Sharp’s work on Damnation Alley amounted to little more than editing an already-written script by Lukas Heller (who ironically was also known for the scripts he had written for director Robert Aldrich), though there are elements that seem characteristic of Sharp (for example, the film’s depiction of Landers, the commanding officer of the ICBM base, who after the bombs drop spends his days hiding in the control room and drinking). The commercial failure of Damnation Alley seemed to dent Sharp’s career in Hollywood for a number of years. Sharp’s screenplays had at least in part come to define the Hollywood Renaissance, an era that was ended with the unpredicted success of George Lucas’ Star Wars in 1977. It’s ironic that Twentieth-Century Fox assumed Damnation Alley would be a huge hit in ’77, but the film was annihilated by Star Wars, a film made with a lower budget and much lower expectations.

One of Damnation Alley’s most pointed moments comes very early in the film, when Denton and Tanner are in the control room preparing to launch the ICBMs at America’s enemies. The launch system requires two operatives to turn keys and press buttons in absolute synchronicity. Denton and Tanner perform their tasks slickly, like a well-oiled machine, without breaking a sweat or expressing doubts about the possible outcomes of their actions. They are utterly calm and blasé about their task of launching the nuclear missiles. It’s a scene that still has resonance for today’s debates about ‘killing at a distance’. The wanton destruction caused by the detonation of these devices, represented by some gritty and grainy stock footage of Titan warheads being exploded, is brought home later in the picture when Haskins falls asleep whilst smoking, his cigarette falling onto a centrefold and setting the main compound ablaze. Haskins’ carelessness results in a devastating loss of life that is much smaller in scale than the destruction wrought by the detonation of the nuclear devices but is more keenly felt by Denton and Tanner for their proximity to the victims.

The film’s narrative is for the most part episodic. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the picture delineates the events that immediately precede the nuclear strike and counter-strike before a series of title cards halt the story to outline the consequences of this nuclear attack (‘The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust’, these title cards tell us, ‘under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust, the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them’). Once the Landmasters are set on their way, following the accidental destruction of the main building in the outpost, the story stops off at several points (Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, a roadside gas station, a Detroit car graveyard) as the survivors encounter numerous isolated hostile elements (the aforementioned cockroaches; a group of survivors, suffering from radiation sickness, holed up in an abandoned petrol station and roadside café; a severe storm and flood).

Like many examples of dystopic/post-apocalyptic cinema during the 1970s and 1980s, Damnation Alley features a defining focus on a vehicle (in this case, the Landmasters) which, like the cars in Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel, 1975) or Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), represents potential for freedom and escape, and therefore more broadly acts as a symbol for the future. Survival seems to be connected to constant movement. ‘And you’ve been just wandering around ever since?’, Denton asks Billy when Billy tells them that his father died four months earlier. ‘Don’t do no good just sitting still’, Billy responds matter-of-factly. The Landmasters are capable of traveling over unstable ground, can ascend a 60 degree incline, and they are also amphibious. They are designed to ‘dig in’ when faced with severe inclemental weather, though when the two Landmasters encounter a tornado, this proves a much less safe tactic than Tanner’s more overtly risky decision to attempt to drive through the storm. Perry commands the Landmaster he’s driving to ‘dig in’, resulting in the vehicle being tipped over by the strong winds. As the vehicle is overturned, Perry is killed.

At times, it seems that the film will investigate the tensions between the non-hierarchical Tanner and Keegan and the more regimented Denton and Perry. However, the film soon abandons this in favour of a series of setpieces depicting the terrors of the new landscape. The film becomes effectively a road movie, a story about a journey. ‘I don’t know what we’re going to find [in Albany]’, Denton tells Tanner, ‘but getting there is the only way we’ll ever know’. On their journey to Albany, they pick up a rag-tag bunch of misfits. In Las Vegas, they encounter Janice, who has only survived nuclear annihilation because she conceded to take a passive position on the ‘casting couch’, agreeing to meet the manager of a Big Top-themed casino (the Circus Circus?) in the casino’s fallout shelter at a time that coincided with the nuclear strike. (The manager later died of a heart attack.) The Landmaster arrives at the casino after mounting a huge sand dune, the passengers looking down on the casino and the Big Top outside it partially buried by the shifting sands. Denton, Tanner and Keegan enter the casino, believing it to be empty. Despite the futility of gambling in the post-apocalyptic society and the worthlessness of money, they find themselves hypnotised by the row upon row of slot machines, pulling their levers and whooping with delight when they win. Even Denton is suckered in by the lure of the casino. Even after the collapse of society, capitalism’s objects and symbols still hold an almost alchemical power, drawing the attention of the survivors as, on the soundtrack, their shrieks of pleasure are drowned out by the non-diegetic, imagined sound of a busy casino. The scene is rather like similar sequences in George A Romero’s roughly contemporaneous Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which the human survivors of the zombie apocalypse are shown to be seduced by the lure of the huge shopping mall in which they are holed up – regardless of how meaningless and, in fact, useless the consumer objects it holds within it are. At a huge scrapyard in Detroit, Billy is overcome by the piles and piles of abandoned cars. ‘I’ve never seen so many cars before’, he says. ‘That’s your heritage, Billy’, Tanner tells him. ‘What’s heritage?’, Billy asks. ‘That’s what people leave other people when they find out it don’t work’, Tanner says.



Video

Uncut and with a running time of 91:18 mins, Damnation Alley is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1, in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film was shot with anamorphic lenses that are sometimes soft around the periphery of the frame. To compound this, there’s some funky-looking stock footage and lots of composite/optical effects (matte work, rotoscoping, etc). As a consequence, much of the film looks rough around the edges, with a sometimes clumpy grain structure, and contrast seems very sharp in some scenes, with the result that shadow detail is crushed. However, these are all limitations of the source material and the manner in which the picture was shot and edited. The Blu-ray presentation, on the other hand, is good, film-like and true to source. A strong level of fine detail is present throughout the film, though one has to take into account the many special effects-heavy sequences within the original photography; colours are consistent and contrast levels, within the limits of some of the special effects sequences, are solid too, with clearly defined midtones. The encode to disc is pleasing, and the presentation retains the structure of 35mm film. This is certainly an improvement over the film’s previous home video outings, though one must take into account the limitations of the source materials.

Audio

The film is presented with two audio options: (i) a DTS-HD MA 6.1 track; and (ii) a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Both are rich and have good range, with the 6.1 track featuring some impactful sound separation but the LPCM 2.0 track offering a little more ‘punch’. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and accurately transcribe the film’s dialogue.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with film historian Paul Talbot. Exclusive to Signal One’s release, Talbot’s commentary track is filled with enthusiasm for the film. Talbot reflects on the film’s special effects and discusses its relationship with its source novel. Some of his most interesting comments regard the material that was cut from the final edit. His comments seem grounded in careful research and picks up on some fine details within the picture.

- A second audio commentary with producer Paul Maslansky. This commentary track featured on the Blu-ray release of Damnation Alley released in the US by Shout! Factory in 2011. Maslansky reflects vividly on the production of the film, discussing the input of the cast and crew and reflecting on the studio’s high hopes for the picture.

- ‘Survival Run’ (11:34). Also included on Shout! Factory’s 2011 Blu-ray release, this interview with Alan Sharp sees the writer discussing his role in the production of the script. Sharp suggests his role was writing the dialogue, arguing that he is good at this craft as some people are ‘a good drywall plasterer’. He reflects dryly on the film’s resolution and structure, suggesting that the producers were interested in crafting a story around ‘vignettes’.

- ‘Road to Hell’ (13:22). Another interview ported from Shout! Factory’s US release, this is with producer Jerome Zeitman. Zeitman talks about his association with the project. Zeitman asks Douglas Trumbull to work on the film’s special effects, but to Zeitman’s dismay Trumbull said it would take two years to do this satisfactorily. Zeitman discusses the scripting and Fox’s decision to give the film a significant budget. He was advised by Robert Wise that ‘the technology doesn’t exist’ to make the film, and admits he was ‘well over my head’ though he was ‘determined to make this movie’.

- ‘Landmaster Tales’ (10:14). Also sourced from Shout! Factory’s release, ‘Landmaster Tales’ examines the Landmaster, built for the production at a cost of a third of a million dollars. Vehicle designer Dean Jeffries discusses how he came to be associated with the film and reflects on the design of the Landmaster.

- Posters and Images from Around the World (63 images).

- TV Spots (0:33).

- Theatrical Trailer (2:18).

Overall

Twentieth-Century Fox reputedly believed Damnation Alley would be the blockbuster hit of 1977, though the film was a flop and was eclipsed by the breakout success of George Lucas’ Star Wars. However, Damnation Alley has lived on in the cultural imagination, thanks to allusions made towards it in such narratives as the Fallout videogames (eg, via the ‘radscorpions’ in that series) and has a strong sub-legion of fans. The characters aren’t given much room to breathe (barely minutes into the film, Denton tells Tanner he has applied for a ‘roster change’ because ‘I just think we’re not temperamentally suited as a work team’) and structurally its weak: the plot is episodic and lengthy title cards halt the story about fifteen minutes into the picture. The film coasts by on its admittedly memorable setpieces: Tanner riding his motorcycle past deadly giant scorpions; Keegan being eaten alive by armour-plated cockroaches. Damnation Alley has some superficial similarities with roughly contemporaneous pictures such as L Q Jones’ A Boy and His Dog (1975) but lacks the dark wit of Jones’ film. The film suffers from a cripplingly unsatisfying denouement too, something Alan Sharp notes in the interview contained on this disc. Earlier in the film, Billy notes that ‘Nothing good ever comes by itself, no matter how much you want to’, when Denton suggests that perhaps the world could right itself and correct the damage done to it; however, the denouement seems to almost intentionally strip away the potential complexity of this statement, the story stuttering to a halt before the closing credits appear.

Nevertheless, the film is a lean, entertaining sci-fi picture with some memorable setpieces, and pretty much anyone (like myself) who saw the film via television broadcasts or on VHS during their formative years will have fond memories of it, despite its flaws. Signal One’s new Blu-ray release of Damnation Alley contains a presentation which seems faithful to its source, even if that source is a little funky at times. The disc also contains an excellent array of contextual material. It’s a very pleasing home video release of a film that, if not quite a ‘cult’ picture, is certainly fondly remembered by its fans.

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