Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Damnation Alley

Damnation Alley is a post-apocalyptic thriller loosely based on a short story and novel by science fiction writer Roger Zelazny. Zelazny learned the hard way that Hollywood is not big on being faithful to source material, though rumors he demanded his name be taken off the film are not true. Nevertheless, stories of post-apocalyptic survival have been done far better. Not to mention with a budget much large than the $23.35 with which this one was obviously made.

The film opens up with the end of the world. Two Air Force officers, Tannen and Denton, in charge of a missile silo in California get the call to launch the arsenal according to the MAD strategy of mutually assured destruction. Three years later, the silo is still in operation, but the command structure has fallen apart. Tannen has resigned his commission and indulged his misfit ways. Denton, his former superior, is a hardnosed major still holding things together. An explosion at the silo kills all but four men, so Denton decides to take the survivors on a trip to Albany in search of a lone radio transmission.

The four take off in two Landmaster, twelve-wheeled all terrain transport vehicles. They are supposed to be impressive, but again, low budget problems. The prop is still enough of a novelty that it is part of a San Francisco based show featuring famous vehicles from movies and television. Do a Google search and you will find a load of photos with tourists posing with it.

The Damnation Alley refers to a path of lower radiation throughout the central United States in which the two Landmasters travel. It is the path of least resistance, which is a peculiar concept considering one of the Landmasters is loat immediately in a storm, then the survivors encounter carnivorous cockroaches, vicious rednecks, weird, violent storms, and a flood before making it to Albany.

Much of their trouble is caused by the earth tilting off its axis due to the nuclear war. Thus, we get giant scorpions, as well as the aforementioned carnivorous cockroaches and violent storms. The problem with them is they are too ambitious for the budget to handle. The photo above is actually one of the better attempts to make a regular sized scorpion large like a giant using the same camera tricks that had been around for nearly forty years at the time Damnation Alley was made. The storms are also psychodelic falashes of color amidst high winds. They look more like a bad acid trip than anything else.

These silly effects contrast so starkly with some truly ethereal moments that they actually diminish those moments. There is a scene when the survivors reach Las Vegas and take the time to play the slor machines. It is a ghost town, and there is no money to be won, but they laugh and have a good time all while fantasizing the place is packed with people enjoying themselves. But then you get bad camera tricks showing cockroaches eating Paul Winfield. Not that watching Winfield devoured by cockroaches does not have a certain amusement factor. Darmok and Gillard when the cockroaches feast.

To add a human element, Tannen and Denton pick up two survivors, a beautiful girl and a kid. They both bond quickly with Tannen as opposed to the more authoritative Denton. There is a quick scene in which the kid subtlety emulates Denton, as though he admires him, but Denton pays no mind and that is pretty much the end of it. There appears to be a mized ,essage in the film. On the one hand, the more misfit characters say the world would not have been destroyed if everyone had been like them. Well, okay. Pretty much every character but Denton does act that way. Yet Denton is the guy who gets them safely across the united states and into Albany, so he did save the day. Exactly whose philosophy of life is best? We are apparently not supposed to dwell on that, because this is not a particularly introspective film.

It is a not a very good one, either, which is a surprise as far as the cast is concerned. George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, Jackie Earle Haley, and Dominique Sanda do what they can with the bare bones script with which they have to work. What few bright spots they can muster are completely overshadowed by terrible special effects. What the filmmakers wanted to do was too ambitious for their resources. The cast was there to make this a small, personal film about survival, but instead it is a gaudy science fiction film. So bad it is good? Not especially, but I do not hate it. Watch it only after you have run out of far better films in the genre.

Rating: ** (out of 5)

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