The first time I saw “Damnation Alley”, it was on late night TV and I must have been about thirteen or fourteen. It had the perfect mixture of ingredients to immediately attain legendary status in my young psyche: it starred George Peppard, who played everybody’s fourth favourite character in “The A-Team”, it also starred Jan-Michael Vincent from “Airwolf” and Paul Winfield, who I knew as Captain Terrell from “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”. It took place in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and featured life-size, tricked out versions of Big Trak toys. And, as if all that wasn’t cool enough, it also had one of the characters being stripped down to their skeleton by radiation-proof flesh eating cockroaches.
Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny (he reportedly hated the finished film), “Damnation Alley” tells the story of three Californian Air Force missile base personnel who are compelled to retaliate to a Russian first strike, launching their missiles and initiating mutually assured destruction. Two years later, the resultant nuclear World War III has somehow tilted the Earth off its axis, causing violent electrical storms and creating giant desert scorpions. When the air force base is destroyed by an accidental fire, Major Denton (Peppard) decides their only option is to take the two Air Force ‘Landmasters’ (Big Traks) and try to find the source of a mysterious radio signal from Albany, New York. The only way to get there is a dangerous path navigating between the worst of the radiation affected dead zones: Damnation Alley. Along the way they encounter a deserted Las Vegas, pick up fellow survivors and battle radiation-crazed mountain men.
Watching it again recently, the main thing that struck me was how dark the tone is, especially around the scenes involving the female survivor Janice (Dominique Sanda). The film has a real undercurrent of sexual menace that I was completely oblivious to as a kid and it gives the whole film a much edgier feel than the rollicking adventure I remembered it as.
The special effects are decent if unspectacular for the time and the cast, which gets by largely on the cachet they bring from other projects is adequate. Peppard in particular seems uncomfortable in the Sci-Fi trappings of the Landmaster (and why does the Air Force have a Landmaster anyway?) but when I first saw the film, I wasn’t particularly interested in his paternal leader role, my focus was on the dashing and reckless Lieutenant Tanner (Vincent) who was much more in the Luke Skywalker mould. There’s even an appearance by a young Jackie Earle Haley, who by then already had a number of film and TV credits to his name, as Billy, a young boy who joins the cross-country journey with Janice.
It still stands up as a solid action adventure film now, even though some of its effects and contemporary social commentary hasn’t aged well. Like “The Final Countdown” it’s a film which would be a great subject for a remake or reboot, although I suspect it would probably be mandatory for it to feature a zombie plague if it were made now.
Well worth checking out if you haven’t seen it, it can’t really compete with the great sci-fi dystopia movies of the 1970s but as a piece of Cold War sci-fi nostalgia, it’s an entertaining ninety minutes.