Stars Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Dominique Sanda, Paul Winfield.
Director Jack Smight
Released by Shout 2011
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
1977 was a banner year for science fiction films, as were much of the seventies. That year saw the release of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and lest we get too high minded also The Island of Dr. Moreau (the second one), Demon Seed and The Kingdom of the Spiders. Word was out that Roger Zelazny’s novel, Damnation Alley was coming to the screen. Science Fiction fans tended to be rather well informed and well, well read, too. The genre always tipped back and forth between thought provoking excursions of the intellect and good old pulp action, adventure stories. A favorite sub genre was the post-apocalyptic thriller that included Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, Thomas M. Dish’s The Ruins of The Earth anthology and Richard Matheson’s classic, I Am Legend. We saw many of these make it onto the local movie theater screens in that fantastic decade. Cornel (The Naked Prey) Wilde’s No Blade of Grass, The Omega Man and the deliciously subversive A Boy and His Dog from Harlan Ellison all hit the screen. It’s no coincidence that these were all adapted from classic Science Fiction books and stories. There was something of a built in fan base to be sure, but more than that these tales came from writers who could really spin a yarn. Many of them wrote tons of stories for the pulp magazines and quite a few became TV and movie screenwriters. These guys could mix heady propositions with action and mayhem as easy as peanut butter and jelly. William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison and many like them have credits scattered from The Twilight Zone to The Outer Limits to AIP double bills you can now find as Midnite Movie DVDs.
Some like Roger Zelazny were a bit miffed at what they did to their work. But that’s show bizz and the books are still the same great books no matter how the films turned out. A writer has paper and how they choose to fill it is up to them. Movies are collaborative and since they are very expensive more than a few folks have an opinion. Will a good story survive that? Sure. But sometimes you have to add a few armor-plated cockroaches.
Damnation Alley the novel has a character named Hell Tanner that is very much a Snake Plisskin from Escape From New York kind of guy. He gets sprung from prison if he’ll agree to a sure suicide mission to take a small select group of people across the stretch of desolate dangerous land between California and the East that has become known as Damnation Alley. Sort of a Mad Max meets the Gauntlet set up. It’s a great bit and with a few tweaks that’s exactly what the movie sets out to do.
Jan-Michael Vincent who’d become a longhaired action movie staple plays Tanner. George Peppard fresh from the TV series Banacek re-teams with director Jack Smight who’d done a few episodes with him. They’re stationed in the air force’s top-secret bunker with the doomsday missiles and are the ones that actually push the buttons for the counter strikes that wipe out much of the world. The remaining few are left to be led by the hard drinking Mayor of Shark Town himself, Murray Hamilton. A careless fire blows up all but our duo and Paul Winfield (Gordon’s War) who spent most of his time painting flowers and plants on the sides of the bunkers. These tough guys drive a supped up warrior Winnebago across the wasteland to find the last remaining vestige of civilization. This is no Lost in Space vehicle. The Landmaster, as it’s called, turns from a flexible middle, can drive up a 90 degree hill, plows over rocks, goes in the water and carries a heavy arsenal – and a shower. This baby really rocks, too. You can see it trucking along with the triangular three wheels to each side of the axle design courtesy of Dean Jeffries. Jeffries is responsible for many of the coolest cars in pop culture including The Green Hornet’s Black Beauty, the moon buggy in Diamonds Are Forever, and The Monkeemobile. He built the Batmobile and also designed those iconic energy tubes for the Enterprise ship in Star Trek.
Along the way they stop in Las Vegas. There is a neat scene where they all play the slot machines and we hear the sounds of a happy crowd mixed in. It’s a fantasy but easy to get caught up in their momentary respite from the lonely road. Even tough ass General Peppard
cuts loose. There they discover another survivor, Dominque Sanda. She was spared since some smooth talking jerk took her to the bomb shelter to have his way with her. She has nice hair, a French accent and screams a lot. They also pick up Jackie Early Hayley (Breaking Away) who’s a wild kid who is very good at throwing rocks. Most of the time they drive like a family in an enormous RV, only the skies are a constant wash of psychedelic swirls and storms. There is not a lot of action here. At one city they make a pit stop in, they encounter hordes of non-squashable vicious cockroaches. We see some nice motorcycle riding up stairways, down halls and a very cool jump from a freshly broken window to a nearby rooftop. The other action portion comes in the form of what looks like post-apocalyptic hillbillies. They all tote shotguns and want to have a little one on one time with Dominique.
Though we do get to see the Landmaster’s arsenal blow up some buildings, there are long stretches that just roll along. Jan-Michael Vincent has a likeable presence and carries any scene he is in well. Early on he and Paul Winfield’s character establish a nice rapport. Both have quit the military and share an easy-going deal with each day as it comes attitude. Unfortunately that does not get developed very well. George Peppard does an odd southern accent and smokes cigarettes incessantly. Where does he get all those smokes? The effects are pretty poor but that doesn’t really bother you in this one. Initially when we seen Jan-Michael riding his motorcycle around giant scorpions it almost looks like they brought in Bert I. Gordon of Colossal Man fame to handle the job. However as we see the fireworks blanket the sky in a variety of colors and then get a look at those mean cockroaches everything is ok. There are some very harsh edges when characters appear in front of other screens. Yes, it is hokey and not up to the level of others films made at that time, but there is a feel about this film that makes that fine. You jump in that cool big-wheeled vehicle and enjoy the ride, that’s all. This is second tier science fiction here. This is not one of Charlton Heston’s films and if you let George Peppard do the driving it’s a nice trip. Again, that Landmaster is so cool to watch and you know it really works, too!
Video – Shout presents the film in the original 2.35:1 cinemascope ratio, anamorphically enhanced in what is by and large a very nice viewing experience. You can see changeover dots in the upper right hand corners on some of the reels and there are some scratches but this is not bad at all. The scenes outdoors in the natural light look terrific. Once the special effects start things get dodgy but it is true to the way the film looked in theaters. Those were the choices the production made. There is grain and a sense of overdrive to some of the colors but that’s how this film was shot. The print also appears to have been nicely washed, shaved and prepared for the transfer.
Audio –You get two channel stereo, dobly digital mix and DTS, all in English language with no subtitle choices. If you select the DTS Matrix choice, everyone in the neighborhood is gonna know you’re watching another one of those films with all those explosions again! Jerry Goldsmith’s familiar sounding score hits all the right notes. That track really rocks and has some nice separation of sound. There are others tracks that are fine, but if your rig can support this one go for it.
Extras – No chapter stops, trailer, TV spot and commentary with the producer, Paul Maslansky. There are three featurettes. Survival Run is an interview with co-screenwriter Alan Sharp. Much of what he says he did in polishing the script, he did very poorly and this is not very rewarding. Next is Road to Hell with producer Paul explaining that this was his first production. It really shows and he is a dull speaker. The last one, Landmaster Tales is a very nice chat with Dean Jeffries who designed and built the vehicle that is the real star of the movie. He works in a story about Steve McQueen. This guy is a wonderfully creative designer and it’s a treat to spend this segment’s time with him. I would imagine that most viewers would elect to watch these after seeing the film. Each one is padded out needlessly with too many scenes from the film we just saw. Shout has done a better job on these with other releases.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
DVD – Good
Movie – Good
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin