Hollywood loves a good disaster movie and one of the popular sub-genres of that is the post-apocalyptic film where heroes must survive in a topsy-turvy world after some natural or man-made disaster. In the case of Damnation Alley they decided to adapt a novel by science fiction author Roger Zelazny that dealt with life after a nuclear war. To call this movie a loose adaptation is being kind.
The heroes of our story are airmen 1st Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard) who share ICBM silo duty at an Air Force base in the California desert. Denton does not like Tanner and plans on having him transferred as soon as possible, but before he even has a chance to file the necessary paperwork the Russians launch a full scale nuclear attack and the world as we know it ends.
The movie jumps ahead two years and we are told in text, “The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, 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 forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.”
With that kind of opening one might expect a serious film along the lines of On the Beach or the Andromeda Strain but instead we get jaunty adventure tale that takes through an atomic wasteland populated by giant scorpions and irradiated rednecks.
At some point in those two years Tanner has quit the Air Force, along with ex-airman Tom Keegan (Paul Winfield), and spends most his time riding his motorcycle to the nearby cities looking for action. When a careless airman falls asleep with a lit cigarette results in a fire destroying the base and all within it it’s up to Tanner and Keegan to join up with the only other two survivors, Denton and Lieutenant Tom Perry (Kip Niven), who were in an underground garage bunker when the explosion happened.
What Denton and Perry had been working on in the garage when the base exploded were two amazing “Landmasters” which are huge articulated armored personal carriers that travel on rotating tri-wheels that make it capable of climbing 60-degree inclines and operating in water. To say these are the coolest RVs in the history of RVs is a vast understatement.
Denton is set on heading to Albany, New York as that is the source of a lone automated radio transmission that they’ve been receiving over the last two years, and though there is no proof that there is a live person in Albany it’s as good a place as any to go. Landmaster One and Landmaster Two hit the road with Denton’s route taking them between the heavily irradiated zones, a route he calls “Damnation Alley.”
Unfortunately for Perry his character simply exists to be the first person to demonstrate how dangerous this trip is going to be and is killed when Landmaster Two is flipped over during a massive storm, a storm that Tanner drove through against Perry’s advice. Denton won’t admit that Tanner made the right call, as staying put is what got Perry dead, because Denton is a huge dick. What is surprising is that on board the destroyed Landmaster was Keegan and he gets off with just a banged up leg which is pretty amazing considering he’s a black guy in a science fiction movie.
Tanner, Denton and Keegan pull into Las Vegas because one does not drive through Nevada and not stop in Las Vegas. It’s just not done. Tanner and Keegan have fun playing the slots and even Denton seems to be lightening up.
The whooping it up at the slots draws the attention of Janice (Dominique Sanda) who was having sex with her boss in the hotel bomb shelter when the nukes hit. What’s most interesting about her character is one would assume her and Tanner would hook up, and though she does ride on the back of his bike during a shopping excursion in Salt Lake City no sexual tensions ever develop between them. Speaking of their stop in Salt Lake City, this is when they run into a mass of mutated flesh stripping cockroaches.
Poor Keegan is replaced by Billy (Jackie Earle Haley) a teen-age boy they find living alone in the desert who ingratiates himself into the group by pelting rocks at Tanner. This new family unit run into more trouble when they stop at a roadside diner for supplies and encounter some crazed irradiated rednecks that want the Landmaster and Janice. Before things can get too rapey Billy proves his worth by taking out the lead redneck (Robert Donner) with a well thrown rock and is able to get a gun to Tanner.
It’s at this point that the screenwriter seems to have lost interest and the film wraps up rather quickly; they stop off in Detroit to get parts for the Landmaster’s damaged drivetrain. It’s while rummaging through a junkyard that the world decides to shift back on its proper axis. A massive flood engulfs the Landmaster, but because of its amphibious nature they are able to continue along to Albany where they are greeted by joyous populace.
The episodic nature of this movie makes one wonder if it would have made a better mini-series than a movie and then would have had a more satisfying conclusion than Tanner and Billy just riding up into a group of happy people… roll credits. This movie did not do well; between the poor script and the embarrassingly bad special effects it really didn’t stand much of a chance, not to mention it followed Fox’s other science fiction movie that year Star Wars.
Director Jack Smight did a serviceable job with the budget and materials at hand but aside from the badass Landmaster there isn’t much to recommend to viewers and no surprise that author Roger Zelazny is no fan as it has almost no similarities to his book.
There are certainly worse post-apocalyptic films out there, and this one does star an amazing vehicle, and make no mistake the Landmaster is the star of this movie as it gets way more screen time than either George Peppard or Jan-Michael Vincent do.