Review: Damnation Alley

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

The gripping first few sequences of Damnation Alley are linked by slow-fade-to-black/ slow-fade-in interludes reminiscent of the time-passes-things-change ambience of 2001: A Space Odyssey; but the aimlessness of inconclusive ideas and what passes for special visual effects leave this new day-after-Doomsday thriller well out of the running in comparison with Kubrick’s masterpiece. There are pretensions aplenty, but the film tends to hinge on crucial assumptions that remain unexplained. The city of Albany, New York, survives as an unscathed verdant oasis through a massive nuclear strike that destroys most of the United States, and furious ecological disasters that follow; there is no evidence of radiation sickness in any of the survivors, despite the fact that they go outside only weeks after the holocaust. More trivial questions bother the mind as well, such as why Air Force Major Eugene Denton’s white shirt stays spotless throughout a cross-country odyssey involving tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, firestorms, and combat with mountain men left over from Deliverance and cockroaches left over from Bug. The pictures bother the eye the same way. Spectacular color effects are virtually ruined by brutally mismatched film stocks, painfully obvious composite splits, shaky rear-projection, unsteady matte lines. The disorienting effect created is quite different from the one that was apparently intended.

Here and there one finds hints that this whole film is different from what was originally intended. The silent, uncredited, but camera-emphasized presence, in a few early scenes, of Murray Hamilton as a brooding general, and someone who looks like Gilbert Roland as a more animated colonel, bears mute evidence that there was once more to Damnation Alley than there is now. The short-lived title change, during production, to Survival Run was accompanied by the highly touted intentions of the producers to make the film a “positive” story, about survival. They must have heard disaster films are out and the happy ending is on the way back. But their hearts weren’t in it; they changed the title back to that of Roger Zelazny’s novel, and the disaster portions of the movie turned out to be a lot better than the forced optimism of the happy ending, which cheerfully ignores the ambiguity of experience and depth of character the film builds up through most of its length. Smight is at pains to stress the differences in temperament between Denton (George Peppard) and his dropout lieutenant, Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), but the confrontation we are led to expect between them is reduced to a cute line at the end. Similarly, the assertion of Billy (Jackie Earle Haley)—the boy adopted by the cross-country travelers—that “nothin’ good ever happens by itself” seems to promise a struggle before this out-of-joint time is set right; but a firestorm and a tidal wave come along and, deus-ex-machina, the old Earth steadies itself once again, the ecological nightmare is over, and we return to environmental normalcy so abruptly that it looks like nothing ever really happened. Visually, it might as well be an it-was-all-a-dream copout.

Most intriguing of all is the utter inconsequentiality of a carefully built atmosphere of sexual deprivation. Even before the holocaust the men in a California missile base are pretty horny; afterwards, trapped for weeks in a concrete, underground, womanless world, they seethe with tangible sexual passion, culminating in the furious explosion of the base, caused by a cigarette dropped onto a nude pin-up by a daydreaming missile man. Yet later, even with the desirable Janice (Dominique Sanda) among them, Denton and Tanner remain discreetly celibate: Playboy, the Bible, and cold showers sustain all three, and the film unaccountably ends with no pass attempted (except by one demented mountain man) and all sexual appetite utterly unwhetted.

Now Jack Smight is not without talent—witness the uneven but memorable successes of Rabbit, Run and No Way to Treat a Lady—but Damnation Alley comes off like a second helping of The Illustrated Man: a promising science fiction experiment watered down to little more than a handful of interesting, half-baked visual ideas. There are, as in The Illustrated Man, a few strong moments: the economy with which Smight creates (to no avail) the climate of sexual tension, and the mounting antagonism between Denton and Tanner; the unselfconscious irony of Denton’s wry comment, when a cockroach crawls out of a manhole—”Is there a restaurant down there?”—when he is shortly to find that he and his comrades are the restaurant and the roaches are the guests; or, best of all, the real horror of the opening sequence, with airmen working systematically at a job they’ve done many times before in exercise, unemotional, only half-believing that they are watching the end of the world in a row of lighted dots on a computer screen. Those first few minutes made me think Damnation Alley really had something. But not this time, folks. The team of survivors, crossing the country in a huge, all-purpose vehicle called a Landmaster, keep running into trouble because they keep stopping to try to find gasoline to keep the monster going. They have a lot of adventures, and they never find any gasoline, and it really doesn’t matter because the Landmaster never runs out of gas anyway. Only the film does, and way too soon.

© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow

DAMNATION ALLEY
Direction. Jack Smight. Screenplay: Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller, after the novel by Roger Zelazny. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. Art direction: Preston Ames. Special visual effects: Don Weed, Frank Van Der Veer, Linwood Dunn. Insect sequences: Ken Middleham. Editing: Frank J. Urioste. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Jerome M. Zeitman, Paul Maslansky .
The players: George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Dominique Sanda, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Winfield, Kip Niven, Robert Donner, Seamon Glass, Trent Dolan, Murray Hamilton.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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