DVD Review: Damnation Alley
DVD Review – Damnation Alley
Released By: Shout Factory
Release Date: July 12, 2011
Number of Discs: 1
Approximate Running Time: 91 Minutes
Special Features: Producer Commentary Track, Trailers, Featurettes
Suggested Price: $19.93
The Source: After nuclear war has devastated most of the planet, a small group of survivors at a remote Air Force base head off in search of others following the only radio transmissions they have received in months. Travelling in an armored RV called the Landmaster; they battle super roaches, hostile mutants, and deadly weather on their cross country trek.
The Fanboy Factor: Based extremely loosely on an excellent novel by Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley was in production in 1977 when Star Wars, also released by 20th Century Fox, hit the theaters and redefined the science fiction film. Following an act like that only a few months later, it was unfairly judged and dismissed by fans but still managed to garner a small cult following. Sketchy showings on television and a very limited home video release make this DVD a welcomed site for those of us who do remember this film fondly.
The film version of Damnation Alley really only shares the flimsiest of connections with the novel – the same title, the cross country trip after nuclear war has ravaged the surface of the Earth, and the name of one character. Outside of this, the plot and motivations of the movie are entirely its own which is both a plus and a minus. On the positive side, the movie gives us an ever changing group of likable characters involved in a few tense situations in some interesting post-nuclear settings. The major detraction is a slow moving story and an all too convenient happy ending.
The story plays out in three uneven acts with the first two brief segments providing the set up for the third. In part one, the crew at a remote Air Force base in the middle of the desert witness an exchange of nuclear attacks that scorch the surface of the world and shift it off its axis. The second segment finds the officers and soldiers trapped at the base slowly burning out and this fatigue causes an accident that destroys the entire underground complex. For the final chapter, the mismatched survivors – two career military men and two ex-soldiers who defected after the war, are forced to work together and seek out permanent shelter elsewhere.
The final and longest section of the film finds the uneasy group traveling across country to Albany, New York where they hope to find another pocket of survivors based on an automated radio transmission they have received. The route they must take across the inhospitable remains of the surface world is nicknamed Damnation Alley. Their mode of transport is the highlight of the film, the gigantic tri-wheeled recreational vehicle from Hell called the Landmaster. As described by one character early on, it can supposedly float on water, operate with either axel out of commission, and it packs front mounted machine guns and a rather nasty looking rear rocket launcher.
The film stars the always enjoyable George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent as the main pair of mismatched military men who are stuck with each other after the rest of the base is destroyed. Along the way they pick up token female Dominique Sanda, and former Bad News Bear (and future Freddy Kruger!) Jackie Earle Haley. The rag tag roadies fight off swarms of flesh eating cockroaches; some radiation ravaged hillbillies, and finally weather the mother of all storms on their journey. This latter event causes the world to shift back to its original position and a bright new day dawns as they find the almost too normal looking community in Albany.
Like the story, the special effects in Damnation Alley are a mixed bag. The opticals depicting the weather are well done and are shown in the background throughout most of the film. More specific pieces like giant scorpions in the desert and the roach hordes in the city do not hold up as well. The flood at the film’s climax also doesn’t work as well as it could have due to the use of an unconvincing model in some of the shots after the real Landmaster filled with water and almost sank! When the film was released to the theaters, the soundtrack was presented in a process called Sound 360 that utilized special speakers in the back of the theater so that it surrounded the audience. As a kid, I sat through this film twice and remember the storm scenes being especially loud and entertaining but Sound 360 was never used again.
The Product: As is typical with most of their DVD releases, Shout Factory has done an excellent job on Damnation Alley, not the least of which is a beautiful new widescreen transfer. In addition to trailers and television spots, the extras include a feature length commentary with producer Paul Maslansky and three featurettes. Survival Run discuss the differences between the movie and the book it was adapted from but doesn’t emphasize the ultimate severity of the gap. Road to Hell is a short making of documentary that focuses on the film’s special effects. Finally, Landmaster Tales gives fans an inside look at the creation and history of the vehicle that became more famous than the movie. The only thing missing is outtake footage that was reinstated for the film’s original television screenings.
The Bottom Line: The last legitimate US release of this film was on videocassette in 1985 so it has been long overdue for the special edition treatment Shout Factory has afforded it. For anyone who has never seen Damnation Alley before, it is certainly worth a look and anyone who has seen it will probably want to revisited this entertaining little movie that may not have lived up to its potential but was still a lot of fun.