As far as sci-fi films go, there is before Star Wars and after; the film forever altered the landscape and the box office with an old fashioned sense of adventure long relegated to Hollywood’s past. But what about during Star Wars? After all, Twentieth Century Fox was pushing their bet towards another property for prosperity: the post-apocalyptic Damnation Alley, an adaptation of the hit 1969 novel by Roger Zelazny. We all know which brought in the Fox funds, and it certainly wasn’t this goofy Stagecoach tribute (as opposed to SW’s The Hidden Fortress one). But as The Little Fox That Didn’t, Damnation Alley was this kid’s sci-fi horror boogie; seven and alone, just me and The Landmaster military RV that costars.
There’s no need to call child services; growing up in a small town, I saw many a film solo - that darkened screen was my closest friend. (I had friends; just let a man wax for a moment, would you?) Damnation Alley may occasionally feel one step removed from Disney live action at the time (not a problem for me), but Buick-sized scorpions and flesh eating cockroaches were more than enough cruel fuel for a developing mind. And mine as well.
We start off in an underground military installation, as the boys (Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, and Paul Winfield) get the call to launch the missiles. It’s the big one - with Russia, of course - and after a less than impressive light show, we find our heroes in a now nearly uninhabitable land. Two years appears to have magically cleared all the radioactive dust, and our crew spend their days going from town to town (en route to Albany) looking for supplies and other survivors; they meet a young French waitress (Dominique Sanda) in Vegas who joins up, yet is forced to leave behind her millions of ravenous roaches. Oh well; what they lose in steel-plated bugs they gain in feral lad and Hollywood It Boy Jackie Earl Haley, fresh off the massive success of The Bad News Bears (‘76). With their family unit loosely in place they make their way towards Albany; will they make it to the other survivors, and can they get through Damnation Alley?
The skies run red but not much else does in Damnation Alley. This is firmly ensconced in PG Land, but ‘70s style; this means on your trip you get to witness just enough carnage (hi, cockaroaches!) to think you’ve gotten away with something naughty. As a child, that is.
No, for the grownup mindset you get a sparsely populated monomyth with a cast driving different ways on the roads to success; unobtrusive direction from vet Jack Smight (Airport 1975); and laughable - even then, to a kid - matte and green screen work.
But even though the kid may agree they’re laughable, the effects are part and parcel of their experience; from the moment I saw Vincent “dodge” the scorpions on his motorbike I knew it was a film custom fit for that kid needing to get his toy through the giant bugs and lava and arrive safely to welcoming arms. (Lava sold separately, as there’s none in the film.) There is nothing epic about the mythmaking of Damnation Alley - to an adult. For a child, this is rainy Sunday afternoon playfare, nothing more needed than peril and persistence.
Now, let’s not assign too much import into little Scottie’s stewing synapses; it just so happens that children become so wrapped up in story that dodgy looking critters or incredible plot developments pass by as a shimmering pinwheel until the credits end. Kids always catch the spirit of what’s on the screen; what a movie feels like. While an adult would (and will) roll their eyes at Vincent’s cheesy puns or Peppard’s puffed chest and ‘70s key party moustache, most kids just accept. (The moustache was awesome then, and is awesome now.) They accept the cardboard characters and routine dialogue in exchange for a story of derring-do and danger. Damnation Alley offers - while not overflowing - its share.
The paper thin archetypes are the perfect weight for a film that doesn’t have the time for a lot of heavy introspection - nor exposition. But how much is really needed, anyway? How do we require more than the child: People over here need to get to the people over there without dying. We good? Good.
Reductive? You bet; but the characters are beholden to the plot and nothing more. Peppard’s majestic lip curtain leads the charge along with a beast of a recreational vehicle and an accent that goes from Detroit to Leghorn on a whim; Vincent is hair, teeth, and disarming smile; Sanda makes for a fresh faced yet alluring damsel; and Haley’s impish halo comes away untarnished. A mentor, a hero, a damsel, a child. All present, with the exception of one thing: A villain. Flesh eating bugs are swell, but they’re just a distraction, a detour. This grown up can’t help but see Damnation Alley as a parable for rebirth amongst terrible times; the kid just thinks cannibalistic cockroaches are cool. Guess who I’m hanging with?
Damnation Alley is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DJANGO THE BASTARD (1969)