In 1977, no one at 20th Century FOX expected Star Wars to be the blockbuster it turned out to be. They had another science fiction film that they expected to rake in the dough, Damnation Alley.
The creators of the game series Fallout listed this film as a major influence. There is even an add-on in Fallout: Vegas called Lonesome Road that has a lot of elements that closely match the film.
Based on a well-regarded Roger Zelazny novel and directed by Jack Smight, the film was intended to be a rousing post-apocalyptic action film featuring mutated bugs and a bad ass armored vehicle. It turned out to be a failure at the box office due to special effects that even classic Doctor Who would not have aired.
But the one thing that shines in this horrible film is the cast, especially Jan-Michael Vincent.
The story is about a small group of survivors at a military installation who survived World War 3 and attempt to drive across the desolate wasteland to find more survivors. Hopefully their specially built vehicle will protect them from the freakish weather, mutated plant/animal life, and other dangers along the way.
Here is a look at the film’s trailer…
George Peppard playing Major Denton and Jan-Michael Vincent as Tanner are two soldiers living in an underground bunker somewhere in the southwestern U.S. when the Russians launch nuclear missiles that decimate the country. They decide to make their way across the country to the only part of the U.S. that is still inhabitable. Unfortunately, the only way to get there is a narrow strip of not-quite lethal wasteland, dubbed by the leader of the expedition as “Damnation Alley”. As the name suggests, it’s no picnic. They set out in a pair of “LandMaster” armored vehicles, encountering various dangers and other survivors as they travel east.
They are joined by Paul Winfield (Captain Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) as artistic Keegan, Dominique Sandra as Janice, and Jackie Earl Haley (Rorschach in Watchmen) who plays Billy, a young boy they find on the trip.
The film starts with a very realistic depiction of a missile silo during the Russian attack. The high level of security and technology set a high bar that once the bombs have fallen the film never reaches again. Granted, the bulk of the effects were added after Star Wars was released since the studio thought it needed more punch to compete. Unfortunately, since the director and production staff had no idea those effects would be added, they did not film in a way that conducive to the additions.
This results in large sections of the film that are obviously green screen effects that take away any chance of the audience suspending their disbelief. The first use of green screen involved adding giant scorpions that are obviously shot with a macro lens that doesn’t match the shots of the desert setting.
There is a great joke in that first bit though, Tanner is riding a motorcycle through the desert and kicks a “woman” off so he can escape those scorpions. The woman turns out to be a mannequin that he was bringing back so Keegan had something new to draw.
This film was years before Peppard took the role that made him a household name, Hannibal on The A-Team. While he does turn in a great performance, it is Vincent’s Tanner that is the center of this film.
While Vincent would go on to star in his own 80s action TV series (Airwolf as Stringfellow Hawk) Tanner is a prototypical version of the same headstrong and witty style of character.
Vincent was considered for a time to be Hollywood’s golden boy. His dashing good looks, easy charm, and acting chops found him work with the likes of Burt Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Charles Bronson, and John Wayne.
Like a lot of actors, he would eventually succumb to vices like drugs and alcohol.
In this film, he is full of energy and charm. It is obvious that he enjoyed making the film as he spent most of it on the motorcycle. He gets to do some great action when they first find Billy and have to chase him to convince him they aren’t going to hurt him.
He bonds with Billy who wants to learn how to ride the motorcycle and gets a chance to drive the LandMaster with Tanner’s guidance. They end up facing off with some men that have been irradiated by the fallout who want to take the LandMaster and rape Janice.
When they reach a wrecker yard near Detroit the effects return to center stage as a storm that looks like something out of Ralph Bakshi animated film (which is ironic because this film was often put on a double bill with Bakshi’s Wizards) sees Tanner go off in search of Billy who went wandering the yard. They make it back to the vehicle just as a massive flood (done poorly) washes over Detroit and submerges them.
When they surface it seems that the earth has shifted on its axis to its proper place. The sky looks normal and bucolic orchestral music accompanies them to shore.
This film gives a clear indication of the skills and likability of Jan-Michael Vincent in a lead role that would serve him well on Airwolf just a few years later.
Even though this film is largely forgotten and Vincent’s career and life went off the rails in later years, his performance here is as strong as any other action star of the 70s.
As a final note, the book is VERY different and can be found on Amazon (click the cover).
Any other bad movies that had great acting you can think of? Let us know in the comments below.