DVD Review: Damnation Alley

The vans were a magical form of transportation in the ‘70s. They promised us a world of endless travel with a bed in the back for endless love. Films like The Van, Van Nuys Blvd and Super Van made them the dream machine for living the good life. Little did we know that a van can also help you survive in a post-apocalyptic nuclear holocaust wasteland. Damnation Alley let us know that a huge van could battle giant scorpions, tornadoes, floods, mutant humaniods and the greatest troubled teen actor of our time.

Deep beneath the ground of California is an Air Force missile base. It seems like just another normal day when Major Sam Denton (A-Team‘s George Peppard) and Lt. Jake Tanner (Air Wolf‘s Jan-Michael Vincent) clock in to main an ICBM silo. Things are loose as they check in with Airman Keegan (Gordon’s War‘s Paul Winfield). But suddenly during their shift they get the code to launch. Somebody has fired nuclear missiles on America and it’s time to attack. The atomic firepower in World War III causes the Earth to go off axis. But even with the nuclear holocaust, the missile base is safe. The military men adapt to life in their desert that features giant scorpions. This happy time doesn’t last long when a cigarette causes more damage than any Soviet ICBM. The survivors get on board the two Landmasters to find a rumored pocket of humanity in Albany, New York. The Landmaster is a mega-van that can handle the rough terrain. They must cross the foreboding Damnation Alley.

Denton, Tanner and Keegan run across major ugliness on the devastated cross country route. There are massive tornado storms. Cockroaches seem simple enough, but now they devour everything not made of metal, concrete or bone. There are a few nice things they encounter including Janice (The Garden of the Finzi Continis‘ Dominique Sanda) in the remnants of Las Vegas. Oddly enough Circus Circus survived the blasts. Further along the road they meet up with Billy (Watchmen‘s Jackie Earle Haley). He’s a teenage survivor more eager to learn how to ride a motorcycle than visit Albany. Is there really a human outpost on the other side of the continent?

Once more Jackie Earle Haley proves that he was the cinema’s greatest troubled teen actor. He’s got the look of a kid that’s been roaming the wastelands. He doesn’t recycle Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears since he can’t ride a bike and doesn’t want to smoke. He also proves to be extremely valuable when the survivors are captured by mutated hillbillies. While he doesn’t pop up until the last part of the film, Haley will dominate your memory of the movie.

The special effects go form impressive to laughable. The Landmaster is a sight to behold. It’s a mean machine that puts a Hummer to shame. The cheap effects include the cockroaches and the giant scorpions. They mess with the colors of the sky to show how the nuclear bombs have altered the environment. The strangest special effects are George Peppard’s mustache and Southern accent. The black thick mustache looks like it was from Captain Kangaroo: The Early Days. It really doesn’t work with his graying hair. His accent is a bit too forced and vanishes at key moments in the movie.

Director Jack Smight was on a bit of a hot streak having helmed Airport 1975 and Midway. Along with numerous TV shows, Smight called the shots on two episodes of Banacek for Peppard. He passed away in 2003 which explains his lack of cooperation. While Damnation Alley wasn’t a box office hit, it’s a great cult film with a cast as huge as its superstar van.

The video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The restored film brings out the best and worst qualities on the special effects. You’ll laugh at the mutant insects yet be thrilled at the Landmaster. The audio includes three mixes. You can choose between Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS ES 6.1 and Dolby Digital Stereo. How do you like the end of the world whipping around your ears?

Commentary Track with Producer Paul Maslansky gives a lot of details from the set. He points out how this was going to be Fox’s Big Christmas picture. Unfortunately Fox’s Big Summer picture was still going strong. What was that film? Star Wars was packing the seats even in the winter months. He admits he never read the book.

Trailer and TV spots (2:51) sell the post nuclear apocalypse angle along with the cool van.

Survival Run (11:31) interviews co-screen writer Alan Sharp. Turns out he didn’t read the novel when he got his hands on the script.

Road to Hell (13:21) tracks the production through producer Jerome Zellman’s journey. He explains Sound 360.

LandMaster Tales (10:11) gives the background on the mega-vehicles. Car designer Dean Jeffries (the guy behind the Monkeemobile) gives the details. The Landmaster was rather functional and not merely movie magic. He says Steve McQueen wanted $2 million to star in Damnation Alley. Dean reused Landmaster for other projects. It appeared on Get a Life. He sold it to a collector, but the guy lets him borrow it for shows.

Damnation Alley is a ‘70s cult classic vision of nuclear armageddon. No matter what the atomic bombs do, you can survive if you have a great van. Jackie Earle Haley nearly steals the film from everyone except the Landmaster.

Shout! Factory presents Damnation Alley Directed by Jack Smight. Starring: George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield and Jackie Earle Haley. Written by: Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller. Running time: 91 minutes. Rating: PG. Released on DVD: July 12, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.

Tags: ,