Damnation Alley/Survival Run (1977) **Ĺ
Ah, the end of the world... From the vantage point of the 21st century, itís hard to believe that three generations spent a good 50 years expecting it to arrive any day now. Hell, I was part of the last of those generations, and it still barely seems real to me anymore. So itís funny how strong an effect the nuclear apocalypse movies of the late 50ís and late 70ís can still have on me. Even a dud like DEFCON-4 can get me thinking about what a scary time the 80ís (and presumably the three prior decades that I either donít remember clearly or wasnít around for at all) were, provided the apocalypse sequence itself is sufficiently well handled. The same is true of Damnation Alley/Survival Run, a somewhat earlier treatment of atomic apocalypse and its immediate aftermath. Damnation Alley has acquired something of a bad reputation over the years, and to some extent I can understand why. I know, for example, that when I first saw it many, many years ago, it seemed dull and overlong, spending far too much time on images of futuristic vehicles tooling aimlessly across an endless succession of arid landscapes. Furthermore, the early part of the movie seems to promise a number of things that the rest of it never bothers to deliver. Then again, Damnation Alleyís vision of post-nuclear America is unusually convincing, and much more serious than what would become the norm in the 1980ís. The nuclear exchange with which it opens is also frighteningly realistic, having been cobbled artfully together from Air Force footage of real ICBM test launches.
As for the immediate result of that nuclear exchange, I think Iíll let the filmmakers speak for themselves:
One of the few places to survive the destruction was the headquarters of the 123rd Strategic Missile Wing of the US Air Force, a blast-, flash-, and radiation-proof bunker buried in the inhospitable Arizona desert. For the first two years after the war, life at the base has been an extremely monotonous affair. Between the lingering radiation, the annihilation of all the nearby population centers, and the packs of man-sized scorpions that now roam the desert, it is neither safe nor productive to leave the bunker for any length of time, and just about all the ex-airmen have to relieve the monotony of their ritualistically enacted regimen of now-irrelevant drills and maneuvers is a dwindling supply of alcohol and cigarettes, along with a small stash of old books and porno mags. Itís a dismal life, but the unitís second-in-command, Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard, from Battle Beyond the Stars, who also turned up in Ultra Warrior through the miracle of recycled footage), is working on a project to restore some sense of purpose to the men under his leadership. The major has been spending his time cannibalizing most of his unitís heavy machinery into a pair of what he calls ďLandmasters,Ē heavily armed and armored all-terrain vehicles capable of operating almost indefinitely in extremely hostile environments. Denton has also identified a relatively safe routeó which he dubs ďDamnation AlleyĒó between his base and Albany, New York, which the Landmasters should be able to traverse without much difficulty. Why Albany? Because thatís the one place that is still sending out any kind of radio signals to the rest of the country, a recorded message that repeats itself every morning at about 10:00. Now it may well be that whoever taped that message has died in the intervening time, but at least it holds out some hope that the men of the 123rd Strategic Missile Wing arenít all thatís left of humanity.
As it happens, though, Denton is forced to start on his pilgrimage rather sooner than he had expected. One day, a careless accident with a cigarette, a Playboy centerfold, and a canister of explosive gas leads to the almost complete destruction of the base, and the death of virtually everyone in it. The only survivors are Major Denton himself, an enlisted man named Airman Perry (Kip Niven, of Earthquake! and Airport 1975, graduating now to the ultimate disaster scenario), and two former officers who pointedly resigned their commissions after playing their appointed roles in the end of the world. Neither Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent, who later became one of Fred Olen Rayís favorite suppliers of low-cost name recognitionó look for him in Alienator and Haunting Fear) nor Keegan (Paul Winfield, from The Terminator and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is the sort of person Denton would ideally like to have riding the Landmasters to Albany with him, but itís not like he has much choice in the matter anymore. Teaming Keegan with Perry and Tanner with himself, Denton stocks up the Landmasters with food, fuel, water, and ammunition, and sets out on the long road to Albany.
This is the point at which Damnation Alley turns into a typically episodic trek movie. On the way across the country, our heroes will face lots of freakish and deadly weather, an untimely mechanical malfunction or two, the millions of carnivorous cockroaches that have taken over Salt Lake City, the drowning of Detroit in a tidal wave (who knew they had tsunamis on the Great Lakes?), and even a few other scattered human survivorsó some of them friendly, some of them most definitely not. What they wonít face are those giant scorpions we see in the first postwar scene, an oversight that I remember finding especially galling when I saw Damnation Alley as a child. Between those huge bugs and all the rocket launchers and machine cannons bristling from the Landmastersí hulls, the first half-hour creates the impression that this movie is going to be far more action-oriented than is in fact the case, and that (along with the revelation that the killer roaches of Salt Lake City are merely very large instead of properly giant) seems to be what accounts for most peopleís disappointment with the film. But while I donít deny that it is disappointing, I also donít think Damnation Alley is nearly the turkey that its reputation would suggest. If nothing else, it deserves props for its depiction of nuclear war, and for the very well-played Salt Lake City sequence. I especially liked the way the filmmakers hinted at the threat posed by the roaches. Not only is the town full of eerily picked-clean skeletons, but everything remotely edible in the entire city is goneó the wigs and clothing on the mannequins in a department store, all the fabric, leather, and vinyl in the cars by the side of the road, even automobile tires and the rubber hoses on the pumps at a gas station. I grant you, those two fairly early scenes were as good as the movie got, and it never got that good again afterward, but neither did Damnation Alley ever do anything to earn my active contempt. I even thought the cheesy laser effects superimposed on the sky in an effort to represent the unnatural post-nuclear meteorological phenomena were pretty cooló by 1977 standards, anyway. Itís certainly no classic, but it doesnít strike me as an outright failure, either.