Damnation Alley

When I was a young lad, I remember waiting in anticipation for the release of Damnation Alley. Star Wars had us all abuzz over anything science fiction.

Jane Michael Vincent stars as Lieutenant Jake Tanner an unorthodox Air Force officer, sharingICBM silo duty at an Air Force missile base in California with George Peppar. When the United States detects incoming nuclear missiles, Tanner and Denton “turn the key” to launch part of the retaliatory strike, initiating Doomsday. After launching their entire arsenal of nuclear missiles, Tanner and Denton witness nuclear devastation rain down all around them.

Two years later, the Earth has been tilted off its axis by World War III, radiation has mutated insect life, and the planet is constantly wracked by massive storms that cover the entire hemisphere. Military order at the base has broken down. Tanner has resigned his commission and Denton is considering going to Albany, New York to find the source of a lone radio transmission. Before they abandon the base, a rocket fuel explosion kills all but four men. Vincent, Peppard, Paul Winfield and Kip Niven. They decide to head out on a cross country adventure.

They set out in two Air Force “Landmasters,” giant 12-wheeled armored personnel carriers capable of climbing 60-degree inclines and operating in water. They must cross “Damnation Alley,” considered “the path of least resistance” between intense radiation areas. On their journey, they pick up two survivors, fight a band of crazed, savage shotgun-toting mountain men and encounter mutated “flesh stripping cockroaches” before reaching their destination.

Budgeted at $17,000,000 USD (huge bucks at the time), “Damnation Alley” was directed by Jack Smight, who had scored two consecutive box office hits in the previous two years . Filming began in July 1976 in the Imperial Valley in Southern California , as well as locations in Meteor Crater, Arizona, Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Mojave Desert in California.

Production was rife with problems – the devastated landscapes and giant mutated insects proved to be nearly impossible to create despite the large budget. A case in point a sequence involving giant 8-foot-long scorpions attacking a motorcycle was first attempted using full-scale scorpion props, but they did not work and the resulting footage was unacceptable. The solution was to use actual scorpions composited onto live action footage using the blue screen process in post production – unfortunately with poor results. Another action sequence with giant cockroaches used a combination of live Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches and large numbers of rubber bugs, which looked unconvincing onscreen as the strings pulling the fake insects were plainly visible.

The centerpiece of the film, the 12-wheeled, seven-ton “Landmaster”, performed much better than expected. The Landmaster was so convincing, in fact, that Fox demanded that more shots of the Landmaster appear in the film to make up for the flicks shortcomings. The decision was also made to add ” glowing radioactive skies” in post-production to add the visual excitement of a “post-Apocalyptic” world to the film.

Because of this last-minute decision, Damnation Alley was in post-production for over 10 months due to the difficult process of superimposing optical effects on the sky in eighty percent of the shots. It was during this period that 20th Century Fox released their “other” science fiction film for 1977. The studio had planned to release only two science fiction films that year, with Damnation Alley intended to be the blockbuster.

The other film — in which 20th Century Fox executives had very little confidence — was Star Wars.

Star Wars became a massive hit, and forced Fox to re-assess Damnation Alley. In a panic, the release date was delayed further while Fox went in to re-edit the entire film. Smight was fired, and large sections of the film were edited out by the studio, including several key scenes critical to the storyline. The film was finally released on October 21, 1977 to poor reviews and tanked at the box office.The critics dismissed the movie as a bad repeat of other great apocalyptic films like Day the World Ended and On the Beach. In some theaters during 1977, the film was paired with another movie, Ralph Bakshi’s fantasy Wizards, which was financially successful. Damnation Alley still did not do well at the box office, but later on would get cult status.

For 26 years, the only official home video release of Damnation Alley was in 1985, on VHS tape, copies of which were sold for years in the gray market on DVD. Shout! Factory released the film on July 12, 2011. This release features a new anamorphic widescreen transfer, and audio commentary with producer Paul Maslansky, and well as extras including featurettes detailing the challenges in making the film, and a detailed examination of the now-famous Landmaster vehicle with designer and builder Dean Jeffries. The original “Sound 360” audio mix will not be featured on the DVD and Blu-ray, as the original elements were too damaged to salvage.

information taken from Wikipedia