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Damnation Alley

1977 movie poster
Directed by Jack Smight
Produced by Jerome M. Zeitman
Paul Maslansky
Written by Roger Zelazny (novel)
Alan Sharp
Lukas Heller
Starring Jan-Michael Vincent
George Peppard
Dominique Sanda
Paul Winfield
Jackie Earle Haley
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Harry Stradling, Jr.
Editing by Frank J. Urioste
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) October 21, 1977
Running time 95 minutes
Country USA
Language English

Damnation Alley is a 1977 film, directed by Jack Smight, loosely based on the novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny. The original music score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith.

Contents

Plot

Lt. Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), an unorthodox Air Force officer, shares ICBM silo duty at an Air Force missile base in California with cut-and-dried Major Eugene "Sam" Denton (George Peppard). 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 upon the United States.

Fast forward two years: the Earth has been tilted off its axis by World War III, radiation has mutated insect life, and the earth is constantly wracked by storms of unprecedented severity that engulf entire hemispheres. Military order at the Air Force base has broken down, Tanner has resigned his commission, and Denton is considering undertaking a trip to Albany, New York to discover the source of a lone radio transmission. Before the decision to abandon the base can be made, a rocket fuel gas explosion kills all but four men on the base—Denton, Tanner, former Airman Keegan (Paul Winfield) and Airman Tom Perry (Kip Niven).

They set out across the United States in two Air Force "Landmasters" (giant 12-wheeled armored personnel carriers capable of climbing 60-degree inclines, as well as being able to operate in water) across "Damnation Alley"—described as "the path of least resistance" between areas of intense radiation, and other perilous phenomena. In their journey, they pick up two survivors, fight-crazed and savage shotgun-toting mountain men who have been reduced to barbaric cruelty, and encounter voracious, mutated "flesh stripping Madagascar hissing cockroaches" before reaching their destination.

Production

Roger Zelazny's original story of Damnation Alley was seriously compromised by the final script. Zelazny was quite pleased with the first script by Lukas Heller and expected it to be the shooting script. However, the studio had Alan Sharp write a completely different version that left out most of the elements of Zelazny's book. Zelazny didn't realize this until he saw the movie in the theater. He hated the movie, but assertions that he requested to have his name removed from the credits are completely unfounded, since he did not know there was a problem until after the movie had been released.[1]

Budgeted at $17,000,000 USD (a very large budget at the time), "Damnation Alley" was helmed by veteran director Jack Smight, who had scored two consecutive box office hits in the previous two years (Airport 1975 and Midway) Filming began in July, 1976 in the Imperial Valley in Southern California (near Glamis), as well as locations in Meteor Crater, Arizona, Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Mojave Desert in California.

Production was rife with problems from the outset - the scripted elements of devastated landscapes and giant mutated insects proved to be nearly impossible to put on film despite the large budget. For example, a key sequence involving giant 8-foot long scorpions attacking a character riding a motorcycle was first attempted using full-scale remote control scorpion props, but they did not function as intended, and the resulting film footage was unacceptable. The solution was to use living normal-sized scorpions composited onto live action footage using the blue screen process in post production - unfortunately with poor results. Another action sequence with giant armor plated cockroaches used a combination of live Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches and large numbers of rubber cockroaches, which looked particularly unconvincing onscreen as the strings pulling the fake insects were visible in most shots.

The centerpiece of the film, the 12-wheeled, seven-ton "Landmaster", performed better than expected, and appeared very convincing on film as a military vehicle. The Landmaster was so convincing, in fact, that Fox demanded that more shots of the Landmaster appear in the film to make up for shortcomings which were becoming increasingly apparent in other areas as the movie was in production. As filming was nearing completion, the decision was made to add "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 an inordinate amount of time (10 months) due to the difficult process of superimposing optical effects on the sky in eighty percent of the shots (to simulate the aftereffects of nuclear war). It was during this post-production period that 20th Century Fox released their "other" science fiction film. The studio had planned to release only two science fiction films in 1977, 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 readdress Damnation Alley. In a panic, the release date was delayed further while Fox went in to re-edit the entire film. Directorial control was wrestled from Smight, 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.

Landmaster

Promotional picture of the Landmaster from Damnation Alley

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film was the Landmaster vehicle, which features a hinged center section, and a unique rotating 12-wheel assembly. The "Landmaster" was custom-built for the film at a cost of $300,000 ($1.2 million in 2008 dollars).

Currently, the Landmaster is undergoing a full restoration after being stored in a deteriorating condition for two decades, and is on the car show circuit in the United States.[citation needed]

The Landmaster should not be confused with the superficially similar but simpler Ark II.

Sound 360

A few big-city premiere engagements of Damnation Alley were presented in Sound 360, a high-impact surround sound process.

Jerry Goldsmith's score made good use of the wide stereo separation afforded by Sound 360, particularly in the opening theme, with fanfares emanating from each side of the theater in turn.

Television Version

The network TV premiere on NBC television in 1983 featured alternate and additional scenes (notably, footage of Murray Hamilton and George Peppard, as well as additional scenes with Dominique Sanda and Peppard).

Video & DVD Release

The last official home video release of Damnation Alley was in 1985, on VHS tape. Anchor Bay Entertainment had been discussing a DVD release as early as 2004, but the DVD rights were taken back by 20th Century Fox in 2007. There is no official word when - or if - the film will be released on DVD.

A rare public screening of the film in Los Angeles on August 22, 2008 featured a pristine print. This may indicate the film already has been through telecine and is being prepared for DVD release, but there is no official word from Fox.

As of May 24, 2009 this title is available on Amazon VOD and iTunes store. It lists the online version to be "widescreen" 1.78:1 ratio (the original theatrical release was 2.35:1), while the PC & TiVo, and all others to be fullscreen (1.33:1) versions. However this is incorrect, as only the title credits are letterbox, reverting to fullscreen seconds in as the movie starts.

References

  1. ^ "...And Call Me Roger": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 4, by Christopher S. Kovacs. In: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 4: Last Exit to Babylon, NESFA Press, 2009.

External links








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