I’m a fan of the Fallout series. I love the world those games build, and consequently when I discover a work that is formulative to that universe, it tends to give that work a little extra appeal for me. It’s part of the reason why I like some of the later portions of The Martian Chronicles and why I enjoyed A Boy and his Dog, which is a review for another time. Damnation Alley is a little less known portion of the sub-genre, but is still a remarkably enjoyable film.
Damnation Alley opens with World War III being fought – the nuclear exchange happens, in a scene that is almost chilling in its calmness. The world ends not with tension, stress, and fear, but dead calm people confirming their orders, flipping some switches and confirming that the missiles have launched.
Cut to several years later – the world is mostly inhospitable – and the crew of one missile base in particular is sitting around trying to figure out “what now”. They’re soldiers in the air force of a country that no longer exists, waiting around for orders that will never come, but because they’re basically surrounded by death and desolation, there really isn’t anywhere to go. Eventually, one of the officers at the outpost, Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard – The A-Team) picks up a signal coming from Albany, New York (sadly, not Albany, Oregon). When a mishap makes the base uninhabitable, Denton, along with two of his fellow officers, Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent – Airwolf), and Keegan (Paul Winfield – Star Trek II among other works), to go to Albany and find the source of the signal. Along the way, the group picks up two other survivors – Janice (French actress Dominique Sanda), and kid Billy (a young Jackie Earle Haley).
The film has two big things going for it. The first is the chemistry of the cast. Peppard and Vincent have great Odd-Couple chemistry, Vincent and Winfield really feel like close buds, and Vincent and Haley have a good older-younger sibling relationship. Unfortunately, Keegan dies about halfway through the film, with Billy joining the group a little later – so their characters don’t really get to interact. Further, Sanda just doesn’t get any material in this film. She has two main scenes – one where she talks about what she did after the bombs dropped, and one where, after the party finds a seemingly abandoned diner, she goes to play the piano. I don’t know if this is an issue where the script simply didn’t give her that much material to begin with, or if Sanda’s English forced them to cut much of her material out of the script.
The second big thing the film has going for it is the Roadmaster – the central “prop” of the film – a segmented combination RV and Armored Personnel Carrier. It’s really well built, and feels like the kind of vehicle you’d want to take across an apocalyptic wasteland. It’s got its own little bits of weirdness – like having a navigation computer where the prop is a Texas Instruments Desk Calculator.
I described the group as a party, this is because in part the film feels like a post-apocalyptic hexcrawl campaign. In one hex the party faces horrific storms, in another killer cockroaches, in a third they roll a mechanical mishap so they have to take a detour to find spare parts. When one player character dies, a new character joins the party to replace the character that was lost, and is introduced by the rest of the players finding another survivor holed up by themselves somewhere.
It feels like, were syndication and content restrictions not an issue, this would work perfectly as a 12-to-24-episode TV series, with each episode being a new “encounter” for the Roadmaster. Instead, we have a film that’s an post-apocalyptic road movie, which works, well enough, but loses a fair amount of its tension through the plot structure and 90 minute runtime. It’s a good rental, but doesn’t feel like a must own – aside from the fact that the film got a Scream Factory release, and their stand-alone releases tend to have some really nice bonus features.