Damnation Alley began
as a novel by the same name by Roger Zelanzy, which was itself loosely based on
a historic diphtheria epidemic in a remote northern settlement in early US
History. In the novel, a load of serum needs to be taken through Damnation
Alley to Boston. Damnation Alley is a region so dangerous that only convicts
and a handful of military heroes dare attempt to pass through it. Hell Tanner,
a dangerous criminal released from prison to perform this mission, joins a score
of others in three armored trucks to press onward to Boston. During the trip,
Hell Tanner changes from a self-centered man only looking to escape to a warrior
of conscious pressing onward to save groups of people suffering from a terrible
1977 movie by the same name is quite different. It begins with a poorly
represented Air Force missile base in the middle of the Mojave Desert. There we
meet two guys who form the core of the story: Denton, a fairly by-the-book
military officer played by George Peppard, and Tanner, a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants hero played by Jan Michael Vincent. They pass through various security
points, are issued firearms, and sit inside a missile silo moments before the
world is devastated by a nuclear exchange. We're not really sure why, it just
happens. We soon learn that Denton doesn't like Tanner but is stuck with him
since the world has ended with most American cities disappearing in huge
unintended result of blasting the world to bits is that the planet is tilted off
of its axis, resulting in even more deaths. The sky, for reasons never
explained, turns red and begins an amazingly strange light show. Within this
setting, the military survivors at the missile base try to maintain some sense
of life in their hardened bunkers. Tanner and his friend Keegan retire from
the military during the intervening months. Keegan spends his time painting
while Tanner explores the landscape on his motorcycle. Life proceeds after some
fashion, with occasional interruptions from such problems as giant scorpions,
until an airman falls asleep while smoking in bed next to a mass of pipes
carrying flammable gas. The base is consumed in the resulting fiery explosion.
Only four members,
Keegan and Tanner, Denton, and his subordinate, Perry, survive the fire. Denton
opts to wheel out a project that he and Perry have been working on, two
prototype "landmasters". These huge, all-terrain vehicles with novel
three-wheel arrangements are decked out with machine-guns and missile launchers.
Denton declares that they are heading to Albany, New York, to locate the source
of the only continuous radio signal heard since the nuclear exchange.
The teams head out,
with Perry quickly getting killed in a storm and Denton having to transfer to
the remaining Landmaster. In Las Vegas, they stop at Circus Circus, and
discover Janice, played by Dominique Sanda. They take the only known living
woman and proceed to Salt Lake City where Keegan is eaten by swarms of huge,
deadly cockroaches that had been fortified by the nuclear fallout. The killer cockroaches are
actually a high point in the entire film.
three escape Salt Lake to a shack where they find the orphaned Billy, played by
Jackie Earle Haley (better known for his role in The Bad News Bears). Billy is
deadly with thrown rocks but serves little other purpose. He does help the team
escape from a set of hillbilly mutants, similar to the pilgrims in The Outlaw Josey Wales, although these mutants have more lustful feelings for Janice.
When the conflict turns to violence, they prove they have shotguns. Denton uses
the missile launchers on the landmaster. It really isn't a fair fight.
Detroit they stop at a junkyard to find parts for the weary landmaster which is
started to break down . The sky begins to shift colors and change, with more
energy flowing, probably for the same reasons the sky burst into flames in the
movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. More storms rage and the Great
Lakes empty onto the salvage yard.
landmaster is water-tight and can float, and a good thing that is because while
they are floating, doing their best Noah's Ark imitation, the Earth shifts back
to its normal axis. Moments later, a live voice crackles on the radio and
announces that they are a radio station in Albany.
Tanner and Billy
ride out and find a pleasant community with about two dozen people who meet them
in the streets.
Comment: Through the years,
fans of the film have proven that the real star of the movie wasn't the actors
but the landmaster. The vehicle, created by Dean Jeffries Designs, sat in
disrepair until July 2000 when it was salvaged through the efforts of two fans
who completely restored the vehicle.