The post-apocalyptic adventure Damnation Alley begins with nuclear conflict as represented by stock footage from Operation Crossbow (1965) and Earthquake (1974), before on-screen text appearing over a barren desert landscape informs the audience that ‘The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane’. Radiation has caused insect life-forms to mutate, with eight-foot-long scorpions making it dangerous to venture across the desert, while storms are as sudden as they are devastating. The military officers stationed at an air-force base in California have survived nuclear fall-out, but while Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard) and Lt Tom Perry (Kip Neven) still follow the chain of command, rebellious Lt Jake Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent) and laid-back guard Keegan (Paul Winfield) have decided to take it easy. When the base is destroyed due to a carelessly discarded cigarette, the four men board the Landmaster, a futuristic 12-wheel truck designed to tackle any terrain, and embark on the cross-country journey to Albany, New York. They are searching for the fellow survivors who have been sending out radio transmissions in the hope of rebuilding society and aim to reach their destination by taking a stretch of road that Denton has dubbed ‘Damnation Alley’ as it runs between intense radiation areas. As with most journeys, this one has its share of speed bumps, such as losing two members of the team, evading killer cockroaches and escaping from small-town psychos.
As the action takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that is evoked through desert locations and superimposed radioactive skies, Damnation Alley could be generously described as a decent B-movie if it were the product of American International Pictures or New World. However, this was actually a 20th Century Fox production that carried the hefty price-tag of $17 million and was intended to be a summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, production delays caused by the inability of the special effects team to successfully realise mutated insect life resulted in the planned 1976 release being postponed to 1977. During this time, another Fox science-fiction project by the name of Star Wars (1977) opened to phenomenal business, making the desert-bound heroics of Damnation Alley immediately obsolete when compared to the saga of a galaxy far, far away.
Yet in other respects, Damnation Alley is actually ahead of its time: it fitted the definition of ‘straight-to-video’ before the rental market actually existed, predicting countless low-budget action films that passed off wide open space as post-nuclear wasteland. While the aforementioned stock footage is easy to spot, the special effects that show the effects of radiation on the Earth’s eco-system are simply embarrassing; the ‘giant’ scorpions appear with the assistance of blue screen and never pose a serious threat to the motorcycle-riding Tanner due to the lack of spatial continuity, although the armour-plated cockroaches briefly take Damnation Alley into the realms of eco-horror by eating the flesh of one team member and trapping Tanner in a department store.
As with most road movies, Damnation Alley is episodic in structure, meaning that the protagonists eventually run out of threats to deal with - a group of gun-wielding hillbillies get more screen time than the scorpions or the cockroaches because they are a more cost-effective menace - and a radioactive storm is used to wrap everything up. Some musings on post-nuclear existence are interspersed with the set-pieces; Tanner wonders if he has ‘finally gone over the edge’ when recounting his ride across the desert with a mannequin on the back of his bike, as if the dummy was his girlfriend; Keegan insists, ‘There would be a hell of a lot more people feeling and thinking, and playing baseball, and singing, and making love, and raising babies’ if militaristic routine was disregarded. The best scene is a stop-off at a sand-strewn Las Vegas casino that prompts shared nostalgias for the pre-nuclear world - the soundtrack is filled with long-gone chatter and table action - until the entrance of another survivor, European showgirl Janice (Dominique Sanda), abruptly ends the slot machine session. The team later pick up frightened teenager Billy (Jackie Earle Haley) and form a makeshift family unit, with the homely atmosphere of the Landmaster turning what should be an imposing vehicle into a glorified Winnebago. Damnation Alley is too average to deserve cult following, although any film with the line ‘This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: Killer cockroaches!’ at least warrants a footnote in the history of science-fiction cinema.