Two years after global nuclear warfare has left the earth a radioactive wasteland, a group of survivors from a military base in California head out in two specially built Landmaster vehicles to investigate a signal being broadcast from potential survivors in Albany, New York. They must trek through a rough terrain of lower risk radiation storms one of them has nicknamed Damnation Alley. Along the way they will encounter giant scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, tornadoes, floods, other survivors and desperados.
Even with a list of actors like Peppard, Vincent, Sanda and others, the real star of the movie is the Landmaster vehicle built by Jeffries Automotive for the movie at a cost of $300,000 in 1976. Reading up on the Landmaster the claims made of its capabilities in the movie are apparently correct. It’s not just a prop but is capable of speeds up to 60 mph even with its 10 tons of weight. A near half inch steel hull accounts for some of that weight. It is also capable of climbing over boulders with its tri-star wheels, floating in water even when half full of water itself, and of amphibious travel using its wheels as oars.
As for the other minor stars of the movie…
There is a mix of a virile action star of the time (Vincent), a once prominent serious actor relegated to tough guy roles in his waning years (Peppard), a critically acclaimed black actor (Winfield), a French born actress of international acclaim (Sanda), and an up and coming teen angst actor (Haley). Such a group of capable actors being upstaged by a vehicle, even though the vehicle is cool, is not the fault of the actors so much as the movie putting more emphasis on the sets than on the characters.
The same studio that put out Damnation Alley and had confidence in it being their big blockbuster for the year also put out a smaller scifi movie in the same year and though that one would just fade away. That other movie was Star Wars. Though Damnation Alley was a flop, its lack of characterization at the time in favor of focusing on the world it created may have made it the flop it was, but the same thing is very probably what has made it a cult movie to some, compared to other more dramatic post-apocalyptic movies of the past which focused more on the characters and have since faded into obscurity.
Damnation Alley is not for someone who wants to see a realistic portrayal of full scale global nuclear war and its after effect because there would frankly be no movie to make. So to tell a story about survivors of nuclear war there has to be an element of fantasy right up front, and that is that anybody would survive at all. Since the movie at its start is based on an unrealistic fantasy premise, then what the hell would be the fun of not continuing with that fantasy premise?
Damnation Alley is more like a Saturday morning live-action cartoon version of the post-apocalypse. Yeah, I know there was the TV series Ark II which was that, but with the money a hopeful studio pumped into Damnation Alley for the effects, and they still came out corny, it does make for a fun movie.
If you’re expecting a serious movie in this, don’t, or else you will be disappointed. If you’re expecting something just to have fun with, then you might well find it in this if you like over-budgeted b-movies. The plot is as basic as can be, and that is a group needs to get from Point A to Point B and stuff happens along the way. That trek could have easily been made boring and the movie would have royally sucked. That trek could have been made more dramatic with thoughtful dialogue and less attention to the effects, but then we probably wouldn’t be talking about this movie today.
Would I recommend this? Yes I would. If you are into corny scifi movies this may well work for you. If you’re into hard science then you’ll want to skip this one.