Damnation Alley (1977)

There are movies that could only have been made in the Seventies.

Now we need to say certain things about this one right up front:

The star of this film is a giant truck.

It’s called the Landmaster, and the legendary prop designer Dean Jeffries (yes, the guy who built the cars for Blade Runner) built this monster from scratch.  It has twelve wheels, arranged in four remarkable triple wheel units which rotate allowing this thing to climb over rocks up to six feet high.  Despite the fact that it has no suspension it had a perfectly smooth ride, even over rough terrain.  Nor do these wheel units steer in any way:  there are hydraulics between the front and back halves of the Landmaster which do that by bending the entire vehicle (something now common in construction equipment).  It is a monstrously effective piece of hardware, and definitely has star quality.

Technically, there are supposed to be two of them, but they never manage to make that illusion convincing.  Which is actually odd as all it would have taken would have been a single optical shot when they rolled out of the garage.  Or a “hanging model” in-camera effect with the small model of the Landmaster used in the flood sequence later in the film.

Strange, really. 

The official stars are George Peppard (best remembered as “Hannibal” Smith from The A-Team) and Jan-Michael Vincent (who starred in Airwolf).  Normally, I’d say this was a pretty good cast, but there’s not a lot to Jan-Michael’s character and  for some reason George gives an extremely restrained performance, at odds with the larger than life persona he displayed in so many of his roles — and adopts a less than convincing Southern accent. However, we’ve also got Paul Winfield in a major supporting role (until he’s eaten by mutant cockroaches) and a sixteen year old Jackie Earle Haley. (playing someone much younger, of course).

This is also a post-Apocalyptic film, which was a fairly common subgenre at the time.  However, as strange as this may seem, PA had not yet devolved into an excuse to film car chases with heavily modified vehicles. That would have to wait until after Mad Max and The Road Warrior came out a few years later.  I really, really doubt that the Landmaster in any way inspired Max Rocketansky’s Police Interceptor, but it’s one of those questions one is almost afraid to research.

The story?  Well, it’s nothing new.  They travel across the post-Apocalyptic wastes…

In a huge armored vehicle!

…and have various encounters along the way, with giant scorpions, giant cockroaches and dangerous, nearly feral survivors.  Some die, some live, they pick up new friends.  Nothing new.  Not even in 1977.

One rather interesting detail, however, is that the weird light shows in the sky were actually a practical effect (called “laser animation” in the credits), created by shining a laser on various materials.  The only other film I can think of that did anything similar was Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which used microphotographs to create those swirling golden nebulae in the space sequence.

Which is about as far as you can get from a movie about a huge twelve-wheeled truck.

It is a bit hard to imagine at this point in time, but they clearly thought this one was going to be an epic hit:  after all, they sunk a lot of money in it, and even tried to sign on Steve McQueen to star.  They even convinced Popular Science and Science and Mechanics to run articles on that amazing giant truck.

But then, no one bothered to tell them that some low budget film by an unknown young director would break every box office record ever set that year.  I mean, you just can’t count on anything.

I was disappointed with this one the first time I saw it, but after many, many years, I find that I actually enjoyed this one for the most part.  It doesn’t quite add up to as much as the sum of its parts, perhaps, but a movie with a major star like this?  One that comes with a missile launcher and can even run on water (although, if you look closely, that’s actually a model as the original wasn’t exactly seaworthy)?

You have to love a film like that.

I will confess that the ending is very flat.  It’s too happy, too easy, and just sort of happens with little to set it up, as if they ran out of gas for the notoriously thirsty metal beast they created and figured they’d end the film right there.

Still, it’s more fun that most post-Apocalyptic films, even if it isn’t anywhere near as much fun as anything with Max Rocketansky in it.  But then, how many films are? It is definitely not perfect, yet for all its flaws, it is still a reasonable choice for a midnight movie fest.

Mind you, your mileage may vary.

And you probably won’t be able to find a parking spot for that Landmaster.

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