Saturday, August 11, 2012

In short: Damnation Alley (1977)

It's the end of the world (again). After World War III (don't worry, Americans, the evil commies have shot first) has left most of the planet a radioactive (don't worry about that either, it's the kind of radioactivity that does not touch movie protagonists at all) wasteland, tilted the Earth's axis, and changed the surviving fauna in new and exciting ways.

After a porn-induced accident (seriously) has destroyed most of their base and killed all but four men (two of them the drop-outs of the facility), the survivors decide to pack their bags, throw them into an awesome ATV, and make their way to Albany in the hope of finding the source of some taped radio messages. Soon enough, the four are three, namely Major Denton (George Peppard), the kind of military hard-ass that doesn't even leave the service after the third World War, Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), who is some kind of rebel (but don't worry, not the kind of rebel who actually rebels), and Keegan (Paul Winfield), who is a) much too good for his role, and b) as the mandatory black character not long for this world. On their tour across the continent, the boring trio has to cope with all the vagaries of post-apocalyptic life like really bad weather, big damn scorpions, irradiated hillbillies and killer cockroaches (I repeat: killer cockroaches); but at least they also pick up a French woman named Janice (Dominique Sanda) and later on a stone-throwing teenager (Jackie Earle Haley quite some time before this city was afraid of him).

Director without a personality Jack Smight's Damnation Alley is based on one of the least loved books of US SF/F writer Roger Zelazny, and generally does not have much of a reputation either.

However, Damnation Alley is a film that can be quite a fun time when watched by a viewer with adequately adjusted expectations. If you go into the film expecting even halfway poignant scene of post-apocalyptic distress, or interest in the causes of all the destruction beyond thirty seconds of vague yet dignified sloganeering by Paul Winfield, or even just some character development and dramatic escalation, you will be sorely disappointed, for this is a film where even the death of a man's best friend isn't worth an emotional scene.

If, on the other hand, you are in for a one-damn-thing-after-the-other tale about people in a silly yet awesome ATV having stupid yet entertaining adventures while saying stuff like "Tanner, this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches! I repeat: killer cockroaches!", you might have stumbled upon a new favourite movie.

Beyond many moments of earnest silliness - which is always the best sort of silliness - the film also features a some excellent post-psychedelic skies and a use of colour-filters to intensify colours until the film's world really looks as strange and changed as it is supposed to be and which looks nearly hypnotic to eyes used to the desaturated look of all contemporary movies. Why, I might even say the sky and weather effects are the film's biggest selling point - even better than the irradiated hillbillies. Well, I would say that if not for Jerry Goldsmith's fantastic score that mixes typical Goldsmith-isms with bits of classic Hollywood scoring and weird noises that fit the films skies much better than its rather standard post-apocalyptic adventure plot does.

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