Damnation Alley (film)

Damnation Alley (film)
Damnation Alley

1977 movie poster
Directed by Jack Smight
Produced by Jerome M. Zeitman
Paul Maslansky
Written by Roger Zelazny (novel)
Alan Sharp
Lukas Heller
Starring Jan-Michael Vincent
George Peppard
Dominique Sanda
Paul Winfield
Jackie Earle Haley
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Harry Stradling, Jr.
Editing by Frank J. Urioste
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date(s) October 21, 1977
Running time 95 minutes
Country USA
Language English

Damnation Alley is a 1977 film, directed by Jack Smight, loosely based on the novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny. The original music score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith.



1st Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), an unorthodox Air Force officer, shares ICBM silo duty at an Air Force missile base in California with Major Eugene "Sam" Denton (George Peppard). When the United States detects incoming nuclear missiles, Tanner and Denton "turn the key" to launch part of the retaliatory strike, initiating Doomsday. After launching their entire arsenal of nuclear missiles, Tanner and Denton witness nuclear devastation rain down all around them.

Two years later, the Earth has been tilted off its axis by World War III, radiation has mutated insect life, and the planet is constantly wracked by massive storms that cover the entire hemisphere. Military order at the base has broken down. Tanner has resigned his commission and Denton is considering going to Albany, New York to find the source of a lone radio transmission. Before they abandon the base, a rocket fuel explosion kills all but four men -- Denton, Tanner, former Airman Keegan (Paul Winfield) and Airman Tom Perry (Kip Niven).

They set out in two Air Force "Landmasters," giant 12-wheeled armored personnel carriers capable of climbing 60-degree inclines and operating in water. They must cross "Damnation Alley," considered "the path of least resistance" between intense radiation areas. On their journey, they pick up two survivors, fight a band of crazed, savage shotgun-toting mountain men and encounter mutated "flesh stripping cockroaches" before reaching their destination.


Roger Zelazny's original story of Damnation Alley was seriously compromised in the final script. Zelazny was quite pleased with the first script by Lukas Heller and expected it to be the shooting script. However, the studio had Alan Sharp write a completely different version that left out most of the elements of Zelazny's book. Zelazny didn't realize this until he saw the movie in the theater. He hated the movie, but assertions that he requested to have his name removed from the credits are completely unfounded, since he did not know there was a problem until after the movie had been released.[1]

Budgeted at $17,000,000 USD (a large budget at the time), "Damnation Alley" was helmed by veteran director Jack Smight, who had scored two consecutive box office hits in the previous two years (Airport 1975 and Midway) Filming began in July 1976 in the Imperial Valley in Southern California (near Glamis), as well as locations in Meteor Crater, Arizona, Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Mojave Desert in California.

Production was rife with problems - the devastated landscapes and giant mutated insects proved to be nearly impossible to create despite the large budget. For example, a sequence involving giant 8-foot-long (2.4 m) scorpions attacking a motorcycle was first attempted using full-scale scorpion props, but they did not work and the resulting footage was unacceptable. The solution was to use actual scorpions composited onto live action footage using the blue screen process in post production - unfortunately with poor results. Another action sequence with giant cockroaches used a combination of live Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches and large numbers of rubber bugs, which looked unconvincing onscreen as the strings pulling the fake insects were plainly visible.

The centerpiece of the film, the 12-wheeled, seven-ton "Landmaster", performed much better than expected. The Landmaster was so convincing, in fact, that Fox demanded that more shots of the Landmaster appear in the film to make up for shortcomings. The decision was also made to add "radioactive skies" in post-production to add the visual excitement of a "post-Apocalyptic" world to the film.

Because of this last-minute decision, Damnation Alley was in post-production for over 10 months due to the difficult process of superimposing optical effects on the sky in eighty percent of the shots. It was during this period that 20th Century Fox released their "other" science fiction film for 1977. The studio had planned to release only two science fiction films that year, with Damnation Alley intended to be the blockbuster.

The other film — in which 20th Century Fox executives had very little confidence — was Star Wars.

Star Wars became a massive hit, and forced Fox to readdress Damnation Alley. In a panic, the release date was delayed further while Fox went in to re-edit the entire film. Directorial control was wrestled from Smight, and large sections of the film were edited out by the studio, including several key scenes critical to the storyline. The film was finally released on October 21, 1977.


Promotional picture of the Landmaster from Damnation Alley

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film was the Landmaster vehicle, which features a hinged center section, and a unique rotating 12-wheel assembly. The "Landmaster" was custom-built for the film at a cost of $350,000 in 1976.[2] ($1.4 million in 2010 dollars)[3]

The Landmaster was sold to a private owner in 2005 and was restored to its original condition as featured in the film. The Landmaster was then on the show car circuit for several years.[4] In 2007 it was featured at the San Francisco Rod & Custom Show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California[5] as part of special exhibit with other notable movie and TV cars. Some time in 2009, the Landmaster was vandalized while in storage. The damage is relatively minor, but repair and restoration is required again.

The Landmaster should not be confused with the superficially similar but simpler Ark II.

Sound 360

A few big-city premiere engagements of Damnation Alley were presented in Sound 360, a high-impact surround sound process.

Jerry Goldsmith's score made good use of the wide stereo separation afforded by Sound 360, particularly in the opening theme, with fanfares emanating from each side of the theater in turn.


Damnation Alley opened in 1977, one year after it was filmed. After the release, it quickly left the theaters because it did not make enough to stay in the chain theaters or duplexes or triplexes. The critics dismissed the movie as a bad repeat of other great apocalyptic films like Day the World Ended and On the Beach. In some theaters during 1977, the film was paired with another movie, Ralph Bakshi's fantasy Wizards, which was financially successful. Damnation Alley still did not do well at the box office, but later on would get cult status.

Television version

The network TV premiere on NBC television on Sunday, June 12, 1983 featured alternate and additional scenes (notably, footage of Murray Hamilton and George Peppard, as well as additional scenes with Dominique Sanda and Peppard).

Video & DVD release

For 26 years, the only official home video release of Damnation Alley was in 1985, on VHS tape, copies of which were sold for years in the gray market on DVD. Shout! Factory released the film (on DVD and Blu-ray) on July 12, 2011. This release features a new anamorphic widescreen transfer (cropped to fit 16:9 sets on DVD, and full version letterbox 2.35:1 ratio on Blu-ray), and audio commentary with producer Paul Maslansky, and well as extras including featurettes detailing the challenges in making the film, and a detailed examination of the now-famous Landmaster vehicle with designer and builder Dean Jeffries. The original "Sound 360" audio mix will not be featured on the DVD and Blu-ray, as the original elements were too damaged to salvage.

This title is available on Amazon VOD and iTunes store, which is not the new transfer (but an older version). It lists the online version to be "widescreen" 1.78:1 ratio (the original theatrical release was 2.35:1), while the PC & TiVo, and all others to be fullscreen (1.33:1) versions.


  1. ^ "...And Call Me Roger": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 4, by Christopher S. Kovacs. In: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 4: Last Exit to Babylon, NESFA Press, 2009.
  2. ^ McComb, Gordon; J. Steven York. "Automotive Fantasies—And The Men Who Make Them". Science & Mechanics (issue unknown): 66–67. http://www.snowcrest.net/fox/landmaster/pics/lanarticle4.jpg. 
  3. ^ "Inflation Calculator". DollarTimes. http://www.dollartimes.com/calculators/inflation.htm. 
  4. ^ Landmaster picture from its recent showing.
  5. ^ 2007 San Francisco Rod, Custom and Motorcycle Show Event Guide

External links

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