Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book to Movie: Damnation Alley (1977)

Book to Movie: Damnation Alley (1977)
Directed by Jack Smight
Screenplay by Alan Sharp based on the novel by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazy’s post apocalyptic novel of a transcontinental journey made the transition to film in 1977 – the same year Star Wars was released. It was panned by critics and when contrasted with the exciting, fun filled Star Wars, the sometimes dull, sometimes banal, Damnation Alley was found badly wanting.

I said in my review of the novel that I liked the movie when I first saw it and I did. I said I saw it again for the first time just a few years ago and liked it, and I did. I watched it again a few nights ago after having read the novel, and I like it a lot less now.

To say that it is loosely based on Zelazny’s novel is giving Zelazny too much credit (or blame ) for the film. There is a character named Tanner and he makes a cross country journey in an R.V. on steroids. There, the similarities end.

The movie begins with Air Force officers launching missiles and watching inbound missiles in what we can assume is World War III. Most of the United States is wiped out. With the United States as we know it gone, Tanner (played by Jan Michael Vincent) and his buddy, Keegan (played ably by Paul Warfield) drop out of the military, but still live on the base since it is the only inhabitable place in the desert.

There is a scene near the opening of the movie that is so bad that it had to put theater goers – especially those that had seen Star Wars – off their popcorn. Tanner is riding across the desert while Keegan, high atop a tower at the base watches him. As he rides in with a mannequin on the back of his bike, he is chased by giant scorpions. I know the director and screenwriter were trying to show us how dramatically the earth’s ecology had changed since the war, but the special effects are so bad and the scene so needless, the movie would have been better served to have just left it in an editing bay.

The idea for departure is set when an accidental fire starts inside the military base that detonates a bunch of explosives, killing everybody inside except for Tanner, Keegan, Lt. Perry (the expendable character) and Major Eugene Denton. Somewhere in the time between the apocalypse and the explosion, Denton and some of his people construct two Landmaster vehicles to drive across the country. Denton has plotted a course to Albany because Albany is the only city that has sent out a signal. He calls his course, Damnation Alley.

The two Landmasters set out from the California desert. Tanner is riding with Denton and Keegan with Perry. They soon encounter a storm and Perry is killed and their Landmaster damaged. Keegan transfers his gear aboard and joins Tanner and Denton. Perry and the second Landmaster were entirely extraneous and served no useful purpose in the plot.

Before long, they arrive in Las Vegas. The three start playing the slots and having fun in the deserted casinos when they find a woman – a former showgirl named Janice – who decides to join the party. With a woman aboard to make things more interesting, they head east from Vegas.

They arrive in an unnamed town where they try to find gasoline. Instead, they find giant, carnivorous cockroaches that devour the unfortunate Keegan. The rest of the party makes their escape.

As they continue their cross country odyssey, they find an adolescent boy who is living alone after his father died in a fall. He first attacks them with rocks, but ends up joining them. Now, the female gets to be a mother figure since she’s never really assigned to be anyone’s love interest. They are once again a party of four.

At yet another fateful stop for gasoline, the party encounters a group of depraved renegades who want to steal their supplies and rape their women. Billy plays a clever trick on the leader of the group and they are able to escape.

As they near Detroit, the transmission in their vehicle starts to grind. So, finding Detroit to be one big junkyard (how prescient) they decide to stop there to try to find parts to make repairs. While there, a giant storm causes Lake St. Claire to flood the city and the vehicle (which is also amphibious) takes to the sea. They eventually make landfall and continue east where they discover signs of life.

Finally, while camped out in a wooded area, they hear on the radio music being broadcast from Albany. They make contact with the people of Albany and head off to join civilization.

The movie’s special effects were dated when the movie was made, but still lend themselves to creating the feeling of desolation in a post apocalyptic world. Some of the 70s kitsch in the movie is cool such as Jan Michael Vincent’s haircut. But the C.B. culture that was coming to and end at about this time is nauseating.

The weakest point of the movie is its seeming lack of focus or real goal. They leave the desert for no apparent reason. They go to Albany and in between a bunch of unrelated events transpire. The characters have no real chemistry. It tried early in the film to develop some tension between Tanner and Denton with Denton playing the strict military type and Tanner as the renegade, care free spirit. But the director didn’t develop this at all beyond some obligatory opening scenes.

As in most cases, the movie was not nearly as good as the book. It could have been better had the screenwriter used Zelazny’s characters and his motivation for them. Instead, they took Zelazny’s idea of a post apocalyptic crossing of the continent and tried to tell a different story. Zelazny’s story was much better. According to IMDB, Mr. Zelazny approved the original script, but the shooting script was much different and he was not too pleased with the final product. It’s not difficult to discern why.

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