Monday, July 18, 2011

DAMNATION ALLEY (Blu-ray)

Back in 1977, 20th Century Fox had high box-office hopes for a big-budget science fiction film that they had scheduled for release that summer. That film was not George Lucas' STAR WARS, but a post-Apocalyptic road movie (very) loosely based on a novel by science fiction author Roger Zelazny, titled DAMNATION ALLEY.

After a brief nuclear war, the Earth is knocked off its axis, which, in conjunction with all the radioactive fallout, creates gargantuan environmental changes. Humanity is all but extinguished in the wink of an eye, leaving the ravaged, radioactive wastelands to giant scorpions, radiation-scorched scavengers, and mutant killer cockroaches. But, at an isolated Nevada Air Force fallout shelter, a small group of survivors, led by Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard, THE A-TEAM, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), have built a pair of armored, all-terrain recreational vehicles - dubbed "Landmasters" - and intend to drive them cross-country to the Promised Land - Albany, New York. So, Major Denton and his sidekick, hotheaded Hell Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent, AIRWOLF), along with a couple of their pals, set out for Albany, picking up stragglers on the way, driving down Damnation Alley....

Directed by journeyman Jack Smight (AIRPORT 1975, MIDWAY, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN), this Aftermath action-adventure sports a fine cast; aside from Peppard & Vincent, the film also stars Paul Winfield (STAR TREK II), a young Jackie Earle Haley (WATCHMEN), and French actress Dominique Sanda. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Allan Sharp & Lukas Heller is pretty stupid, discarding virtually all of the Zelazny source novel in favor of an episodic, nonsensical road trip with glowing "radioactive" skies, photographically-enlarged arachnids, rubber roaches, utterly ludicrous pseudoscience - and an absurd "happy" ending. The sole redeeming cinematic element of the film is the Landmaster vehicle itself - a formidable, super-RV with a unique tri-wheel drive, armor plating and missile launchers. Built at a reputed cost of $300,000 - $350,000 by Hollywood custom car guru Dean Jeffries, the Landmaster is undeniably cool. Oh yeah, the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith is great, too.

Shout! Factory brings this 70s sci-fi flick to Blu-ray and DVD with a new HD transfer, presented in its correct, 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Colors are strong, and details are fairly sharp, but the extensive use of primitive bluescreen compositing, stock footage, colored lens filters and animated opticals - combined with the film stock of the era - results in a very grainy and "dirty"-looking presentation. It looks vastly better than the pan & scan television prints of the film that most of us are used to, but it doesn't have the slick polish of today's special effects films. Still, Shout! has done a fairly remarkable job with this visually troublesome title.

Audio is a perfectly satisfactory DTS-HD master Audio remix. Shout! has put together a few decent supplements, as well: there's a commentary track by producer Paul Maslansky, three video interview featurettes focusing on co-screenwriter Alan Sharp, producer Jerome Zeitman, and vehicle creator Dean Jeffries. Finally, there's the original theatrical trailer and a TV spot.

I generally don't use the adjective "cheesy" when describing vintage genre films; too often it's just a euphemism for "old" used by those with a lack of perspective or appreciation for anything created before their birth. But DAMNATION ALLEY - from its dumbed-down script to its sloppy (even for the time) optical effects work - is a cheesy science fiction film. It's fun - no question - but it's not good. For every moment of genuine character development or attempt at pathos, there's a poorly-conceived action scene or carpet of rubber cockroaches being dragged by strings. I am genuinely thrilled to have it on Blu-ray, but I'm not oblivious to its failings. If you're a fan of the film - or 70s sci-fi/post-Apocalypse actioners - it's worth picking up. Shout! has done a fine job with the title.

BUY: Damnation Alley [Blu-Ray]

BUY: Damnation Alley