Cult Movie: Damnation Alley eclipsed by a certain other sci-fi flick in 77

Paul Whitfield, Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard in Damnation Alley

20TH Century Fox had two big science fiction spectaculars lined up for their release schedules in 1977.

One was Star Wars – a simple space western concept that would spawn a global spin-off and merchandising empire that still wields an all-powerful lucrative light sabre over audiences today – the other was Damnation Alley.

To say that Damnation Alley was a disaster upon release is a vast understatement. Made for $17 million, a hefty enough budget in 1977, it was considered by most to be a cheap and cheerless post-apocalyptic pot boiler that dragged along at a funereal pace, diverting you only occasionally with its generally underwhelming special effects and cringe-inducing dialogue.

Despite its critical mauling, I remember seeing it back in the day and being fairly impressed by its cold-hearted portrayal of a civilisation almost burnt to a crisp by nuclear war. Surely it can't be that bad?

A recent late night re-viewing of the film on Talking Pictures TV, a freeview channel aimed squarely at trashy B-movie obsessives like me, would certainly tend to suggest that the reputation it has gathered down the years is more than a little harsh.

So are we talking about an unfairly unloved end-of-the-world epic that deserves a full reappraisal? Perhaps that association with the world-beating Star Wars franchise has been casting a shadow over a misunderstood cult classic for the last 40 odd years?

Well, that might be stretching things a little too far but the fact is Damnation Alley is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe.

Adapted from a Roger Zelazny story by director Jack Smight, it is slow moving and decidedly low key but it has a chilly mood that is quite affecting and as post-apocalyptic adventures go, there's much to enjoy here.

The basic plot is pleasingly simple. A horrifying nuclear attack leaves just three survivors at an underground military facility. Commandeering a 12-wheeled land cruiser, the memorable Landmaster, for transport, Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent), Denton (George Peppard) and Keegan (Paul Whitfield) must head off across the country towards Albany, the only city in America not destroyed in the blast, picking up hitch hikers and battling huge mutant insects and rabid packs of feral locals along the way.

The effects are woeful at times but that cheesy dialogue from Peppard and company is great and while the road trip across a barren USA is slow to get going, it is impressively bleak and downbeat at times.

It's no classic but it's a fun ride through 70s sci-fi clichés that'll pass an hour and half with ease. The acting might be wooden, the action a little thin on the ground and the SFX wobbly at times but it's still an interesting future vision of a world gone wrong and there's not a single Jar Jar Binks in sight, which sounds like a result in my book.

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