Damnation Alley was loosely based on a book by noted science-fiction author Roger Zelazny, most noted for writing The Chronicles of Amber. He was happy with the first script by Lukas Heller, but another writer, Alan Sharp, did a rewrite that left a lot of detail from the book out, and unbeknownst to Zelazny this was the version that ended up being used. Naturally, the original author was not best pleased!
It’s a very odd post-apocalyptic science fiction film that doesn’t quite go anywhere. A group of people are trying to find their way across the nuclear wasteland to find other settlements as they rove around in SUV-type vehicles. There are some similarities with A Boy and his Dog or Mad Max, but without the quirkiness of those films. It’s a tight 90 minutes—but hard as it is to believe, it cost more to make than the original Star Wars!
Damnation Alley was directed by Jack Smight, who was kind of a budget version of Irwin Allen. Smight had some affinity with science fiction, having done the Illustrated Man film, episodes of The Twilight Zone and a few other interesting film and TV projects.
It came out in 1977, when 20th Century Fox had Star Wars on their slate as well. They thought Star Wars would be a failure, but when it became a hit instead, they threw Smight out of the editing room and slashed the film, including cutting a lot of work by one of my favourite character actors, Murray Hamilton—and lots of the plot. The studio execs wanted more of the Landmaster vehicles and special effects on-screen, and what they ended up with was a total mess of a movie.
There are some terrible special effects, including a sequence with these giant mutant scorpions that were just real scorpions blown up and badly blue-screened in. It looks like other sequences with the scorpions were cut out—and that’s not a bad thing, as it’s totally unconvincing. Apparently another sequence with giant cockroaches was so bad that it had to be cut.
In some theatres the film was paired with Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, which was actually a hit (in fact, Mark Hamill was more excited about his part in Wizards than his role in Star Wars!)
Special features in this release include two commentary tracks and a selection of featurettes.