Monday, August 15, 2011

Damnation Alley Blu-ray Review

In Damnation Alley the world is devastated by a nuclear holocaust, causing the Earth to tilt on its axis and bringing vast meteorological chaos.  As the weather stabilizes, mutated insects start to emerge, preying on the survivors.  The surviving crew at a U.S. Air Force bomb shelter in the Mojave Desert picks up radio signals coming from Albany.  The commander, Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard, The A-Team), unveils two armored vehicles he has constructed and announces a plan to cross “Damnation Alley,” the hundred-mile-wide strip between areas of radiation hazard, to join the survivors.  They set off, taking on two civilians — a novice singer they find in the ruins of Las Vegas and a wild teenager (Jackie Earle Haley, Watchmen) — along the way.  The journey is also beset by giant mutated cockroaches, storms and crazed survivalists, making for some hair-raising escapes in this post-apocalyptic thriller.  Originally released in theaters in 1977 from 20th Century Fox, Damnation Alley has been out-of-print on VHS for several years, so I’m sure many are anticipating its debut on DVD and Blu-ray.

Film (2 out of 5 stars) 

This is the kind of movie that I imagine was a mainstay of the drive-ins back in the day.  This is a product of the 70s – it’s got nuclear war, mutant scorpions and cockroaches, and a somewhat bleak story-line.  The movie doesn’t pull any punches either since the world is finished within the first five minutes of the movie starting.  We never learn why the war occurs or much of anything about it except for the computer voice telling us which cities have been hit.  The only thing we really learn for sure is that the two guys who will have to join forces to survive the upcoming nuclear holocaust don’t like each other.  In fact, Major Denton (George Peppard) had asked for his partner Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent) to be transferred earlier.   The two of them including the small group of personnel at their launch facility survive the war but that won’t last long since this is movie about post-apocalyptic survival.
The radiation has mutated the creatures that survived the war and now every trip to scout for fellow survivors or supplies is endangered by mutant scorpions.  By this point, Tanner has quit the Air Force since he doesn’t see much point in it anymore especially when his boss doesn’t like him, so he spends his time riding his motorcycle between scorpions.  Denton has been more productive with his time as he’s built two new all terrain vehicles known as the Landmasters (which is the best thing about the movie).  When an ignorant airman falls asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand next to a sign that says “WARNING: FLAMMABLE GAS” it isn’t that surprising that the resulting explosion kills everyone except for Denton, Tanner, a mechanic named Perry, and the resident artist named Keegan (Paul Winfield), since someone has to survive long enough to drive those vehicles into the wasteland.  Despite that, it isn’t long before more people die since the movie is focused on Denton and Tanner.
Along the way through the wasteland that Denton has named Damnation Alley, they come across a singer hiding alone in the ruins of Las Vegas, some killer mutant cockroaches that despite their slow movement still manage to kill people, and some crazed survivors that have lost all sense of civility and the desire for good hygiene.   As far as the cockroaches go, that was the point where the movie completely lost me.  Ok I can go along with killer cockroaches but why the hell can’t the victim just run away from them?  In this case, one incredibly stupid individual goes into a carwith them on him!  I’m not a genius, but that strikes me as a really bad idea since they are already in the car with you. If it were me, I would run as fast as I could away until I could commandeer a vehicle free of roaches.  I should also mention that the effect used to have the roaches chase the humans was to apparently glue some rubber bugs to a black mat and then pull the mat towards the camera.  It’s amazing to me that this movie came out the same year asStar Wars.  I can see why Star Wars blew people away like it did if this was the kind of movie audiences were getting at the time.
Speaking of Star Warswhen the The New York Times reviewed the film’s release in October of 1977, it said: “the only real value of “Damnation Alley” is educational: This is the movie to see if you don’t understand what was so wonderful about the special effects in, say, “Star Wars.”  Here, the sky features streaks of red and blue light that make it look like a giant Rya rug, and it actually moves in relation to the equally phony-looking landscape.” I usually don’t quote other reviews in my own review, but I couldn’t have said that any better.  The acting is decent but all of them have done better work, and the effects are terrible, and the one cool aspect of the film is the Landmaster which is pretty awesome.  It’s also interesting to see the future Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) play a young teenager who’s had to survive alone after his family died.  These post-apocalyptic movies were a dime a dozen in the 70s and while I can appreciate the premise, the execution of it failed.  The two big genres concerning mutant creatures and the aftermath of a nuclear war sound like they would be great together but in this film they don’t mix well.  Both end up looking cheap and cheesy and I think in this case, the movie would have been better if they had just focused on one genre.  In any case, the car alone is so cool that it may be all that’s needed for a lot of people to enjoy this.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The film’s new remastered 1080p (2.35:1) transfer isn’t that great but it’s not terrible either.  In fact, this is probably the best it’s ever going to look.  The transfer has some visible print damage and a heavy layer of grain throughout with some soft shots mixed in as well.  There’s some nice sharp scenes but they are usually the ones that don’t have any effects in them which drag down the quality.  The colors are very de-saturated and the entire movie is  fairly drab until the the survivors reach civilization again so that all may be a creative choice.  Black levels are decent but nothing fantastic.  The film’s reliance on stock footage for the missile launches also looks worse for wear due to the film stock used at the time.  I’m sure this transfer is a lot better than the VHS version that’s been the only other option for fans of the movie until now.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars) 

Damnation Alley offers both a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 lossless soundtrack and a PCM 7.1 uncompressed track as well but neither one is ideal.  Both of them have about the same quality but if I had to pick one, I’d go with the DTS track since it had a little more punch.  The movie’s dialogue is mostly clear and understandable but not always.  The  music by the late great Jerry Goldsmith isn’t given the treatment it should have been and it’s not balanced well with the rest of the effects and the dialogue.  This is a front speaker track and the rear and side speakers don’t get a lot of action for the most part although in a few scenes they come to life.  Like the video transfer, this isn’t terrible but it’s not great either.

Special Features (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The extras are more interesting than the feature.

  • Audio Commentary With Producer Paul Maslansky – This is the best thing on the disc as he talks about the challenges of making the film and how the film had to compete with Star Wars at 20th Century Fox.  He also recalls working with the Director Jack Smight and the rest of the cast and crew and frankly talks about the script as well.  This is an all-encompassing commentary and should be interesting even to those like me that didn’t care for the movie.
  • Survival Run – A look at the challenges of adapting the celebrated novel with co-screenwriter Alan Sharp.
  • Road To Hell – Producer Jerome Zeitman details the process of making the film and the difficulties it encountered along the way.
  • Landmaster Tales – A detailed examination of the now-famous Landmaster Vehicle from the film with stunt coordinator and car designer Dean Jeffries.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spot

  • Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars) 

    I can’t recommend this since the movie itself doesn’t even bother to take itself seriously.  If there’s been a nuclear war, then why are they just walking around outside right after without any concern at all about radiation?  Why are there giant scorpions but the other creatures aren’t enlarged?  If there’s that much radiation to affect the scorpions, it should have affected the other creatures and the humans as well.  The entire movie makes no sense and that combined with terrible special effects, a weak story, and some average acting don’t really add up to a recommendation from me.  If you like these guilty pleasures from the 70s then more power to you, but for most people, I would tell them to watch the trailer first to make sure they are interested in it. Despite my reservations about the film, this is a fantastic package that the Shout! Factory has put together and fans of the movie will be very happy.
    Order your copy today!


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