First Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) shares ICBM silo duty at an American air force missile base in the Californian desert with Major Eugene "Sam" Denton (George Peppard), who is requesting not to work with him. On their way to duty, Denton talks to Airman Tom Keegan (Paul Winfield), an aspiring artist. When the United States detects incoming nuclear missiles from the Soviet Union, Tanner and Denton launch part of the retaliatory strike. The United States is hit hard, although it manages to intercept 40% of Soviet missiles.
Two years later, the Earth has been tilted off its axis by nuclear detonations of World War III; radiation has mutated giant scorpions, the planet is wracked by massive storms, and the sky is in a perpetual aurora borealis-like state. Tanner has resigned his commission and has been scouting Barstow while Keegan, who has also left the Air Force, has been painting as an artist in one of the base's out-buildings. Mutated giant scorpions menace the area. Later an airman falls asleep in a bunk and drops a lit cigarette onto a pile of Playboy magazines, which causes the entire base to catch fire and explode, killing most of its inhabitants including the base commander, General Lander (Murray Hamilton). Keegan and Tanner are unscathed, as are Denton and Lieutenant Tom Perry (Kip Niven), who were in an underground garage bunker.
Denton has been considering going to Albany, New York to find the source of a lone radio transmission. He and the remaining others set out in two Air Force "Landmasters," giant 12-wheeled armored personnel carriers capable of climbing 60-degree inclines and operating in water. They must cross "Damnation Alley," considered "the path of least resistance" between intense radiation areas thus named by Denton. Along their journey one of the Landmasters becomes disabled in a storm (which also kills Perry) and they encounter mutated "flesh stripping cockroaches" in the ruins of Salt Lake City which eat Keegan alive. Denton and Tanner also pick up two survivors: a woman in Las Vegas, Janice (Dominique Sanda), and a teenage boy, Billy (Jackie Earle Haley), discovered in an abandoned house. Later they fight off a band of crazed gun-toting mountain men they encounter in the ruins of a gas station. Denton uses a rocket launcher to destroy the gas station.
As they continue their journey, the Landmaster develops a problem with its drivetrain and they head to Detroit. Denton comments that it was "designed to use spare truck parts", semi-trucks in particular. In Detroit they enter a large wrecking yard in search of the needed parts. A large storm comes upon the group and they take shelter in their vehicle just as a tidal wave washes them away. After the storm passes, they are adrift in a large body of water and it appears that the Earth has returned to its normal axis as the sky is clear. Using the Landmaster's amphibious capability, they reach land. As they are making repairs, they hear a radio broadcast of music and an attempt to reach survivors. After making contact, Tanner and Billy set out on to locate the source of the broadcast. In the final scene, they reach a surprisingly intact Albany and are greeted by its inhabitants.Jan-Michael Vincent as 1st Lt. Jake Tanner
George Peppard as Major Eugene "Sam" Denton
Dominique Sanda as Janice
Paul Winfield as Keegan
Jackie Earle Haley as Billy
Kip Niven as Lt. Tom Perry
Mark L. Taylor as Haskins
Robert Donner as Man / Guard
Murray Hamilton (uncredited) as General Landers
Roger Zelazny's original story of Damnation Alley was changed considerably in the final script. Zelazny was quite pleased with the first script by Lukas Heller and expected it to be the shooting script. However, the studio had Alan Sharp write a different version that left out many of the elements of Zelazny's book. Zelazny did not realize this until he saw the movie in the theater. He disliked the movie, but assertions that he requested to have his name removed from the credits are completely unfounded, since he did not know there was a problem until after the movie had been released.
Budgeted at US $17 million (a large budget at the time), Damnation Alley was helmed by veteran director Jack Smight, who had scored two consecutive box office hits in the previous two years (Airport 1975 and Midway). Filming began in July 1976 in the Imperial Valley of Southern California (near Glamis), where a missile base set was constructed, as well as locations in Meteor Crater, Arizona, Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Mojave Desert in California. The lake scenes were filmed at Flathead Lake in Kalispell, Montana
Production was rife with problems — the devastated landscapes and giant mutated insects proved to be nearly impossible to create, despite the large budget. For example, a sequence involving giant 8-foot-long (2.4 m) scorpions attacking a motorcycle was first attempted using full-scale scorpion props, but they did not work and the resulting footage was unacceptable. The solution was to use actual scorpions composited onto live action footage using the blue screen process in post-production. Another action sequence with giant cockroaches used a combination of live Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches and large numbers of rubber bugs, which looked unconvincing onscreen as the strings pulling mats covered in fake insects were plainly visible.
The centerpiece of the film, the 12-wheeled, seven-ton "Landmaster", performed much better than expected. The Landmaster was so convincing, in fact, that Fox demanded that more shots of the Landmaster appear in the film to make up for shortcomings. The decision was also made to add "radioactive skies" in post-production to add the visual excitement of a "post-apocalyptic" world to the film.
Because of this last-minute decision, Damnation Alley was in post-production for over 10 months due to the difficult process of superimposing optical effects on the sky in eighty percent of the shots. It was during this period that 20th Century Fox released their "other" science fiction film for 1977. The studio had planned to release only two science fiction films that year, with Damnation Alley intended to be the blockbuster.
The other film, in which 20th Century Fox executives had very little confidence, was Star Wars. Star Wars became a hit of epic proportions, and forced Fox to readdress a struggling Damnation Alley. In a panic, the release date was delayed to October, while Fox went in to re-edit the entire film. Directorial control was wrestled from Smight, and large sections of the film were edited out by the studio in order to focus more on the "Landmaster" vehicle, and the special effects. Excised were several key scenes critical to the storyline, including many scenes with George Peppard (much to his chagrin), Murray Hamilton (the General of the Missile Base, which rendered his character literally "mute" in the final film, with no lines of dialogue), and critically, a confrontation between Tanner and Denton after the death of Keegan by "killer cockroaches" (in this scene, Tanner blames Denton for not saving his friend from death). The film was finally released on October 21, 1977 to poor reviews and tanked at the box office.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the film was the Landmaster vehicle, which features a hinged center section, and a unique rotating 12-wheel assembly. The "Landmaster" was custom-built for the film at a cost of $350,000 in 1976 by automotive customizer Dean Jeffries. ($1.4 million in 2010 dollars)
The Landmaster was sold to a private owner in 2005 and was restored to its original condition as featured in the film. The Landmaster was then on the show car circuit for several years. In 2007 it was featured at the San Francisco Rod & Custom Show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, California as part of special exhibit with other notable movie and TV cars.
The Landmaster should not be confused with the superficially similar, but simpler Ark II.
A few big-city premiere engagements of Damnation Alley were presented in Sound 360, a high-impact surround-sound process.
Jerry Goldsmith's score made good use of the wide stereo separation afforded by Sound 360, particularly in the opening theme, with fanfares emanating from each side of the theater in turn.
Damnation Alley opened in 1977, one year after it was filmed. After the release, it quickly left the theaters because it did not make enough to stay in the chain theaters or duplexes or triplexes. Dismissal of the film was noted, overshadowed by prior apocalypse-themed films like Day the World Ended and On the Beach. In some theaters during 1977, the film was paired with another film, Ralph Bakshi's fantasy Wizards, which was financially successful.
In the UK, Damnation Alley was released in January 1979 as a double bill with Thunder and Lightning, another 20th Century Fox film from 1977.
The network TV premiere on NBC television on Sunday, June 12, 1983 featured alternate and additional scenes (notably, footage of Murray Hamilton and George Peppard, as well as additional scenes with Dominique Sanda and Peppard).
Damnation Alley was released on VHS, Betamax, and Video 2000 formats in the United Kingdom in 1983, and on VHS and Betamax in the United States in 1985. Shout! Factory released the film (on DVD and Blu-ray) on July 12, 2011 in the United States. This release features a new anamorphic widescreen transfer, and audio commentary with producer Paul Maslansky, and well as extras including featurettes detailing the challenges in making the film, and a detailed examination of the now-famous Landmaster vehicle with designer and builder Dean Jeffries. The original "Sound 360" audio mix is not featured on the DVD and Blu-ray, as the original elements were too damaged to salvage. The film was also released on DVD in the United Kingdom in 2011.