Color, 1977, 91 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Jack Smight
Starring Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Dominique Sanda, Paul Winfield, Jackie Earle Haley, Kip Niven
Signal One (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Shout Factory (Blu-ray & DVD) (US (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Final Cut (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

The Damnation Alleyonly feature film to date Damnation Alleybased on the work of science-fiction writer Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley will never live down its reputation as the big sci-fi production 20th Century Fox was counting on to be its big hit for 1977 -- at least until a little film called Star Wars came along and left this turbulent production (as well as another Fox film, The Other Side of Midnight) in the dust. Closer in spirit to a grungy drive-in film than a glossy studio production, Damnation Alley found a more receptive audience on a slew of drive-in double bills and frequent TV airings while its grandiose Jerry Goldsmith score has remained a fan favorite over the years.

Work tensions at a desert missile silo have erupted between Major Sam Denton (Peppard) and the much younger Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Vincent), but that's nothing compared to what happens when a Soviet nuclear attack prompts an immediate retaliation with both men required to turn the pivotal keys to initiate missile launching. The subsequent devastation leaves the planet thrown off its axis with unnaturally colorful, swirling skies and horrific threats like giant scorpions prowling the desert. After a conflagration devastates their base, Denton and Tanner join forces with a former Air Force pilot Tom (Winfield) to travel to New York to hone in on a promising radio signal Damnation Alleyby using a military transport vehicle called the Landmaster to navigate the rough titular terrain. Along the way they pick up a stranded woman, Janice (Sanda), and Damnation Alleyteenager Billy (Haley), but also have to contend with more threats including an army of carnivorous cockroaches.

In 2011, Shout Factory brought the film to Blu-ray and DVD (as separate releases), with UK label Signal One following suit in 2018 with a dual format Blu-ray and DVD combo. The HD source is identical for both, right down to the individual specks of grain, and likely looks as good as it could with those dark '70s Fox film stock blacks. However, the UK one amps up the bit rate even higher than the already generous Shout Factory one -- it's maxed out almost completely throughout -- with the film itself occupying about 4.5 more GB of disc space on the Signal One. It looks perfectly satisfactory if unspectacular given the fact that there's a fair amount of debris baked into the (many) optical shots and isn't exactly the most visually accomplished production in the world. Despite the LPCM 1.0 mono notation on the back of the Signal One release, the Blu-ray (as with the U.S. one) has a 6.1 LPCM mix with Goldsmith's score blasting in all its glory. It isn't exactly a surround powerhouse and feels more like a 3.0 mix most of the time with dialogue dead center and some nice sound effects work (the sandstorm in particular) and music roaring out from the left and right. In some premiere engagements the film was promoted with an audio process called Sound 360, with a mono surround channel in the back and large left and right speakers installed in front; however, the original elements for this mix are unfortunately no longer available for use. A DTS-HD MA English track retains the standard stereo mix as well on the Signal One release, which is also the only one with optional English SDH subtitles. On the other hand, the Shout Factory has LPCM 7.1 and DTS-HD MA 6.1 options, with the former featuring a heavier low end.

Both releases share a thorough audio commentary with producer Paul Maslansky, who walks through the arduous process of shepherding the film through at Fox and dealing with the process of adapting a book whose author was famously displeased with the cinematic result, and a trio of excellent Damnation Alleyfeaturettes that provide some much-needed context. "Survival Run" (11m34s) spotlights co-screenwriter Alan Sharp (who already had credits like The Last Run and Night Moves under his belt) explaining how and why he had to overhaul the original Zelazny-Damnation Alleyapproved screenplay at Fox and wanted to explore the sociological aspects of the story rather than the disaster ones, not to mention his dissatisfaction with the current "Norman Rockwell" ending. "Road To Hell" (13m22s) with producer Jerome Zeitman is equally candid about the difficulties encountered with the film's daunting special effects and other obstacles like finding a director, with Robert Wise turning it down before ending up with Jack Smight on the strength of Harper. "Landmaster Tales" (10m14s) features stunt coordinator and car designer Dean Jeffries going into a deep history with the customized vehicle that became the most famous visual element of the film, one with required a deft mixture of miniatures, the real machine, and some automotive ingenuity to keep it looking convincing on camera. He also goes into the fate of the Landmaster after filming, which is fortunately a happy story. A theatrical and TV spot are also included, while the Signal One adds a gallery of international poster art and stills. However, the clincher that makes the Signal One the stronger option is a new audio commentary with Paul Talbot, whose knack for extensive and beautifully presented film scholarship can be found in his essential books on topics like Charles Bronson and the Falconhurst series. He's a wealth of knowledge here as he covers everything from the studio backgrounds of the actors to the trial and error process of creating giant scorpions and flesh-eating insects to the many sequences cut from the (rather short) final release version during the scripting and editing processes.

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Reviewed on March 12, 2018.