Saturday, June 21, 2014

Roger Zelazny Movie Review: Damnation Alley, part II: "...I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!"

The second part of my review of Damnation Alley. The first is here. When we return after our brief intermission, Hannibal is playing a grumpy driving instructor to Stringfellow. In the other Landmaster, Perry is quoting some trivia from Car & Driver, and Keenan looks hilariously bored and miserable.

I'm not one for car porn, but I did find the passages about the capabilities of the vehicle to be pretty interesting reading. Zelazny's, presented here, was, of course more evocative, and I wish they could have found a way to work it into the movie.

There were no windows in the vehicle, only screens which reflected views in every direction, including straight up and the ground beneath the car. Tanner sat within an illuminated box which shielded him against radiation. The "car" that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-caliber automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armor-piercing rockets which could be discharged straight ahead or at any elevation up to forty degrees from the plane. Each of the four sides, as well as the roof of the vehicle, housed a flamethrower. Razor-sharp "wings" of tempered steel, eighteen inches wide at their bases and tapering to points, an inch and a quarter thick where they ridged, could be moved through a complete hundred-eighty-degree arc along the sides of the car and parallel to the ground, at a height of two feet and eight inches. When standing at a right angle to the body of the vehicle, eight feet to the rear of the front bumper, they extended out to a distance of six feet on either side of the car. They could be couched like lances for a charge. They could be held but slightly out from the sides for purposes of slashing whatever was sideswiped. The car was bulletproof, air-conditioned, and had its own food locker and sanitation facilities. A long-barreled .357 Magnum was held by a clip on the door near the driver's left hand. A 30.06, a .45-caliber automatic, and six hand grenades occupied the rack immediately above the front seat.

However, the piece from Popular mechanics (which I, in turn, copied from Wikipedia) has its own virtues, as well, in large part because it is describing a vehicle that actually exists.

Three independent drive sources running from a gasoline power plant. Uses semi truck parts in the drive train. Can operate with the front or rear wheel trinary out of commission. Side and top hatches on the main unit and rear and top on the after section. Full running lights and brake lights for urban street use. External video camera is mounted on the forward pylon located just behind the front top hatch. Could also house the antenna. All pylons are hardened and armored. Can operate in water and will remain sealed when fully submerged. Can float while half full of water.
While the film is fiction, the Landmaster vehicle is real. In the story, the Landmaster was designed to use as many standard truck parts as possible, so that any junkyard would have whatever was needed for repairs. The real Landmaster is powered by a 390-cubic-inch (6.4 L) Ford industrial engine, and uses the rear-ends of two commercial trucks and an Allison automatic truck transmission. It features a fully functional, custom-built "tri-star" wheel arrangement, which could actually help it crawl over boulders. All 12 wheels are driven, but only 8 are normally in contact with the road surface at any one time.

I like the bit about being made out of standard truck parts. It seems like such a good, practical idea.

I'm a rebel, Dottie, a loner.
The characters encounter a storm made out of weird funnel cloud things. Perry obeys procedure and hunkers down and digs in. Stringfellow decides to outrun the storm, because he's a rebel who plays by his own rules.

Perry's wrong and Tanner's right, and Perry is killed when the storm uproots his Landmaster. They patch up Keenan, and continue on, stopping at Circus Circus in Las Vegas, and I must say, that marquee is in better condition than most of those at our local theaters.

Keenan and Tanner play some slot machines, while Denton seems to be reminiscing about happier times. I really like this scene, and I think these human moments are when the movie works best. Just as they're really getting into the nickel slots, the lady who lives in the casino shows up. I wonder if she was expecting company or what, or if she always diligently applies lipstick when she wakes up every morning in Post-Apocolypsia.

She joins our merry band. Her name is Janice, and she's played by Dominique Sanda, who is still acting today, which is pretty cool.  The team stops at a local town to refuel, but something seems off.

And it turns out that something is KILLER COCKROACHES! 

There are elements of the scene that work really well, and taken on its own, I think it's actually pretty well put together. The problem is that we're just lurching from one loosely connected set piece to the next, and, I'm not a screenwriter or anything, but a scene where the heroes meet a pretty woman living in a casino does not organically lead into a scene where Jan-Michael  Vincent rides his motorcycle up the stairs in order to escape a swarm of flesh-eating cockroaches.

 Also, I think Roger Zelazny is one of the most talented genre authors of his time. However, he missed the opportunity to include this line!
Tanner, this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!

Alas, poor Kennan! I knew him, Denton; a fellow of infinite appeal to flesh stripping cockroaches

"Hrm. Not Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, but will suffice."

Anyway, Keenan is eaten and they drive on to the next set piece, where Tanner is almost beaten up by a little kid played by a very young Jackie Earle Haley. Say what you like about Tanner in the book, he never would have been beaten up by a twelve-year old. Billy tags along as well.

They stop to resupply. Janice play the piano, and young Rorschach helps himself to what looks like a Tootsie Pop. A bunch of hillbilly rapists show up and briefly take our heroes prisoner, but baby Rorschach slips Tanner a handgun, and Tanner shoots one of the hillbillies in the face within the Landmaster when he's momentarily distracted by a hillbilly shooting at Janice outside. (Then he's immediately one-upped by Denton, who uses one of the Landmaster's missiles to blow up the building housing the bad guys.) It's another well constructed scene, and the effects they used on the sky, which I could otherwise take or leave during the movie, looked really nice here.

We're in the home stretch now! We get a montage on the Landmaster, which includes a scene of Janice coming her hair and I notice that Dominique Sanda is wearing a wedding ring. I don't know if that's any oversight and the actress accidently wore her own wedding ring during the scene, or something deliberate, as Tanner claimed she was his wife in order to protect her when the hillbillies were attacking.

(Though, on reflection, I don't think so, since Tanner's not wearing a corresponding ring.)

They stop for parts and chit chat, Tanner and Billy bond while Denton repairs the Landmaster. Something weird is going on with the weather. Billy has wandered off, as little kids in movies are wont to do. Tanner rescues him. This scene has zero tension. They get back to the Landmaster and Denton has finished the repairs. More 70s disaster movie scenes. A tidal wave submerges the Landmaster! But they get out! Whew!

When they open the other hatch, they see the bright blue sky above them while soft, triumphant music plays. I thought I saw Johnathan Livingston Seagull  flying overhead. (Is there room for one more wisecrack about the 70s? Josh thinks so!) If there had been a seagull and Tanner had nailed it with a cigar butt, I think that could have redeemed the entire movie.

The scene is very beautiful and pastoral.  At the end, now that the heroes are closer to Albany, they are able to pick up a second transmission, which gives them a frequency to call in.

Hey man, is that Freedom Rock?

There is a thriving population in Albany, and they're apparently amphibious as well, as they don't seem to have been at all inconvenienced by a tidal wave large enough to tilt the axis of the Earth. 

Speaking of which, it had been mentioned at several points in the movie that the earth returning to its proper axis might restore things, and also, that this might happen on its own. Apparently that's what did happen, and it makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. We get the happy ending, but it had nothing to do with anything the heroes did. What's the point?

As a film, or a spectacle for the big screen, it's not bad. There is some solid craftsmanship there, and most of the problems with the presentation are attributable to the fact that the technology wasn't there yet. (The movie had one person credited with special effects, with a handful credited with optical effects or laser animation. That's hard to imagine a crew so small on a modern movie, even one that's not a genre work.)

However, as a vehicle for telling a coherent story, it's pretty awful. I think that's why, even though there are some scenes I liked, I ultimately didn't like the movie. It's never more than the sum of its parts. The scenes never built to anything, and they certainly don't build to this ending.

Zelazny famously disliked it, though I did like his response, saying that the book was still there for those who would want to read it.

If, for some reason, you'd like to subject yourself to it, it's available on to stream from Amazon Prime.

1 comment:

  1. Also, I didn't like Hell in the books, but at least he felt like a real person. I am unable to generate any kind of opinion at all on Jake Tanner.

    Also, I think an argument could be made that it was Denton who was really the lead here, even though Jan-Michael Vincent got top billing. That's such an entirely bizarre decision.