craters coming at me now ashes coming at me radiation wasteland i've got my anti radiation machine oh thank you doctor strangelove for giving me ashes and post-atomic dust and the sky is raining fishes it's a mutation zoo i'm going down damnation alley well good luck to you...... --from “Damnation Alley” by Hawkwind (written by Dave Brock, Robert Calvert and Simon House)
So many of the books I like are out of print, I feel the need to write them up, like I did recently with Donald E. Westlake’s Humans. (This essay originally appearedin a slightly different form on an upstart scf-fi website in 2002.)
A slim, rough-and-tumble volume, Roger Zelazny’s feisty SF thriller Damnation Alley (Berkley; 1969; out-of-print) would’ve made a great premise for B-movie maven Roger Corman: a skuzzy and violent biker named Hell Tanner is picked to drive from Los Angeles to Boston across the post-nuclear holocaust America to deliver the serum to stop a deadly plague there. Flying is impossible in this world: the world’s skies are terrifying tornadoes that dump tons of earth and mud (and whatever) randomly.
Giant mutant rats, bats and Gila monsters roam the land, and most cities are either glowing radioactive craters or plains of fused glass.
And let’s not forget the marauding bands of savages, shall we?
Originally attracted by its weird, almost surreal cover (above) which actually has nothing to do with the book, but looksreally frickin’cool—Damnation Alley was the first Roger Zelazny (May 13, 1937 – June 14, 1995) book I ever picked up, sometime in the mid-1970s.
It sat on the bookshelf in my room for a while, until I read Zelazny’s amazing Creatures of Light and Darkness (also 1969—he was quite prolific at this time). Impressed, I then proceeded to read Damnation Alley.
(I believe the cover above was painted by infamous proto-surrealist Richard M. Powers, truly one of the greatest painters of paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s. Check out more of his work HERE; I think it’s fantastic.)
While I’m not a fan of all of Zelazny’s books, there is a handful that I return to again and again.
In high school, I devoured the first five booksin his “Amber” series, and I’ve re-read his Creatures of Light and Darkness, Jack of Shadows(1971), Roadmarks (1979) and Damnation Alley at least a couple of times each. Zelazny died in 1995, but never seemed to slow his pace, although his later works were just too sword & sorcery for my tastes. Damnation Alley is hardly “hard” SF: by 1969, it was common knowledge that the massive doses of radiation released by an atomic war would not cause spiders and bats to grow 500 times their normal size. However, around the time that Zelazny wrote it, bikers and motorcycle gangs were everywhere: in the news, in films (dozens of biker flicks were released between1966 and 1974), and in popular books (Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the Hells Angels was published in 1966), and gangs like the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club were attaining mythic stature. I think Zelazny was trying to meld a then-contemporary phenomenon with a SF plot in a very commercial premise. As a piece of pulp fiction, then, Damnation Alley is wildly successful. Forty years later, the book is still very much a page-turner, an exciting action story that effectively crosses genre boundaries. In fact, the “blood & guts” crowd may appreciate this book more than many hard-SF fans will. The book may be episodic, but Zelazny takes a cheeseball premise, treats it seriously and runs with it at a ferocious pace. You can argue that as a grand master of the SF genre (the man won six Hugo awards in his career! some might say) the author should have transposed the biker theme into a more “serious” SF concept other than the giant-mutant-critters storyline that filled so many B-movies in the 1950s. But I think it’s perfect: two great B-movie tastes that taste great together—bikers and mutants! (Perhaps there was something in the air in 1969, but that year also saw the release of Ray Harryhausen’s underrated film The Valley of the Gwangi, which featured cowboys versus dinosaurs). Because despite the inherent trashiness of both of these respective genres (bikers, atomic mutants), there have been excellent films made about each of them, including Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels(1966) and Them!(1954).
And it just seems so perfect: of course a biker is going to be the one man to cross the atomic wasteland U.S. of A.
In the hands of a good writer, no premise is stupid, and Damnation Alley lucked out by being written by an inkslinging wiz like Zelazny. I think the furious pace is a result of the author having fun writing it—making it up—as he goes along.
The book starts with a motorcycle vs. police car chase under a mutated tornado sky, slowing down only to drop a bit of exposition a few times, then roars off into the wilds of the nuclear nightmare.
Tanner’s given a car fit for such a hostile environment: an uber-SUV, equipped with machine guns, flamethrowers and other deadly amenities. Zelazny’s anti-hero is the Last of the Hells Angels, in jail for murder, being offered a full pardon if he takes the job. (Kinda like Escape From New York or The Dirty Dozen.)
A real vile bastard, who “once gouged out a man’s eyes, just for fun,” Hell Tanner is a mean son-of-a-bitch, but the best driver around: the only man who’s made the mail-run to Alberqueque, he also claims to have been as far as the “Missus Hip.” (And “Hell” is not a nickname—in a great bit of tossed off dialog, Tanner explains that when the nurse asked his father for a name for his seventh child, the old man said “Hell!” and split, never to be seen again.)
Originally published as a novella in the October 1967 issue of Galaxy Magazine, Damnation Alley was expanded by the author adding interstitial quasi-Gothic scenes of Boston descending into death and madness from the plague. Church bells are always ringing, the skies are dark and the houses are filled with dead bodies. Zelazny has remarked that he really doesn’t like these scenes, that he just added them to pad out the novella.
And while they might slow down the out-of-control action occasionally, I feel these scenes add weight and a sense of urgency to Hell Tanner’s mission. No longer an abstract “Man Against Nature Fight for Survival,” the story becomes the greater mission of “Saving The World.”
Meanwhile, during his drive through the Alley, Tanner finds himself thinking more and more about Brady, the man who brought the message about the Boston’s plague (and the plea for the serum) to Los Angeles. The first man to cross Damnation Alley (what the survivors call the wasteland between the coasts), Brady died from his injuries soon after arriving, and only left scattered, fevered descriptions of the horrors on the road. When Tanner is finally alone (the other drivers having been killed, injured or disappearing into mega-cyclones), the reminiscences grow spooky, with the biker almost feeling challenged by Brady’s ghost. When this is intercut with the scenes of desperation in Boston, there’s an even deeper resonance to the endeavor, an indication that the vicious biker might be doing something to save his soul.
Zelazny gives a heavily camouflaged hint that Tanner might be more than just a beast early on: Rather than let his kid brother (who is also a naturally gifted driver; it must run in the family) pilot one of the cars to Boston—a trip Tanner has no illusions about certainly being fatal—a “Himmelfahrtskommando”—he beats up his brother and kicks his ribs in, sending the kid to the ICU.
It’s brutal and horrible, but it’s the only way Tanner knows of how to save his little brother’s life. A pulp novel doesn’t have to be all style and no substance. Like Harlan Ellison’s novella A Boy and His Dog, Damnation Alley takes place enough in the post-nuclear war period that our protagonist is truly of a unique post-war generation: kids who grew up never knowing a pre-nuked civilization, but with enough of that civilization’s detritus and trappings for them to scrap up an inkling of what they’ve been cheated out of terribly.
Unlike A Boy and His Dog, when Damnation Alley was made into a movie, the filmmakers strayed far from the source material—and screwed things up royally. When director L.Q. Jones made his incredible (and highly recommended) film of A Boy and His Dog in 1975, he was smart enough to know that there was no way to top Ellison’s crackling dialog, and hardly changed a word.
(But I do think that Jones actually improves on Ellison in the depiction of underground city of Topeka. While I understand the parody of Squaresville that Ellison’s trying to present, but I just don’t feel it. Visually and thematically, I connected more with Jones’ Richard-Nixon-Reads-Samuel-Beckett-on-LSD presentation of Topeka.) I used to think that Damnation Alley was made by 20th Century Fox to cash in on the popularity of sci-fi movies brought on by the monstro-success of Star Wars. But according to IMDB, the movie was finished and then shelved until after Star Wars came out. It seems that its release had already been delayed by the lengthy post-production process where the cheesy laser effects were matted onto the sky.
The first few shots of the laser skies are okay, but it’s shocking how inept the rest of the effects are. The flick’s not on DVD, but it is on YouTube, so you can decide for yourself. It’s actually more tolerable on YTube, the bad transfer making the movie of Damnation Alley look more interesting than it is.
But to me, it seems the whole film was sloppily put together by people with little understanding for the action-movie genre at least, let alone genuine science fiction. The flick is poorly paced, the dialog is atrocious, the movie is not even fun in that “it’s so bad it’s good” way. You watch actor Paul Winfield get devoured by 10-inch long cockroaches and you yawn.
Zelazny’s plot, except for driving a big weird truck cross-country, is completely jettisoned, and the main character has been changed from biker trash Hell Tanner to clean-cut Air Force Captain Tanner, stiffly played by a bland Jan-Michael Vincent.
And the movie’s Tanner is one of the guys who launched the missiles in the first place! The protagonist has been changed from the new breed of existential/nihilist human that grew up in the aftermath of the Day of Fire to the guy who pushed the button! It’s a thematic change that’s insulting.
And worst of all, he rides a motherfuckin’ riceburner, man!
Zelazny is reported to have hated the movie, and tried to get his name off the film, but 20th Century Fox wouldn’t let him (probably correctly assuming that his die-hard fans might be the only ones willing to pay money to see it).
But something good comes out of Damnation Alley the movie, I guess.
The big tank/truck they drive, called the “Landmaster” in the film, went on to have an extended cameo in an episode of Chris Eliott’s late, great, lamented sitcom Get A Life. The vehicle “played” Paperboy 2000, the automated paper-delivery machine that threatened Chris’ job and eventually went haywire.
Interestingly, the Landmaster’s costar from the Damnation Alley movie, Jackie Earl Haley, also appeared on Get A Life, although in a different episode. Haley made a great guest-starring appearance playing the infamous Cousin Donald(with that incredibly greasy hair). FYI: Aside from influencing Chris Eliott’s cult comedy (albeit in a roundabout way), Zelazny’s book likewise inspired an awesome 9 minutes and 8 seconds song by proto-metal/psychedelic band Hawkind, also called “Damnation Alley.” It’s off the album Quarks, Strangeness and Charm(which is itself also a good song).
You can give the song "Damnation Alley" a listen to at this YouTubelocation.
I used to hope that there still might have been a chance to make a faithful movie of Damnation Alley, but after those Rollerball and Death Race remakes? Forget it.
In the best of all possible alternative universes, the movie of Damnation Alley would’ve been made in 1974 starring William Smith as Hell Tanner, and either Warren Oates or Bruce Dern as Brody: they both could play “square and tough, but crazy” well.
And if you didn’t know, William Smithis probably one of the most awesome screen presences ever. A guy so tough, John Milius cast him as Conan’s father. THE biker in the biker flick. William Smith is so awesome, pop-cult-new wave-bubblegum band The Jicketseven wrote a song about him.
I’d want this sci-fi biker movie of the mind to be a slightly-higher end Corman or AIP production: stock footage of lizards with plastic fins would be bought and matted in by someone like Howard A. Anderson, with matte paintings farmed out to a freelancing Albert Whitlockover footage shot around Joshua Tree. (Oh yeah, I’m a special effects nerd.)
Once you get all of these elements together, just adapt the novel faithfully, and you’ll have a freat (fricking great) movie of Damnation Alley.
That was my original idea for the title of this blog, a sort of summation of nearly everything I'd ever wanted cinematically: regularly playing on the ABC Channel 7 4:30 movie--or on WOR-TV Channel 9's 4 O'Clock Movie--the greatest monster movie in the universe, and incredible combo of miniatures, men in suits and stop motion, with entire continents destroyed!
But then there was a coup d'etat, and Tzar Ivan I of Ivanlandia took charge.