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Ultimate Sci-Fi Smackdown: “Damnation Alley” vs. “The Day After Tomorrow”

12 August 2010 One Million Watts 23,554 views 3 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Welcome back to Ultimate Sci-Fi Smackdown, where mainstream Hollywood science fiction movies duel for galactic supremacy! In this arena, previously-distinguished acting careers will be lightly besmirched, matte paintings will be shattered, and rubber prosthetic limbs will ripped and thus rendered saleable on eBay. In our last bout, “Logan’s Run” trampled flat “The Island”; today, 1977’s “Damnation Alley” takes on 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” for end-of-the-world bragging rights. In the name of Sha Ka Ree, let’s get ready to rumble!


Damnation Alley: A nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union devastates the major cities of the US (we never find out what happens to the rest of the world) and knocks the planet off its axis.

And now, with your kind indulgence, I’d like to publish “Damnation Alley’s” amazing prologue here verbatim:

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. Once this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

And there’s an entire movie after that.

The Day After Tomorrow: A severe storm turns the entire Northern Hemisphere, from Iceland through Orlando, into a bitchin’ bunny slope. The world’s scientific community, led by Dennis Quaid’s Dr. Jack Hall, is unable to explain or prevent the phenomena — perhaps because they’ve never met the screenwriters in a dark alley. Instead, Quaid lays the blame for the catastrophe squarely on the current presidential administration, which is played by a Dick Cheney look-alike and a George W. Bush look-alike who defers to the Cheney look-alike. Verisimilitude!

Winner: “Damnation Alley.”


Considering that the original “Star Wars” came out the same year — hell, I think it came out the same month — “Damnation Alley’s” visual effects are astonishingly crude and underdone. A composite shot of “giant” scorpions draws unintentional laughs. The effects of a nuclear holocaust are expressed through a combination of tinted lenses and laser light effects added in post. The movie’s most convincing effect is the Landmaster, a pimpin’ recreational vehicle that’s part Airstream and part Fiat. It has triple-axle wheels (you’ll have to see them to believe them), is completely waterproofed and has gun turrets and missiles and probably a rumpus room. Approximately 50% of “Damnation Alley” is composed of shots of the Landmaster rolling through majestic desert vistas, under skies of Laser Zeppelin.

TDAT: Here’s where I have to hand it to Roland Emmerich, the hack director of “Independence Day,” “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow”: The guy can’t direct a dialogue scene to save his life, but boy howdy, can he ever destroy the planet. The visual effects of “The Day After Tomorrow” are flat-out astounding: you see Los Angeles ripped apart by twisters, you see New York flooded to its mezzanine. Emmerich even included some unnecessary scenes on the Space Shuttle, just to show that he could do it. With the volume turned down, “The Day after Tomorrow” is an astonishing and even beautiful piece of work.

Winner: “The Day After Tomorrow.”


DA: George Peppard, after “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and before “The A-Team.” You know Peppard’s character Denton is a decent guy because he’s soft-spoken and has a southern accent, and you know he’s a no-nonsense career military man because he wears a little baseball cap. He doesn’t really get short with anyone except Jan Michael Vincent’s character Tanner, whom he resents for his insubordination, immaturity and surfer haircut. I hate to begrudge Peppard a much-deserved payday, but his role would have been better filled by Jackie Gleason, who by then had more experience playing authority figures, doing a southern accent, and not least of all, driving a bus.

TDAT: Dennis Quaid really doesn’t want to be here. He gets pissy with pretty much everybody: with the scientists who doubt his findings, with the politician who disses him at a climate summit, with the two idiots who follow them on a doomed mission across the frozen tundra on a mission that makes no logical sense, and with the estranged son (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is annoyed that never Quaid never made time to throw a baseball or whatever.

Winner: Dennis Quaid, “The Day After Tomorrow.”


DA: Paul Winfield plays Keegan, an artist and gentle soul who’s unceremoniously eaten alive by armor-plated cockroaches in Salt Lake City. (His eulogy, by Peppard: “This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. Repeat: killer cockroaches!”) Winfield’s character is the most human in the entire film — he’s the most likeable, has the funniest lines, and is even the best-looking. But he is black, and in any sci-fi movie — hell, any movie, period — that means you’ll have suffered a horrible and senseless by the end of the second reel.

TDAT: Some guy named Frank on Dennis Quaid’s team falls to his death through the glass roof of a shopping mall. (Don’t ask.) Frank is played by Jay O. Sanders and — through no fault of the actor — has no defining personality traits; I only remembered his name because Quaid’s character kept yelling “Frank! Fraaaaaaank! Hold on, Frank!”

Winner: Paul Winfield, “Damnation Alley.”


DA: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

TDAT: Jake Gyllenhaal’s casting in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.”

Winner: “Damnation Alley.”


DA: The aforementioned killer cockroaches chase the Landmaster out of Salt Lake City. In one nail-biting scene, a huge pile of rubber cockroaches rolls menacingly towards our heroes on a pallet. You can suspend disbelief if you really work at it.

TDAT: Gyllenhaal and another guy are pursued by wolves, and then by “super-cooled air” — a plot device that instantly freezes anything it comes into contact with. It’s a chase scene in which the aggressor is not only invisible, but omnipresent. How, exactly, does one run away from wind?

Winner: “The Day After Tomorrow.”


DA: The ragtag band of “Damnation Alley” struggles to get to Albany, NY, because Peppard claims “it’s the only place we ever got a signal from.” It’s an awfully thin hope to hang an entire expedition on, but when you’ve got killer cockroaches for neighbors I suppose you don’t need much of an excuse to gas up that triple-axle RV, grab a few armloads of Pringles and cue up the Rascall Flatts.

TDAT: You’re going to love this: we’re going to Mexico! Our maligned southern neighbor agrees to take on the entire surviving population of the continental United States after we forgive their debt. The last scene of the movie shows thousands of Americans crossing the Mexico border, and Lou Dobbs’s head exploding in puzzlement.

Winner: “Damnation Alley.”

Match winner: “Damnation Alley.” Tannuh! Come back heah!

We love it when a post-apocalyptic plan comes together! Join us next time, when Michael Crichton’s “Westworld” slaps iron against Bruce Willis in “Surrogates.” You’ll laugh! You’ll geek! You’ll believe that a Madagascar hissing cockroach can strip a guy to the bone in something like two minutes!

Geoff Carter

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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  1. Believe your favorite mega-RV made an encore appearance in the equally-icky, “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone,” featuring Peter “I’m too old to do my own stunts!” Strauss and Molly Ringwald (1983)

  2. In 3-D! I oughta pit “Spacehunter” against “Avatar.”

    The Landmaster also showed up on the Chris Elliot comedy “Get A Life” as a mechanical paperboy. Elliot’s character competed with it, wrapped in tinfoil to make himself more aerodynamic. The Wikipedia entry for the Landmaster is almost as long as the entry for “Damnation Alley” itself:


  3. Where’s, “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ when we have CANDIDATES!

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