Starcrash, 1978, Luigi Cozzi
Space outlaw and smuggler Stella Star and her sidekick Akton are on a smuggling run when they are caught by the Imperial Space Police, led by the space robot Elle. Not until they manage to pick up a castaway though, who turns out to be the only survivor from a secret mission to destroy a mysterious superweapon designed by the evil Count Zartham. The smugglers are soon recruited by the Emperor to complete the mission, as well as to rescue the Emperor’s son, who has gone missing.
An Italian production, Starcrash is widely regarded as a low-budget rip-off of Star Wars, released a year earlier. Cheap special effects, a weak, derivative plot and campy, over-the-top acting has catapulted the film to cult status, often being compared to Plan 9 From Outer Space. Borrowing several themes and scenes from other popular science-fiction and fantasy films, including the shameless inclusion of Star Wars’ lightsabers, it has been likened to “something written by excitable primary school kids”.
The film stars Christopher Plummer, Marjoe Gortner, Caroline Munroe and David Hasselhoff in one of his first roles. Hasselhoff contracted food poisoning during the shoot and most of his (masked) scenes were done by a production assistant. However, Hasselhoff did most of his own stunts and accidentally knocked out an Italian stuntman’s tooth on his first day.
Damnation Alley, 1977, Jack Smight
Loosely based on the novel by Roger Zelazny, the film follows Air Force Lt. Jake Tanner and Major Eugene Denton, who both share ICBM silo duty at an Air Force missile base. When the United States detects incoming nuclear missiles, Tanner and Denton ‘turn the key’ to launch part of the retaliatory strike. Nuclear devastation quickly follows. Two years later, the Earth has been tilted off its axis by World War III, radiation has mutated insect life, and the earth is constantly plagued by storms of unprecedented severity that engulf entire hemispheres. Military order at the Air Force base has broken down, Tanner has resigned his commission, and Denton is considering undertaking a trip to Albany, New York to discover the source of a lone radio transmission. Before the decision to abandon the base can be made, a rocket fuel gas explosion kills all but four men on the base—Denton, Tanner, former Airman Keegan and Airman Tom Perry. They set out across the United States in two Air Force ‘Landmasters’ tanks across Damnation Alley - described as “the path of least resistance” between areas of intense radiation, and other perilous phenomena. In their journey, they pick up two survivors, fight a band of crazed, shotgun-toting mountain men, and encounter mutated cockroaches before reaching their destination.
Because of 20th Century Fox’s last-minute decision to include more shots of the centerpiece ‘Landmaster’ as well as insert radioactive skies in post-production, Damnation Alley was delayed an inordinate amount of time due to the difficult process of superimposing optical effects on the sky in 80% of the shots.
Following plans to release only two science fiction films in 1977, with Damnation Alley intended to be the blockbuster, the other film was released ahead of time while Damnation Alley was still stuck in post-production. This ‘other’ film was Star Wars.