Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) works in an ICBM rocket silo with Major “Sam” Denton (George Peppard) and Sergeant Tom Keegan (Paul Winfield), an aspiring artist. Incoming nuclear missiles are detected, and they launch a retaliatory strike. Two years later, the Earth has been knocked off its axis, there are giant mutant scorpions, massive storms, and a glowing radioactive sky. Tanner and Keegan are no longer in the military. An accident causes a fire and explosion on the base. Tanner and Keegan survive with Lieutenant Tom Perry (Kip Niven).
A radio transmission appears to be coming from Albany, New York, so they set out in Air-Force Landmasters, which are giant 12-wheel armored personnel carriers. They have to cross Damnation Alley between radiation zones. In a storm, Perry is killed and one of the Landmasters is disabled. In Salt Lake City they encounter flesh-stripping giant cockroaches that eat Keegan alive.
They pick up two survivors—a woman named Janice (Dominique Sanda) in Las Vegas and a teenage boy (Jackie Earle Haley) in an abandoned house. Then they fight off crazy gun-toting mountain men and the Landmaster’s rocket launchers destroy their building. One of the vehicles has a drive-train problem and they head to Detroit for parts. A cosmic storm and Tsunami wash them away, but the vehicle is amphibious. The sky clears later, and it floats to land. They hear music on the radio and Tanner and Billy head out on a dirt bike and find survivors.
The film was directed by Jack Smight, based loosely on the 1969 novel by Roger Zelazny, with cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr. and music by Jerry Goldsmith. Zelazny liked the original script, but much of it was left out of the final script, which he didn’t know until he saw it in a theater. Much of the problem was that the technology capable of doing what they wanted to do didn’t really exist. Also, Alan Ladd Jr. took a quarter of the budget and invested it in a little movie called Star Wars. The reduced budget was deadly to the special-effects heavy production. They had to cut out 44 minutes of the film. One actor had all his dialogue cut and was mute on the screen. When it finally came out, it was a critical and box-office failure.
In Japan, the movie made one and a quarter million dollars in twelve days, but it tanked in the U.S. Some scenes were put back in and more were added for its TV release, which was a ratings success, Jan Michael Vincent did much of his own motorcycle stunts and George Peppard is always fun to watch, but it didn’t help much. One success was the impressive 12-wheel, rotating wheel assembly, hinged in the middle Landmaster vehicle that cost $350,000 to build in 1976 and was sold to a private collector. It can still be seen at a custom shop in Mojave, California, minus the rocket launchers and machine-guns.