The unexpected pleasures of the 1984 sci-fi zombie classic, where girls kick ass and go shopping, and no one is trying to establish their right-on credentials in the process.
You can imagine the pitching session for Night of the Comet: “it’s Valley Girl meets I Am Legend”. Who the hell could say no to that as a commercial idea? What’s odder is that the film manages to outstrip this throwaway idea to become, unexpectedly, one of the sleeper highlights of the 1980s. Okay, that decade wasn’t exactly the greatest time for horror fans – but films like this helped keep the genre alive in the face of multiple Troma movies and increasingly bland video fodder. That it did so as a PG-13 movie is remarkable.
The plot is pretty simple – a comet’s tail passes through Earth orbit for the first time in 65 million years, and wipes out most of the population, reducing them to piles of red dust. The only survivors are those who were inside steel structures like…erm… sheds. No, it makes no sense. Never mind. They include sisters Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart and Sam (Kelli Maroney), two typical LA valley girls who suddenly find themselves to be the last people of Earth, apparently – at least, they are when Reggie’s boyfriend is attacked and eaten by a zombie. Why are some people turned into cannibalistic zombies instead of piles of dust? Well, because, that’s why. You’re expecting this to make sense? Poor you.
Eventually, the girls meet up with fellow survivor Hector (Robert Beltran), who is hiding out at the local radio station, where the girls have gone to after hearing a broadcast that turns out to be a recording. The three of them start to use the radio station to send broadcasts to any other survivors, before Hector heads off to find his family and the girls do what any teenager might do in a situation like this – they head to the mall and enjoy a shopping spree that is rudely spoiled by the arrival of zombie mall staff. After a shoot out, the girls are captured by the zombies before being rescued by a group of government scientists who had been listening in to their broadcasts. Unfortunately, the scientists, led by Mary Woronov, have been infected by whatever disease the comet has brought with it, and are replying on blood transfusions from healthy survivors to keep them alive – so this is very much a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire…
Night of the Comet is a film that, on paper, doesn’t promise much. A teen comedy end of the world movie hardly screams ‘quality horror cinema’. Yet against the odds, it works brilliantly. This is one of the sharpest, wittiest and most enjoyable films to appear in the decade, a real low budget treat of the sort that you just don’t see any more. It’s a film that is funny, action packed and – as bizarre as it sounds to describe a horror film – rather sweet. Sure, it’s not a particularly substantial film, but it is great fun, and despite the high concept, never feels overly contrived. This isn’t a case of someone trying to make an instant cult film – instead, it’s just a no-nonsense exploitation comedy that manages to hit all the right buttons. So what if it makes no sense narratively? I would defy anyone not to find this enjoyable, even if it is simply as fast food cinema.
Writer/director Thom Eberhardt manages to skilfully juggle the various conflicting elements of the story – he knows when to play it straight and allows the two main characters a chance to experience real emotion, and the humour isn’t forced – no one is wildly mugging for the camera like in the afore-mentioned Troma films. There’s action, horror, tension and humour spread throughout the film, and that’s not an easy balance to get right, but Eberhardt manages it well.
But much of the film’s success rests with the two leads. It’s rare to have an action/sci-fi film where the leading characters are two teenage girls, but it’s not mere novelty value that makes this work. Both characters are well rounded, realistic and – most unusually for teen characters in horror films – genuinely likeable. Sure, they might be a little shallow and self-absorbed, but they are not unpleasant, and they grow during the film, kicking zombie ass, firing off machine guns and generally making the male characters like Beltran seem to be little more than supporting players in the story. These women don’t need a man to rescue them – they are more than capable of making it through an apocalypse on their own. And none of this feels contrived – it’s not a filmmaker trying to score feminist points or showing their Woke credentials. Rather, this is, at worst, an extension of the female action heroes of 1970s exploitation; at best – and more likely – is that Eberhardt just wrote these characters without any contrived ideas or needing to labour the point. It says a lot about their knowledge of film history that critics today will still talk about the recent raft of female-led action films – all of which do feel contrived – as if they are something revolutionary and new for the modern age, when films like this were doing the same thing more effectively almost four decades ago without having to shout about it. back then, female action heroes were something that didn’t need to be remarked upon or seemed odd; now, movies feel the need to hammer home the intersectional points and make sure that everyone knows the leads of a new film are strong, empowered, independent women and don’t you forget it. This doesn’t feel like progress, somehow.
Of course, it could’ve fallen apart if the actresses in the leads weren’t up to the job, and the film lucks out considerably with Stewart and Maroney, who have a natural chemistry and, while looking nothing like each other, work well as siblings. Stewart is the tough tomboy who takes control, Maroney the ridiculously cute cheerleader who stays in denial about what has happened until she can no longer avoid reality, and both of them are great.
Given its low budget, Night of the Comet looks fantastic – the deserted LA locations are striking and the film is full of neat visual touches and lighting tricks that give it a gloss that you’d expect from a much more expensive film. And this new blu-ray edition looks so gorgeous that it’s like seeing the film afresh.
I have no nostalgia for the 1980s – films, music or fashion – and so the fact that this film seems to perfectly capture the era means nothing to me. For some of you, I imagine that will be an added bonus. The fact that I think this is a great film anyway should speak volumes. If all films of the era were as much fun as this, I’d probably look back at the era as a golden age too. As it is, Night of the Comet is unexpectedly great, gets better each time I watch it and is, dare I say it, possibly the most entertaining horror film ever to be set in a shopping mall.
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