I’m going to put this on the table right off the bat: I love Night of the Comet. It’s one of my favorite films, and this will not be an entirely objective review. It’s not a masterwork of cinematography like The Innocents, it doesn’t boast compelling dialogue or characterization like Hellraiser, and it’s too firmly entrenched in the pop culture of the age to be a timeless classic like some of the other films I’ve discussed here at CineDump. Whatever it might lack, though, Night of the Comet makes up for being just plain fun, and I challenge anyone to give me a movie that more gleefully captures the lighter aspects of life in the 80s. Sure, The Breakfast Club and Wall Street firmly had their thumb on the darker undercurrents of the decade, but there’s a reason nostalgia for the era is so strong, and Comet delivers that in spades. Move over, John Hughes; this is the Regan age movie to end them all. Plus, it has two of the earliest balls-to-the-wall female heroes in the modern horror era, ready and able to take up arms against the rampaging zombie hordes rather than improvising a defense strategy at the last minute. Everything that was good and fun about the 80s encapsulated in a single film, plus badass girls with guns? What’s not to love?
The film opens with an event 65 million years in the making—a comet will be passing through Earth’s atmosphere for the first time since the Cretaceous period, and all around the world, revelers are gathering to witness the celestial phenomenon. Two people who won’t be watching the comet’s passage are teenaged sisters Reggie and Sam. The former—a tomboy who works at the local movie theater and spends her time obsessively playing video games—will be whiling away the evening indulging in one of her favorite non-geeky past times: hooking up with coworkers in the projection booth. The latter—a spunky cheerleader—has a much more dour reason for missing the festivities. She’s gotten into a physical altercation with the girls’ stepmother, with the implication that this is just the latest in a series of escalating rows. So it is that Reggie spends the night in the projection booth and Sam nurses her black eye in the family tool shed, and neither are outdoors when the comet’s radiation vaporizes everyone in its’ path, leaving the atmosphere caked with a red dust and the earth populated by a small number of survivors. That’s not to say that everyone who stayed indoors was completely unaffected: Those who received an indirect blast of the comet’s radiation—like those in rooms with open air vents—have been mutated into mindless killers that’re a cross between Romero zombies and 28 Days Later’s infected. Fortunately for Reggie and Sam, they’re no ordinary teenagers, and they’re more equipped than most to handle the apocalypse: Their father was an army officer, and in between assignments abroad, daddy’s little girls learned the fine art of taking down the enemy. After their reunion, the sisters raid an armory, stock up on firearms, and then hit the mall…
I’ll be the first to admit Night’s biggest flaw, and probably the reason it isn’t a more well-known film: Not a lot actually happens. Rather, the end of the world is an excuse for a series of set pieces in which the sisters befriend a truck driver (a pre-Voyager Robert Beltran), raid a radio station, and get kidnapped by zombie stock boys, among other fun neon-lit hijinks. There’s the thinnest excuse for a plot lurking somewhere in the background (a cabal of mad scientists, dying from indirect exposure to the comet, want to kill the girls and harvest their blood), but the film is at its’ strongest—and most enjoyable—when it’s just turning the sisters loose to engage in more post-apocalyptic shenanigans. That said, if you approach Comet as a series of interconnected short films, the movie becomes much more than the sum of its’ parts, and, like me, you’ll find yourself disappointed at the picture’s abbreviated hour and a half running time.
Much of the film’s enjoyability comes from Reggie and Sam, played to perfection by Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, respectively. There was a tendency in the 80s for teenage girls to be either moody and introspective or dumb and weak; these girls are none of those things. Acid-tongued but kind hearted, just as home at the mall as the firing range, they’re unlike any cinematic characters that had come before and unlike many that have come since. They’re real and identifiable in a way that modern filmmakers are still having trouble getting a handle on. Maybe it’s because the pair are the product of director Thom Eberhardt’s conversations with real high school girls about their own post-apocalyptic fantasies. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still struggling to make Black Widow a complex, well-rounded badass, Eberhardt already had that figured out thirty years ago. For a movie whose hook is “valley girls with guns,” those girls are surprisingly well rounded and eminently likeable. Their adeptness at hand-to-hand combat, improvised explosives, and firearms doesn’t make them cold, detached loners, just like their interest in makeup and clothes never lessens their viability as efficient killing machines. (A particularly nice touch is tomboy Reggie’s love of videogames—an activity the modern world is still having trouble accepting that women enjoy). While Hollywood spent the 90s struggling to reconcile femininity with toughness and never made it past the model of “apathetic woman in a trench coat kicks guys,” Eberhardt already had it figured out. When Sam—still in her cheerleader uniform—tests out a Mac-10, clicks her tongue when it jams, and deadpans to Reggie that “daddy would’ve gotten us Uzis,” he made more advancements for the cause of complex female characters than most of the directors in the next decade-and-a-half combined.
I could literally write a book—or at least a small treatise—on what makes Comet such a fun movie. It has a very unique aesthetic, taking the world of 1984 and ramping it up to 11 with countless neon lights and hyper-saturated blues. Some subtly effective SFX give the sky and atmosphere a perpetually red hue, lending the film’s exterior sequences an aura of eerie desolation. Mary Woronov puts in a brief appearance as an ambivalent scientist who saves Sam’s life (and pervs on Beltran’s character in a rare instance of older woman/younger pairing in a genre flick), and the film’s stinger—in which Sam finally meets a boy who doesn’t instantly fall for her sister instead—contains one of the best long-con jokes in horror movie history. I almost feel like it would be a crime against the film to say more, rather than force you to go rent it yourself. While it did commendably for a film of its’ type at the box office ($14 million; compare that to the more broadly accessible Sixteen Candles, released the same year, that took in $23 mil on a higher budget), it’s slid firmly into the territory of cult film since. It survived the late 90 and early 2000s as a shoddy VHS and bare-bones bargain DVD until Scream Factory re-released it in 2013. If ever there were a film ripe for rediscovery in today’s atmosphere of female empowerment and 80s nostalgia, it’s this one. Check out Night of the Comet—it’s, like, totally awesome.