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Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: Night of the Comet (1984)

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Friday, May 4, 2007


It’s the night of the big interstellar star show, and poor Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) has to work. Holed up at the local movie house (where she’s an usher), she calls her sister to let her know she’ll be home a little later than usual. Sam (Kelli Maroney) is equally upset. She is being forced to spend the evening kowtowing to her stepmother’s mindless friends. As the big event finally arrives—Earth is passing through the tail of a massive, mysterious comet—something strange happens. Everyone on the planet just disappears—everyone except Regina and Sam, apparently.


At first, they figure they’re alone. Then Regina runs into an angry zombie with murder on his mind. Eventually the sisters make their way to a local radio station, where they confront Hector (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who’s also running from the fiends. Together they decide to look for others. Unfortunately, there are more than monsters posing a potential threat. A group of scientists is seeking human subjects for evil experiments, and Regina, Sam, and Hector will make terrific blood banks. Seems that after this Night of the Comet, no one is safe—not even the ones who managed to survive.


Night of the Comet is such an amiable ‘80s artifact that you can almost visualize Cindy Lauper making out with Duran Duran while Naked Eyes sings “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.” Playing on several still-fresh genre types from the time period—the zombie movie, the post-apocalyptic survival epic, the quirky teen coming-of-age title—writer/director Thom Eberhardt (kind of a forgotten filmmaker, even with credits like Without a Clue and Captain Ron to his name) decided to approach each and every element in his motion picture mash-up with a fair amount of ironic humor and a sense of sly subversion.


Sure, there are members of the living dead present, but they are articulate, mobile, and very, very pissed. Yes, the planet will be instantly de-populated when it passes through the tale of an obscure comet. But this is L.A., baby, a locale with endless shopping and lots of creature comforts. And, granted, our heroines seem like a couple of kids just looking to get laid and have a little fun. Yet in Regina and Sam, Eberhardt finds character first, classification second. They may look like runners-up in the ersatz valley girl competition of 1984, but they really stand out as complex, confused personalities.


Better still, Night of the Comet knows what to do with each and every one of these cinematic scenarios. The first 30 minutes of the movie are masterful, setting us up for the pseudo-horror humor to come. Eberhardt establishes Regina’s stubbornness, her desire to determine her own life. Similarly, Sam seems ditzy and devil may care, but once her stepmother literally slaps her down, we witness a limited lifetime of disappointment in her fiery eyes. Both Catherine Mary Stewart (Reg) and Kelli Maroney (Sam) are sensational, walking a fine line between being too smart and resorting to adolescent irrationality. Their scenes together have a nice comic crackle and, when we witness the implied end of their time together, it’s a stunning, shocking moment.


Eberhardt makes an intriguing choice here—he keeps Sam dressed in her pep club cheerleader-like outfit throughout the entire first half of the film, suggesting her archetype on the surface while disavowing its reality within. Reg, all big hair, sharp shoulders, and even larger attitude, is more enigmatic. We never get a hard bead on what she’s supposed to represent but, in Eberhardt’s mind, she’s a standard action hero given a girly makeover. While the rest of the cast sits around staring, Reg is the first one in, dealing with issues and applying her Army brat training with gusto.


From a plot perspective, Night of the Comet is really divided up into three separate acts. The first, prior to the precarious cosmic event, has the feel of a John Hughes comedy gone gallows. There are bitter feelings all throughout the subtext of these scenes and we really get to know our leads very well. Part two presents us with our metropolitan Mad Max meat. We’re introduced to the zombies, the well-meaning trucker (Eating Raoul‘s Robert Beltran) who wants to help the girls, and the City Limits-like band of fey gang members who threaten our ladies’ trip to the local mall. This is the action portion of the film, Eberhardt’s attempt to set up all the possible situations that can occur come Act III.


With the arrival of this final section, Night of the Comet unfortunately goes a tad catawampus. There’s an attempt to mix in some science-gone-sinister overtones while fooling us into feeling our heroines are in actual danger. It’s perhaps the only weak element in an otherwise strong genre effort. Perhaps due to budget limitations or a lack of imagination, we don’t get the fierce fireworks we’ve come to expect from this final confrontation. Instead, it’s a couple of quips, a run through a hallway or two, and a minor car explosion.


Still, Night of the Comet deserves its current status as a forgotten cult classic. In an era when terror was decidedly slice and dice, when sci-fi smelled like Ewoks, and the end of the world was draped in as many mind-blowing car chases as possible, Thomas Eberhardt and his incredibly talented company (including interesting turns by Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis as maniacal medicos) wanted to shake things up. Indeed, when the first draft of your script is entitled Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies, you’re not trying to make a totally serious speculative scarefest.


Though it may not be the most influential film or the best example of how the cultural conceits of the ‘80s seeped into every aspect of the pop landscape (including film), Night of the Comet manages to make its many diverse and delightful points in increasingly inventive and entertaining ways. Go in expecting too much and you’ll be pretty disappointed. If you enter remembering the time and the place evoked and recognizing the skill in selling all the varying ideas, you’ll really enjoy the ride. Night of the Comet is the kind of movie that recalls the wide-eyed optimism of the initial phases of the Greed Decade. It’s a surefire schlock sensation.

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