Night of the Comet (1984)
Catherine Mary Stewart (Regina Belmont), Kelli Maroney (Samantha Belmont), Robert Beltran (Hector Gomez), Mary Woronov (Audrey), Geoffrey Lewis (Carter)
Radiation from a passing comet
“Since before recorded time it had swung through the universe in an elliptical orbit so large that its very existence remained a secret of time and space. But now, in the last few years of the 20th century, the visitor was returning. The citizens of Earth would get an extra Christmas present this year, as their planet orbited through the tail of the comet. Scientists predicted a light show of stellar proportions, something not seen on earth for 65 million years. Indeed, not since the time that the dinosaurs disappeared, virtually overnight. There were a few who saw this as more than just a coincidence. But most didn’t.” – Opening Narration.
Night of the Comet is a staple of late nights and lazy weekend afternoons. Is it on right now? If not it will probably be on later. The movie did reasonable in its theatrical run but a lot of its following sprung up from its airing on The SciFi Channel and various movie channels in the late ’90s and early ’00s. A lot of bored channel surfers fell in love with this movie and are almost entirely responsible for its cult following. I hadn’t seen Night of the Comet for nearly 15 years prior to watching it for this review but nearly every detail about it remained vivid in my memory. Unfortunately one of those details was that it was a largely toothless ’80s horror film that felt like it’s own edited-for-content TV version.
The story concerns Regina and her younger sister Samantha, two teenage girls living in Los Angeles who by happenstance manage to be among the very few not turned to dust when the Earth goes through the tail of a passing comet. LA’s infrastructure remains up and running and thanks to timers and automated systems the city runs smoothly without the presence of various people. The world is Reg and Samantha’s oyster, but there are some people who weren’t fully affected by the comet’s radiation, they’re deteriorating at a much slower rate and they’re extremely violent.
That’s a solid B-movie premise: 1980s valley girls, murderous zombies, a definite I Am Legend vibe. This has all the makings of a delightfully lurid horror film. But like I said, it’s not goopy or particularly salacious. Beyond a couple blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gore bits and Kelli Maroney stripping down to her underwear in a dream sequence it’s near puritanical. Sure the girls are not shy about their sexual history but even those brief moments are treated so coyly that they feel tamer than a ’90s sitcom. One lone use of the word “fag” sticks out as the most taboo thing in the entire movie. For modern times this is pretty tame, but for the ’80s this would’ve been deemed appropriate to watch in church.
I remembered these details but on rewatch I got a new perspective on the timid nature of the film. While Night of the Comet certainly fits in with various trashy films of the 80s like Chopping Mall, Night of the Demons, Return of the Living Dead, and Night of the Creeps (and to be fair Night of the Comet came before a lot of those, and likely served as inspiration) it’s only using that then-modern ’80s framework to riff on the horror pictures of decades prior. Though it has elements of stuff like Dawn of the Dead and The Omega Man this is very firmly a throwback to the sci-fi/horror b-movies of the ’50s and ’60s.
From the overly dramatic opening music to the hackneyed voice-over that starts the movie this is clearly riding the line between loving satire and outright spoof. The concept is basically taking The Last Man on Earth and moving it up to the early ’80s and replacing Vincent Price with two teenage girls. The juxtaposition is frankly absurd but that’s why it works. It asks what one of those super serious b-films would be like if, instead of a lantern jawed everyman, we were following someone who would have a dress-up montage with her cheerleading uniform-clad sister in a department store set to Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.
But the joke has layers to it. Already looking at the absurdity of vapid teenagers in a very heavy situation, the movie then subverts the valley girl image by giving Reg and Samantha depth. They like make-up, junk food, clothes, and video games but they’re also highly capable owing to their Green Beret father who taught them hand-to-hand combat and how to shoot. They’re smart and resourceful and often act immature and self-centered to get people to underestimate them. This isn’t to say they’re not immature and self-centered at times, they are still teenagers after all, but they refuse to be pigeonholed.
This really wouldn’t work if the movie had been your typical ’80s sleazefest. Not wishing to throw various actresses of the Scream Queen variet under the bus, I feel like if this had starred one of the various actresses from this era who were hired for their acting abilities second the comedic angle would’ve fallen flat. Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney had mostly been on soap operas and bit-parts in more conventional movies so they were more apt at playing characters rather than faces (or various other body parts.) Stewart is talented and charming covering all of Reg’s various dimensions with complete earnestness, Maroney is more awkward in her line delivery but that also works to her advantage as her character is the whiny kid sister and the warble in her tone can be chalked up to teenage awkwardness. Regardless of individual strengths, our leads are entirely convincing as siblings and their on-screen chemistry is a rock-solid foundation on which the movie is built.
Robert Beltran forms a solid, if entirely unnecessary, third corner to that foundation as Hector. Hector is Reg’s love interest, a truck driver who finds the girls at a pre-taped radio station early in the film. He feels like a bigger part of the movie than he actually is, only sharing a couple scenes with our leads and serving as a surplus cavalry at the end of the movie. Originally Hector was written as more of a “cholo” type, Beltran says that he owes his casting to that earlier characterization as it was very similar to his portrayal of the titular character in Eating Raoul. Beltran turned the role down multiple times for this reason, wanting him to be more of an every-man, and finally won out. The filmmakers wanted him so badly that he receives first billing on all the promotional materials for this movie even though he obviously isn’t the main character. It is entirely thanks to Robert Beltran’s charisma that Hector doesn’t feel as pointless as he actually is. His scenes don’t feel like padding even though that’s mostly what they are and his description of his first encounter with one of the zombies remains the film’s most chilling moment.
Speaking of the zombies, they’re actually one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. We only ever see about 10 zombies in the entire film and even then I’d only count about 4 as the real deal: the bum in the alley that Reg encounters, the motorcycle cop from Samantha’s dream, the kid that attacks Hector, and the leader of the creepy guys hiding in the mall. And it’s not as if the zombies are badly realized, their make-up is good and they’re suitably menacing and disgusting, this is particularly true of Willy (the aforementioned mall zombie) who comes across as a low-level Joker performance thanks to actor Ivan E. Roth. The problem is that they feel disconnected from the rest of the movie which mostly deals with the survivalist think tank which are finding survivors of the comet to develop a blood-serum for the comet sickness.
If I were to remake this movie I’d cut out the think tank entirely, they take away from the film’s momentum and sense of fun and are mostly just responsible for an unsatisfying third act. But I realize that from a budget standpoint it was easier to bring in people in jumpsuits rather than people in expensive prosthetics. It’s just that the think tank overshadows the zombies to such an extent that they feel like a background detail rather than a proper menace, as they really should be. The same goes with the girls’ guns which are never used to shoot a single person, undead or otherwise.
I still wish that Night of the Comet had leaned a bit more into its horror trappings. It could stand to be a little scarier, a little bloodier, or both but it’s clever and our protagonists are all deceptively subversive in their characterizations. I still feel like Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps is a better version of this movie but I have to accept that I’m being critical of Night of the Comet for not being something that it isn’t even trying to be. It’s more sci-fi comedy than horror, a rather shaggy dog of a sci-fi comedy at that, and in that context it works just fine.
My expectations can’t get around how well-made and strikingly unique this movie is. Even if you’re underwhelmed as I have been on previous viewings, this is a movie that you just can’t get out of your head. It’s the sort of movie that you’ll find yourself watching, even if you don’t love it, when you stumble upon it on late night TV. It’s no surprise that Joss Whedon latched onto this movie as inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer or that many campy ’80s horror staples seemingly borrowed from it at least a little. Night of the Comet isn’t terribly iconic and it doesn’t top a lot of favorites lists but it is smart, funny, and indelible.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“The Martians have landed. They want our women.”
Discuss this and other Doomsday Reels columns in the forum.