Whether we guised it as the Russians, the Chinese, aliens, or rogue terrorist factions, the most prolific enemy in films of the 1980’s was the ever-present nuclear threat. Regardless if such a subject was handled realistically – see THE CHINA SYNDROME, THE DAY AFTER – speculatively – MIRACLE MILE, TESTAMENT, THREADS – or even absurdly – TOXIC AVENGER, CLASS OF NUKE’EM HIGH – everywhere you turned there was another story of nuclear doom and apocalyptic gloom projecting itself inside your nightmares; even the “Land of Confusion” video from Genesis touched on the subject, and kids were allowed to share in the fear-mongering with cartoons and comics like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” though I think we can all agree this last one is a hash mark in the positive column of nuclear side-effects.
While 1984’s NIGHT OF THE COMET might not deal directly with nuclear fallout, it is the underlying paranoia behind the film, whose plot becomes an extrapolation of the era’s communal fears, thinly disguised here as extraterrestrial interference in the form of a passing comet – fire from the sky – whose irradiated tail sweeps across Earth, turning everyone who isn’t encased in some sort of steel chamber – like a fallout shelter – into either a pile of red dust, or a brain-hungry zombie, depending on their level of exposure. Pretty much a nuclear fallout film, right? The original title suggested as much: TEENAGE MUTANT COMET ZOMBIES. I don’t know why they wouldn’t stick with that.
The film begins in Los Angeles on the night the titular comet is doing its fly-by. All over the city people are gathering for space-themed soirees to celebrate this rarest of astronomical encounters, but teenage sisters Regina and Samantha, played by Catherine Mary Stewart (THE LAST STARFIGHTER, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) and Kelli Maroney (CHOPPING MALL, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH), end up having more private evenings than planned, so aren’t outside when the comet swooshes by. Regina survives the night by banging her boyfriend in the local theater’s projection booth, while cheerleader Samantha hid in the garden shed after a fight with her step-mother. Both structures, natch, are steel-lined, so in the morning the girls emerge bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and none the worse for wear, only to find the population all but eradicated save for a handful of survivors and a larger handful of flesh-eaters. The sisters reunite and after discovering the local radio station is still operational, they head down there on Regina’s now-dead boyfriend’s motorcycle searching for help. The station is on auto, but the girls break into the broadcast to send an S.O.S. across the airwaves. Sure enough, the signal is picked up by a group of scientists – including Geoffrey Lewis (EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN) and Mary Woronov (DEATH RACE 2000, EATING RAOUL) – secured in a protective bunker in the desert outside the city. They call the station and tell the girls and their new friend Hector (Robert Beltran, STAR TREK: VOYAGER), a trucker who also heard the broadcast, to stay put and they’ll come pick them up for transport back to the bunker. Only what the scientists have in mind, some of them at least, is something far more insidious than salvation.
I’m not a big proponent of commentaries that outline the entire movie, my point is to get you to watch it yourself, and that, for me at least, involves not scrutinizing everything that happens from frame one to finish. So suffice it to say, from this point, the film becomes a race against destruction, whether from ravenous zombies, ill-intentioned survivors, or devious scientists intent on deriving a cure from whatever immoral source they can. There’s action, there’s intrigue, there’s the best 80’s mall-montage this side of MANNEQUIN, and even a dash of arcade-infused romance there at the end. NIGHT OF THE COMET, as the kids say, is the bee’s knees.
What works best in the film is the melding of genre conventions, setting up a perfectly proper sci-fi scenario and then treating it like a contemporary horror film, leaving the camp behind, aside from decade-appropriate behavior. This is what I think THE BLOB remake was going for, telling a classic sci-fi story to a generation of slasher and gore fans, but where that film might come across as a tad bit silly – or excruciatingly hilarious – NIGHT OF THE COMET never breaks character, and never forgets what and when it is: a Romero-esque set-up not unlike DAWN OF THE DEAD melded with an 80s-era teen empowerment flick. The real kicker here, however, is that the teens being empowered are female, making NIGHT OF THE COMET arguably the most female-centric sci-fi film post-ALIEN, and possibly the only genre film of the decade that passes the Bechdel test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test). We got your girl power right here, ladies.
The film’s writer/director Thom E. Eberhardt started the decade with two promising genre flicks, this and 1983’s SOLE SURVIVOR, but then for one reason or another didn’t direct anything for four years until returning with not one, not two, but three films in a two-year span: the Keanu Reeves dark comedy THE NIGHT BEFORE, WITHOUT A CLUE starring Michael Caine as an alcoholic Sherlock Holmes (Caine’s idea?), and GROSS ANATOMY, the most unfortunately-named romantic comedy possibly ever. In the 90’s Eberhardt drifted almost exclusively into television work, though he did also write and direct CAPTAIN RON, which in my book makes him a fucking genius. More recently, he helmed a film called NAKED FEAR which serves as an informal remake of Cornel Wilde’s THE NAKED PREY, or SURVIVING THE GAME with a hot naked stripper at its heart, instead of a dreadlocked Ice-T.
NIGHT OF THE COMET is presented as a Blu-Ray/DVD combo from the fine, fine folks at Scream Factory, and comes loaded with special features exclusive to this edition, including three commentary tracks – one from Eberhardt, one from Stewart and Maroney, and one from production designer John Muto – various cast interviews, and a sit-down with David B. Miller, the film’s makeup effects designer. It streets November 19th.
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