Hello, Retro Injection readers! What do a comet, a cheerleader and the end of the world have in common? Well, let's preface it this way: Post-apocalyptic fantasy films were a dime a dozen decades ago in the hotbed era of the Cold War. Even as early as the 1950s, seething tensions brought to the celluloid surface a cluster of great to awful anti-Soviet propaganda films, using all manner of cheap rubbery monsters to epitomize the evil Ruskies. But what happens when you localize a post-apocalyptic threat... and introduce it into the neon day-glow world that is sunny Southern California? That's the underlying premise behind one of the 1980s' best-kept secrets: the immaculate and praiseworthy Night of the Comet.
The film begins by introducing us to our heroine, Regina "Reggie" Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart). She's an apathetic movie theater usher whose real relish is trying to maintain her top scores on the cult arcade game Tempest, located in the theater's lobby.
As our narrator outlines the crucial plot device, we learn that a comet is headed for earth, and in the eyes of all parties concerned, a benign one at that. This comet hysteria begins to capture mass attention and ill-placed adulation, as well as timely enterprising: Reggie's semi-sleazy theater boss is hawking comet watchers their very own comet sunglasses and wacky head antennas, alongside Jujubes and Coca-Cola. Reggie is largely uninterested, not just in her plebeian-level job, but also at the impending comet. She just wants to stop being pelted mercilessly with malt balls by juvenile delinquents and call it a night. Larry, her film projectionist boyfriend (Michael Bowen, who decades later plays the role of Buck in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 1) convinces the unhappy Reggie to hole up on the dusty projection booth environs overnight. He's waiting for a film to be returned, regarding the hot merchandise vice that is renting projection reels for a buck and change.
Meanwhile, Reggie's spunky and free-spirited cheerleader sister Sam (Kelli Maroney) is at home, getting drilled in the face by her gold-digging and adulterous stepmother. Sam eventually spends the night in a steel shed, thus missing out on the whole "comet coming to earth" business, and that's where things become interesting.
Rather than give life to each passing frame in the film via a hyper-analytical synopsis, let's just get to the principle theme of the movie. Night of the Comet is what happens when you stack up a strong willed heroine, a spunky cheerleader sister and a softy trucker named Hector (with eyes for Regina) to face the aftermath of Doomsday.
What are the complications of the allegedly-harmless comet? Sorry to spoil your cosmos-friendly appetite, but basically every soul on earth has turned to red dust, with the few who didn't becoming murderous zombies.
Night of the Comet features dynamic pacing, an engaging premise and incredible cinematography, particularly for a film which cost $700,000. (It grossed an impressive $14 million at the U.S. box office, not to mention subsequent gain through the burgeoning VHS and cable TV markets). However, it's the tight plot, tailored to likable and relatable characters that seals the deal for this film being in our top ten quintessential '80s post apocalyptic films. It ranks alongside equally magnificent fare as Miracle Mile. (Check out our interview with director Steve De Jarnett about the making of that masterpiece.)
The plot has a unique whimsy to it, managing to fit zombies, the old dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream (!) sequence, and a host of ill-intentioned military scientists seeking their own agenda. (Didn't anyone learn a lesson from Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead?) As the story progresses, so does the cinematic landscape, wherein we are treated to shots of L.A. at dusk, looking very much like a lonesome, specter-laden Disneyland.
Sam and Regina taking machine gun practice at an abandoned car with the brilliantly lit red sky behind them, makes for an almost surrealist fantasy scene:
The principal photography is comprised of glorious washed-out shades and colors, opting for a dusk on most shots. There is a captivating scene of remote horror and realization when Reggie escapes the clutches of zombies and rides a lonely motorcycle through L.A.
You can tell that writer-director Thom Eberhardt made it his mission to utilize any visual device necessary to convey the tensions fueling an apocalyptic prison. The film's narrative is strikingly visual, at times eschewing dialog for imagery.
As the aforementioned scientists gauge the trio's location, we see that the comet has left an indelible mark on the survivors: one of a ticking time bomb that will eventually see them turn into zombie-like beings. We also see the military presence is up in arms, in their desperation for survival. They're draining the blood of survivors in order to pool (no pun intended) all available supply into transfusing an antidote for the surviving military force. As you can imagine, their weary patience and ill temperament conveys they have no qualms about ethics violations. It's now a lost planet, with a race for survival on both sides.
Plotwise, I will leave it at that. I will also add that Night of the Comet is one of the best cult films of the 1980s, or any other era. It's one of those rare movies that outlive the initial novelty, and become a standard for all things apocalyptic. There are even a few daring excursions which pop up out of nowhere to incite chills and boil the tension to simmering levels.
Retro Injection was lucky enough to land an interview with star Kelli Maroney. She also appears in another '80s cult classic, Chopping Mall. Coincidentally, the only empathetic scientist in Night of the Comet is played by the impeccable former Andy Warhol star, Mary Woronov, who also has a role with Kelli in Chopping Mall. (UPDATE: Catherine Mary Stewart also talked to us!)
It's incredible what imagination, charm, an adventurous premise and strong acting can do for a low budget film, and Night of the Comet does wonders with this formula in radium-coated shades. It's part comedy, part socioeconomic satire (especially in the mall sequence where the girls run wild trying on all manner of apparel and jewelry, much like in Dawn of the Dead). It's also part sci-fi horror (the police zombie scenes are still chill inducing). Night of the Comet deserves to crash land into your cinematic homestead, and be viewed again and again.
You'll find plenty of fantasy elements at its core, but also subtle jabs at consumerism, the fallacy of blindly trusting authority and the ultimate kick to the face of underestimating two tough-as-nails heroines with submachine guns. Enjoy the joint absurdity and profundity of this compelling and rewarding masterpiece.