Night of the Comet is one of those movies that seems to show that you can do a lot with so little. Produced on a shoestring budget of $700,000, it manages to still be a very effective movie. Before I continue, I’m going to say there are some spoilers ahead even though most of this happens within the first act of the movie.
It’s Christmastime in the L.A. area but everyone is excited about a comet passing through with Earth’s orbit in its tail. Scientest predict this is the first time the comet has come through in 65 million years when the dinosaurs walked the Earth. Researchers at a think tank lead by Dr. Carter (Geoffrey Lewis) have taken the proper precautions and gone underground. However, the rest of the world is celebrating because the comet is expecting to come through on a Friday night.
Regina “Reggie” Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart) is working at one of the local movie theaters upset she’ll miss it because she’s planning on shaking up with her boyfriend, Larry Dupree (Michael Bowen), the projectionist. At Reggie’s house, her younger sister, Samantha “Sam” Belmont (Kelli Maroney), has just got into an argument with her stepmother, Doris (Sharon Farrell), who’s hosting a block party and trying to get close to a neighbor. The argument turns physical when Doris hits her and Sam ends up spending the night in the steel shed.
As the comet comes through L.A., people look in amazement but we see Doris touch her head as she has a headache and rub her arms. The next morning, the streets of L.A. are empty. Apparently, there’s a reason a newcaster was saying all communications back east have been cut-off. Most humans and animal life on Earth have been disintergrated by the comet into red calcium dust. Their clothing remains but there’s nothing much else.
Thom Eberhardt, who wrote and directed the movie, sets up a great sequence as we see timers set to go off as an automatic pool cleaner begins to start working, sprinklers go off and even an animatronic clown at a car dealership begins to move in rotation. (A side note, the clown was later used in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure when the titular character chains his big to it at the shopping center.)
Back at the movie theater, Reggie and Larry don’t realize what happen. Larry is upset because he let someone use a movie but he hasn’t return the film, so when he goes to the back door, he opens up the door and is bludgeoned in the head by a zombie. Reggie soon discovers the zombie when she goes outside and gets locked out. There is an orange-red haze in the sky that she initially mistakes for smog. She soon discovers the zombie, who can also speak, is eating on a piece of Larry yet she doesn’t know that.
Reggie is able to get on the motorbike of Larry’s and ride home, but she notices the streets of L.A. are empty and a car is left running at a red light. (Just like 28 Days Later, this is another complaint of mine in thise dystopia apocalypse movies. In all actuality, the streets of L.A. would be lined with thousands and thousands of empty vehicles, either running or possibly crashed into each other and the buildings. I understand there was a limited budget but L.A., just like London, is one of the most populated cities on the planet. London is more populated.) As she gets home, she notices the block party with all the clothes on the street with the red calcium dust where the bodies should be. (On a side note, I commend the production for using residue of red bricks. You don’t need huge big dollars from a James Cameron production.)
The house is empty at first but then she sees Sam, dressed in her cheerleading outfit, getting breakfast as she’s on her way to practice, despite telling Reggie she can’t reach anyone on the phone. Reggie asks her to go outside where she shows her all the clothes and calcium dust. They then go back inside as Sam, in denial, tries to believe that it’s not happening. There’s mention of their father, who is a high-ranking officer in the military, that never materializes into anything except for their experience with firearms.
I feel Eberhardt had to make a lot of cuts and revisions to his script due to the budget. This is probably why much of the movie takes place in a radio station that looks more like a vacant office space that has been refurbished with 1980s neon style. Reggie and Sam head there when they hear the deejay on the radio, but soon find out that the station is also running on automation as the deejay made a tape to play in between the music selections.
Here, they meet Hector Gomez (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who was on his way to visit family in San Diego. Despite some initial tension, the three people become more friendly, realizing that Hector survived because he slept the previous night in the cabin of his steel truck. Larry says the projection booth was made of steel. Hector says that there have been some flesh-eating zombies lurking around, one of which attacked and ate a woman who was traveling with him, leading Reggie to realize that Larry is dead and getting upset.
But Sam soon learns there are other people as she goes on the air and makes an announcement leading to the think tank calling the station. The think tank tells Sam, Reggie and Hector they’re looking for survivors. But they have a sinister ulterior motive. Some of the people exposed to the comet don’t turn to dust but they turn into the zombies, but at first they slowly begin to lose some of their intelligence. Audrey White (Mary Woronov) at the think tank explains the ventilation system was left open and the red dust got into the air exposing all of them. They’re hoping to harvest the blood of survivors to make a cure to reverse their symptoms.
Hector takes off to San Diego in hopes his family is still alive, only to discover a young zombie boy. Sam and Reggie decide to hit up the mall to enjoy some fun but are suddenly hunted by some stock boys led by Willy (Ivan E. Roth) who have been exposed. A firefight erupts between them. This sequence is what makes the movie different from typical zombie movies. It’s like Dawn of the Dead meets Valley Girl. (Incidentally, the mall scenes were filmed at the one in Sherman Oaks, which was used in Valley Girl, Commando, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Chopping Mall, which also starred Marony and Woronov.)
In many ways, the mall sequence, as Reggie and Sam have fun trying on clothes as a cover of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” plays on the soundtrack, shows how youth would take an apocalytpic event over adults. Eberhardt even went as far as asking a lot of young people what they would do if such an event happened and most of them had a more carefee attitude they would hang out at the mall. And it’s the mall where the think tank members discover Reggie and Sam after not finding them at the radio station and thus save them as Willy starts to show signs he’s changing over into a zombie.
The movie’s budget becomes an issue when the scenes change to the think tank, mostly because it looks like another office building where they redid the walls and doors changing the light. It does add to the B-movie feel the movie is going for, but there’s a very anti-climatic ending in my opinion. Reggie discovers that the think tank is also going to harvest the bodies of Brian (Chance Boyer) and Sarah (Janice Kawaye), two siblings which Audrey has objected to.
Despite its meager budget and a movie poster art that doesn’t tell us anything, Night of the Comet was a modest success earning over $14 million at the budget. It didn’t help that the movie opened the week after the more successful A Nightmare on Elm Street, whose lead Heather Lagenkamp had audition for the role of Sam in this movie. Eberhardt wanted to call the movie Teenage Comet Zombies, which probably would’ve led to more money at the box office. But by 1984, horror movies about teenagers were on everyone’s shitlist. Silent Night, Deadly Night was also in theaters, briefly, before TriStar pulled it from distribution following an outcry from parental groups over the images of a killer dressed in a Santa suit.
But that movie and Nightmare were more serious, Comet has more of a goofy feel to it, thanks to the mall sequence as well as the soundtrack that has more of a romcom music to it. At one point, Hector is wearing a Santa suit himself for no reason. Then, he dresses up as a cowboy blasting famous country-western fiddler/singer Doug Kershaw on the radio. I think Eberhardt’s intent was just to tell us relax and enjoy a movie for an hour and a half. The violence is restricted to the PG-13 rating. The gunshots don’t have any Quentin Tarantino style of violence and even when we see the zombie at the movie theater, he is just holding a piece of a limb to indicate he’s eating someone.
Believe it or not, the movie actually inspired one of the most popular TV shows of the last few decades. Joss Whedon was inspired by the scenes of Sam, wearing a cheerleader outfit, that he wrote the script to the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which wasn’t succesful, but revamped into the popular WB/CW series of the same name that made Sarah Michelle Gellar a star.
Released two years before Halley’s Comet, it sparked a life imitates art fandom as I remember everyone talking about it, and even putting it into pop culture. The writers of the hit TV show Benson decided to give a little wink to the movie in the episode “Last Man on Earth” in which everyone but the titular character played by Robert Guillaume is turned to dust as Halley’s Comet passes through. There’s also an unintentional connection to another 1980s sci-fi movie, The Last Starfighter, also featuring Stewart. In that movie, she plays the boyfriend of the character played by Lance Guest who gets a high score on an arcade video game that is used as a recruiting tool for space starfighters. In Comet, Reggie is obsessed with having all the top 10 scores on an arcade game at the movie theater.
In conclusion, I think Night of the Comet is for true movie lovers of sci-fi and horror with its mixture of comedy and imagery. It shows what a filmmaker is able to do when they aren’t given a blank check. To think a few frames of Thanos’ snap and all the Marvel characters turning to ash probably cost the entire movie’s budget. At one point, Eberhardt was actually considering a sequel or series, but it all came down to complications over money issues and legal/rights issues. Considering how popular 1980s movies like The Karate Kid and Willow are getting their own continuation series, there’s still hope for this movie. It would be nice to see how everyone survives considering that the vast majority of all humans and animals on Earth are gone.
What do you think? Please comment.