Shout! Factory // 1984 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mac McEntire // October 28th, 2013
It was the last thing on Earth they ever expected.
Call it sci-fi, call it teen comedy, or call it post-apocalypse. Call it a cult classic, or a novelty film, or a cinema oddity. No matter what you call it, it defies description. It's Night of the Comet.
A comet is passing close to Earth, promising a spectacular light show across the night sky. Only it passes too close, and its harmful effects kill off almost all of humanity.
Among the few survivors are tough girl Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart, The Last Starfighter) and her peppy little sister Sam (Kelli Maroney, Chopping Mall). Finding they have the whole city to themselves, they go from shocked to opportunist, paying visits to the local radio station and, of course, the mall.
The end of the world isn't all fun and games, though. The sisters run into gun-toting thug Hector (Robert Beltran, Star Trek: Voyager), who may or may not be on their side. Also, some survivors have been transformed into hideous zombies, and, out in the desert, a group of government scientists have sealed themselves away from the rest of the Earth, brewing a devious plan.
Both the best and worst thing about Night of the Comet is its wildly varying tone. It constantly shifts from teen comedy to zombie horror to post-apoc action and back again. This should be -- and often is -- jarring, and yet it is also what makes the movie unique. Night of the Comet is its own thing, unable to be pigeonholed into a single-sentence log line.
What is this movie really about? Amid the humans turned to dust, shopping montages, touchy feely zombie cops, and random Santa costumes, Night of the Comet is, at its heart, a "good young people versus bad adults" movie. Although a natural disaster kills everyone off, the adults, represented by the scientists hiding away in their secret bunker, have this uncaring attitude. They seem disinterested in the survivors, and they have this overall sense of malaise regarding their predicament. Reggie, on the other hand, shows willingness to do what it takes to survive. She keeps her wits about her, she makes peace with the threatening-at-first Hector, and she shows a positive attitude by keeping her sister and some other kids from being overwhelmed by the death and emptiness all around her. The "message," for lack of a better word, is that the adults can't be trusted and are ruining everything, so it's time for the teens to step up, take over, and make the world better. It's youth empowerment dressed up as end-of-the-world zombie action.
Reggie is our POV character throughout all this. She might have come across a stock "perfect girl," but actress Catherine Mary Stewart portrays with a lot of heart as well as a lot of self-confidence, so that you really do believe that she's this girl determined to make the world her own. We see hints of this personality before the comet strike, when Reggie insists on getting the high score on an arcade game (Tempest!), and in the way she clearly calls the shots in her relationship with her dopey boyfriend (Michael Bowen, Breaking Bad). It's really in how she watched out for little sister Sam that we see the depths of Reggie's heart. Reggie keeps finding ways not only to protect Sam but also to keep Sam from falling into despair. This, of course, leads to the movie's most famous scene, in which the girls run amok in a mall, able to help themselves to all the clothes and goods they want. Its comical and peppy -- set to the tune of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," of course -- but it's there not just for party fun times, but to show Reggie and Sam taking back control of their lives after it seems they've lost everything.
Sam is the source of a lot of the movie's humor. At the abandoned radio station, she takes over the airwaves for a lot of comedy shtick, and the trip to the mall is all about her. She wears her brightly colored cheerleader uniform for most of the movie, showing her as the upbeat, often flighty, sister. Before the comet, though, there's an uncomfortable scene of Sam fighting with her stepmother. This further establishes the "youth versus adults" theme of the movie, in that after the comet, Sam is the one still surviving while the domineering stepmom is gone, turned to dust. We see Sam plagued by nightmares, but with Reggie and her side, she overcomes these fears. By the end of the movie, she's able to go her own way and make her own future.
When we first meet Hector, he's talking tough and pointing a gun at our girl heroes. Instead of being enemies, though, he and the girls eventually find common emotional ground. The scene where they meet is surprisingly well-acted, gradually shifting from a hostage situation to a "We're all in this together" setting, but without an explicit dramatic note where he lowers the gun. The tension diffuses naturally as the characters talk, as they transition from being at odds to needing to cooperate. Hector later goes to visit his mother, only to learn she did not survive the comet. Although Hector is older than Reggie and Sam, this is his "youth versus adults" moment, as his mom is no longer around, so it's on him and only him to strike out on his own. After this, Hector becomes a lighter character, making jokes and dressing in silly costumes, such as a Santa outfit for no reason, and later cowboy duds to mess with the scientists. Surviving the comet has a transformative effect on Hector: he begins as this hardened thug and later becomes a brightly colored jokester. For Hector, the end of the world means rediscovering some carefree youth he didn't know he still had.
The first half of the movie is all the fun stuff, the outrageousness that cult movie fans remember about it. We get shots of the uninhabited Los Angeles under a murky orange sky, the zombie attacks, all the jokes and character development at the radio station, and, yes, the mall. The shopping spree, which is most often remembered as the movie's set piece, is surprisingly short, interrupted by a bunch of creepy thugs who swarm upon the mall to attack Reggie and Sam, forcing the sisters to defend themselves. Of special note is Ivan E. Roth (Night of the Creeps) as Willy, the gang leader. He gives a wild, over-the-top performance, creating a truly great, if short-lived, baddie for our girls to fight back against.
It's in the second half of the movie, in which the action switches to the scientists and their hidden bunker, where the pace slows down and gets a little more serious. This is to the movie's detriment, as all the fun stuff is frontloaded in the first half. There's this general sense of malaise among the scientists, best evidences when actress Mary Woronov (TerrorVision) has this scene where she dons a pair of sunglasses and sprawls out on a couch, effectively giving up on life. It's a moment where she knows she's doomed. The scientists have a lot of talk about protecting themselves and not being "exposed," but in the end, all our heroes really have to do defeat these evil adults is merely get away from them, and strike out on their own.
Let us pause for a moment and consider writer-director Thom Eberhardt. His filmography includes the med school comedy Gross Anatomy, the slapstick epic Captain Ron, the witty and literate Sherlock Holmes spoof Without A Clue, and the sleaze-ploitation thriller Naked Fear. What do these seemingly disparate movies have in common? They represent a guy who does not look at the world through the same lens as the rest of us. That's especially true of Night of the Comet, which manages to be a post-apocalypse action, zombie horror, and teen girl comedy all at once, establishing its own identity as it does so.
The pop culture gods and goddesses of Shout! Factory -- primo connoisseurs of all things cool -- have made the world a happier place with their "Scream Factory" releases, and Night of the Comet (Blu-ray) is another fine addition to that lineup. The movie's murky orange colorscape will not make it a reference disc under the best of circumstances, but the picture is nonetheless clean, free of scratches or other such defects. The audio is good as well, really springing to life during the rock songs and the moody score. Extras start off with three audio commentaries, with director Thom Eberhardt, actors Catherine Mary Stuart and Kelli Maroney, and makeup artist David B. Miller. These folks and actor Robert Beltran get their own interview featurettes as well. There's also the theatrical trailer and a reversible interior cover with the original poster art. A second disc is a DVD copy of the movie.
Whether it's taking the apocalypse too lightly or not taking its horror/action elements seriously enough, there are viewers who will walk away from Night of the Comet disappointed, just because of how far outside the mainstream it is.
Night of the Comet is a true one-of-a-kind...at least until Hollywood decides to make a crap remake. It's a movie that deserves to be celebrated, just because of how different it is.
Not guilty. Party on!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* DVD Copy