Monday, June 16, 2014

Movies I Love: Night of the Comet

by Patrick Bromley
One of my favorite movies is a different kind of zombie movie.

Writer/director Thom Eberhardt's 1984 comedy/horror/sci-fi/teen movie Night of the Comet is about two Valley girls who desperately want to star in their own teen movie but keep getting interrupted by the apocalypse. And I love that.

The '80s were essentially defined by both teen movies and genre movies (we have a regular column, It Came From the '80s, devoted to it), so it only makes sense that someone would try to combine the two. Other attempts were made, but most of those were just straight horror movies with teenage protagonists. Night of the Comet, on the other hand, understands what it is we love about both; it has the creepy scares and flesh-eating zombies of a horror movie but the big beating heart and empathetic angst of a John Hughes film. Its two main characters just want to be normal teenage girls -- they want to go out with boys and play video games and buy clothes at the mall -- but all of that gets screwed up by the end of the world and a zombie plague. Typical.
Two teenage sisters, tomboyish Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and younger Sam (Kelli Maroney), are living in Southern California on the night the Earth will pass through the tail of a comet for the first time in 65 million years. Crowds of people gather to watch. Comet parties are thrown. And when it arrives, it turns most of the planet's population to red dust; most of the others left alive are turned into zombies. Reggie is left unscathed because she spent the night with her boyfriend in the steel-lined projection booth of the movie theater at which she works; Sam slept in the metal shed in her backyard after a nasty fight with her stepmother. With the entire city to themselves, what are two '80s valley girls going to do? Go to the mall, of course!

In addition to some machine gun target practice and the standard trying-on-clothes montage (set to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" OF COURSE), the sisters encounter a few more survivors. Some of them are friendly, like Hector (Robert Beltran), a trucker who joins them, as well as a couple of kids whose parents are gone. They also have to fight off more mutant zombies and get captured by a team of scientists (Geoffrey Lewis and Mary Woronov among them) who want to study the survivors and find a cure for their own comet sickness before they, too, become piles of dust. Assholes.

Eberhardt, who would once again subvert the teen movie genre with his next movie, 1988's The Night Before, deliberately set out to make what he calls a "drive-in movie" with Night of the Comet. Plenty of filmmakers have set out to do the same thing, usually resulting in a movie that's full of surfaces and references but little substance. It doesn't have to be "good," see, because it's just a drive-in picture. Either he was determined to elevate a genre movie or was incapable of meeting the low bar set by so many other of the decade's efforts, but Night of the Comet refuses to settle for being "just" a drive-in movie.

I don't even know where to start in discussing my love of Night of the Comet, a movie I first caught up with on VHS a decade after it was first released and wondered where it had been all my life. I love the way Eberhardt creates the apocalypse on a budget with just some empty streets and an orange-stained sky (some reports put the budget as high as $3 million; Eberhardt says he shot it for $700,000). I love the way the movie plays like a genre mash-up that isn't just a little of this, a little of that. All of the different genres co-exist simultaneously, the way that's only possible when a filmmaker absorbs a lifetime of cult movies and can regurgitate them organically. The movie it can best compare to is Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps, another cult film that combines multiple genres because the writer/director loves them and is able to mash them all up into something that feels fresh. It also has great characters and is very funny. What I'm saying is that the two movies would make a fucking fantastic double feature and someone needs to get on that.
I also love that it's an '80s genre movie with a female bent. At a time when the hero of every genre movie was a teenage boy, here's one told from the perspective of two girls -- sisters, no less, and believable ones at that (suck it, Bechdel test). There's not much about the film that's necessarily gender-specific (the girls were raised by a military dad who taught them how to use guns, so there's none of that shitty "Which way do I point this thing?" humor), but the movie doesn't just turn its girls into boys. It allows them to be female. It allows them to be sisters. It allows them to love one another and for us to love them. So much of the credit for the movie's success can be attributed to the performances of Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney. Reggie and Sam are such wonderful creations, sketched as stereotypes but filled in with so much heart as to be completely believable as human beings.

The zombie stuff in the movie is almost incidental. I mean, it's not -- it's the major threat and the thing that keeps interrupting Sam and Reggie's teen movie fun -- but it could have be pretty much anything. The zombie makeup is cartoonish and the actors portraying them are among the weakest in the film (one in particular overdoes it so much he belongs in a different movie). I love it because it's just another aspect of the movie that pushes my buttons, whether it's zombies or sci-fi weirdness or dialogue like "The MAC-10 submachine gun was practically designed for housewives" or the presence of Catherine Mary Stewart. The way they all mix together make the movie hard to categorize. It's not a horror movie, not a comedy, not a sci-fi movie, not a teen movie, and yet it's all of these. I'd be hard pressed to tell someone what kind of movie it is. It's Night of the Comet. It's singular. It's the kind of movie that feels pulled directly from my dreams. And I love it.
Despite my unending love for Catherine Mary Stewart (who, between this and The Last Starfighter released the same year, will always be my '80s movie girlfriend...plus she is Canadian), the two best scenes in the movie belong to Kelli Maroney, an actress who never got a role as perfect for her as this one. In the first, she gives a moving speech about a boy she liked that she'll never get to date, and not only does Maroney knock it out of the park but the speech speaks to everything I love about Night of the Comet. Here's a movie that's all neon colors, garish zombie makeup and bubblegum pop that takes the time to consider the ramifications of the apocalypse and the effect it would have on a teenager. There is so much sadness that's genuinely felt in Sam's speech; it's not the kind of emotion we've come to expect from the fun and sometimes goofy stuff that precedes it. In one scene, the film makes us realize just how invested we are in these characters.

The second scene requires big SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned. Sam develops an itch that we assume is comet-related -- she is going to deteriorate into dust. That's hard enough (we don't want Sam to die), but it's made even worse when she is captured by the scientists and Mary Woronov is tasked with euthanizing her. The way Eberhardt writes and directs the scene, the way Kelli Maroney plays it, we are POSITIVE that Sam has just died. And it's heartbreaking, because we love Sam and she's just a kid who will never get to grow up. But the movie also totally earns it. It doesn't feel like a stunt designed to shock us. It's the kind of thing that Joss Whedon is so often to pull off on his best days (when he's not arbitrarily killing off characters as stunts designed to shock us). It turns out that the moment is so perfectly engineered precisely because Eberhardt had every intention of killing Sam off and leaving her dead. Recognizing that she was such a great character and Maroney's performance was so much fun, he opted to keep her alive and even give her a happy ending -- one that cleverly pays off a joke from the beginning of the movie, tightening the structure in ways Eberhardt couldn't have predicted.

Side note: I once saw a theatrical screening of this movie where the projectionist fucked up the reel change and skipped ahead to a scene in which Sam was clearly alive before the proper reveal, thereby ruining the suspense. The audience, many of whom had clearly never seen the movie, were vocally upset. It is a testament to the movie's success that they cared so much. END SPOILERS.
Because the heroes at Scream Factory either have my house bugged or are in the business of catering directly to me, they released Night of the Comet on Blu-ray and DVD last year, once again vindicating my affection for a movie that had previously received too little love (other movies in this category include Lifeforce, The Funhouse and Phantom of the Paradise, getting a Blu-ray release this summer). Now everyone can discover Night of the Comet and appreciate what a wonderful movie it is. Those that can't get past it's datedness -- and it is almost by definition very dated -- will have to fuck off. The characters and the relationships at the center are timeless.

Every viewing of Night of the Comet is like reconnecting with an old friend. I'm laughing, I'm happy, I'm having fun and I'm immediately reminded of just what I fell for in the first place. It's the rare movie that can turn mankind into a piles of red dust but still feel like a big hug. This is that movie. And I love it.

12 comments:

  1. Damn good write up, Patrick. I totally agree that this movie has a lot more substance than you might think at first glance, but that substance never gets in the way of the odd feeling of fun this movie also has.

    Also, Catherine Mary Stewart on a motorcycle.

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  2. I love Catherine Mary Stewart but it is ALL about Kelli Maroney for me...she's just so perfect in this. I've seen it a hundred times since my first viewing on HBO in the mid-80's, yet I get upset EVERY TIME it looks like she's died. I curse Woronov bitterly and feel like we are losing Sam and GOD is that horrible and it sucks. Every time.

    This was great, Patrick.

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    1. She's great. One of the best things about the movie is that we don't have to choose. And that scene still affects me that way, too. It's such a strong moment that really underscores everything the movie does right.

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    2. Completely. Catherine Mary Stewart is just SO strong. Even the small, seemingly throw-away stuff like her video game OCD adds so much to who Reg is.

      ...and now I gotta watch it today. Thank you, sir (seriously) and ALL HAIL SCREAM FACTORY!

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  3. Great article Patrick - I had to stop reading to avoid spoilers - still waiting to get this after that Cineplex $3 Scream Factory error (had it been Scream Factory itself I wouldn't've taken advantage, but Cineplex, meh).

    Looking forward to this and yeah, Catherine Mary Stewart is a hot little Canadian, eh?

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    1. Let us know what you think when you see it. I'm pretty sure you will love it.

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  4. I freakin' love NIGHT OF THE COMET. That is all.

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  5. Great review. For those who like the film, there's a fan site at www.nightofthecomet.info

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  6. I finally got Night of the Comet and I watched it last night (I had contemplated waiting until SMM but couldn't resist) - right again, Patrick - totally loved it! I just reread your review (VERY glad I skipped the spoilers the first time - such a nice surprise!) and agree with you 100% - had some of the same thoughts myself last night. Had I known of Catherine Mary Stewart back then, she would have given Adventures in Babysitting's Elizabeth Shue a run for her money as my biggest 80s crush. And I'm pretty sure I said something along the lines of OF COURSE (in a good way) during the "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" shopping montage. Strangely and I don't know if it was the lossless audio or just a slightly different recording of the song, but for some reason I found it more endearing and Lauper's voice cuter than I ever had before. True confession: I "rewound" it just to listen GJWHF again. Yeah.

    I could ramble on forever so I'll just stop and say, I freakin love Night of the Comet.

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    1. Nice! So glad you liked it. Welcome to our very exclusive club.

      CMS4EVA.

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  7. Just saw this last night at the Alamo Drafthouse. It's so good! Why isn't this movie a bigger deal? I feel like this is one of the few movies I wouldn't mind a remake of.

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