Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Death is scary. When you get right down to the basics of it, that’s what makes a horror film work. People don’t want to die. They are afraid of death. So when a character is put in a life-threatening situation in a film, you are afraid for them. Usually, a couple of characters fighting for their lives is enough for a horror film. Tonight’s film, 1984’s Night of the Comet, isn’t content with putting a couple of characters in peril. Instead, the film concerns the end of the world and wipes out the entire human race. For me, the end of the world is a much more horrifying concept than just my own death. So, an apocalyptic horror film should be a very depressing thing. What Night of the Comet manages to do is turn the apocalypse into a fun 80s party where bad fashion goes hand in hand with Uzis. The fact that it manages to end humanity and still be a fun ride is very impressive, but it also manages to do it on a low-budget. And while the film isn’t perfect, you have to respect writer/director Thom Eberhardt (Captain Ron) for aiming for the fences and not being content with the same old, same old of low-budget horror filmmaking.
The film begins with a cheesy voiceover telling us about a comet that is about to pass the Earth for the first time in millions of years. The last time this happened, we are told, was when the dinosaurs mysteriously vanished. I’m not usually a fan of a narrator who isn’t a character in a story (actually I’m not the biggest lover of narration, period), but this intro and the following titles expertly set up a film that is aware of its B-movie status. After this brief sequence, we see people gathered in the streets excitedly awaiting the passing of the comet through the night sky. I guess they didn’t hear that narration…
We are then introduced to our lead character, Regina (Catherine Mary Stuart, Weekend at Bernie’s). Regina is a valley girl who works as an usher at a movie theater. She spends all of her time playing arcade games in the lobby instead of actually doing work. Her manager (Stanley Brock, Uncle Harvey from UHF!) tells her that she has to take her job seriously and she can’t just do whatever she wants. Regina is bummed that she’s missing out on seeing the comet and is instead stuck at work. Once she’s off, she heads up to the projection booth to meet her boyfriend Larry (Michael Bowen, the ill-fated Buck from Kill Bill Vol. 1). Instead of heading out to one of the many comet parties around town, Larry wants Regina to stay in the projection booth with him all night. He has plans to make some easy money by illegally renting out the theater’s 3D film print of It Came from Outer Space for the night. To do this, he has to be in the booth at the beginning of the night to hand it off and early the next morning to pick it up. He convinces Regina to stay with him and help him pass the time.
As Regina’s night is slowing down, her younger sister Samantha’s (Kelli Maroney, Chopping Mall) is going off the rails. She’s stuck at home at a comet party being thrown by her wicked stepmother Doris. Dad is out of town, and Samantha doesn’t react too kindly when she sees Doris hitting on Chuck from next door. “You already have an asshole, Doris,” Samantha tells her stepmother. “You don’t need Chuck.” This hilarious barb ends with the stepmom and daughter getting into a fistfight and Samantha running off into the night.
The next morning, Regina and Larry wake up to find that they were never called about the film being returned. An angry Larry storms out of the projection booth, only to be promptly killed by a zombie. Regina soon comes looking for him and finds herself under attack by the same ghoul. She fights her way to safety and drives off on Larry’s motorcycle. As she drives through the valley, she realizes that everything about the world she once knew has changed. The streets are devoid of people and empty cars litter the freeway. The sky is now orange instead of blue, and piles of dust are now all that is left of the population. Regina heads home to try to find out if anyone in her family has survived. Back home, she finds Samantha wandering back from a night spent in a storage shed. The two girls then embark on a quest to find any other survivors, while avoiding the zombies that the comet’s radiation has created.
A great thing that Night of the Comet does is do unexpected things that still make sense. After being told that the world has just ended, Samantha blows it off. It sounds crazy. Regina has to shake her and drag her outside to convince Samantha that the unthinkable has happened. In so many other movies, characters accept ridiculous things immediately or take forever to believe them, straining credibility. In Comet, that right balance is struck and is helped by the script’s sharp sense of humor. As Regina shakes her and yells “everybody’s gone,” Samantha’s reply is “you made my swallow my gum!” Once the fate of humanity has been accepted by the characters, we don’t get thirty minutes of them weeping for what they’ve lost. The girls are allowed to grieve, but when the world has just ended and there are zombies about, survival is the first thing on their minds. After hearing a DJ still playing on a car radio, they head to the local radio station to look for survivors. The DJ is, of course, just a recording (haven’t they seen American Graffiti?), but this leads them to Hector (Robert Beltran, Star Trek: Voyager), a nice truck driver trying to get to his mother’s house. It also puts them in harm’s way, as Samantha’s messing with the radio equipment is overheard by an evil military installation made up of actors from B-movies, including Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000) and Geoffrey Lewis (1979’s Salem’s Lot).
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