“You know Dasher and Dancer, Night of the Comet and Cupid…”
Night of the Comet is a teen oriented survival film heavy on satire, and light on horror. It fits in perfectly as a prototypical 80s film, showcasing teen protagonists, and providing nearly mindless entertainment.
A comet has wiped out almost all life on Earth, and two teenage girls (and their boyfriends) are all that are left. The trailer doesn’t give much to go on. The narrator is so upbeat when he mentions it’s the night that teenagers ruled the world. Only two brief shots provide a glimpse into the horror awaiting in the Night of the Comet.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Los Angeles, mid-December. A comet that hasn’t been seen in 65 million years prepares to make its way past Earth once again. Comet watching parties are happening all over the world, including outside the El Rey theater where high school senior Regina Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart) works. She enjoys playing the Tempest arcade game (upset that DMK has landed on the high score screen) and is “friendly” with Larry the projectionist (Michael Bowen). At their house, stepmother Doris (Sharon Farrell) is setting up her own watching party while arguing with Reg’s younger sister, Samantha (Kelli Maroney).
The next morning Regina awakens, having spent the night in the projection booth with Larry, to a completely deserted metro area. She defends herself against a mutated homeless man that eats Larry. Making her way home she sees nobody. All she finds are clothes scattered on the ground, with a fine red powder where the person would have been. Samantha enters their house, having spent the night in a lawn shed after her argument with Doris. They head to a local radio station that appears to still have people in it.
Inside the radio station they discover automated tape machines, and a mysterious truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran). Samantha starts messing around and broadcasts to the listening area which generates a call on the Hits Line from a “think tank” group located in the desert. That night Samantha has a nightmare within a nightmare of being pulled over by a zombie motorcycle cop, and then attacked by the same cop inside the station. Hector drives to San Diego to see if any of his family is still alive.
At the think tank, designated with a Circle Maze logo, four scientists are discussing picking up the survivors. Audrey White (Mary Woronov) refuses to go along with the plan, while the director Dr. Carter (Geoffrey Lewis) instructs the team to be ready to go to Los Angeles to pick the kids up. The sisters take in some target practice with machine guns before deciding to go “shopping” at the Mall. They are attacked while trying on clothes by four punk boys. The boys are all showing initial signs of the zombie virus. Luckily, they are shot and killed by the military group from the desert before they cause the girls any lasting harm. Regina goes with the scientists back to their base, while Audrey and Oscar (John Achorn) stay with Samantha to wait for Hector.
Audrey notices a rash that Sam has developed and knows it’s only a “matter of time,” injecting her with a syringe of fluid before shooting Oscar. When Hector shows up Audrey provides her notes to him, then injects herself before she can turn into a zombie. The scientists interview Regina and reveal that they need to use the kids (including two elementary aged kids) to produce blood for a serum they hope to use to reverse the effects of the comet. They accidentally left the ventilation system open and running when the comet passed by, dosing themselves in their underground bunker.
Regina escapes and runs into Samantha and Hector. Sam was actually saved by Audrey who injected her with a sleeping drug. The trio save the two younger kids, putting the scientists examining them on the same laughing gas they were going to use on the kids. Hector rigs explosives on the group’s trucks so when Dr. Carter, who is just about to turn into a zombie, starts the vehicle it explodes taking all the scientists and guards with it. Back in LA, a heavy rain washes the red dust out of the sky and down the drain. Reg and Hector take pictures as a makeshift family with the two younger kids. Samantha is nearly hit by a car jaywalking. The driver is an attractive valley dude, Danny Mason Keener (Marc Poppel), with the vanity plate DMK who takes Sam off on a date.
“You may as well face the facts, Samantha. The whole burden of civilization has fallen upon us.” – Regina
History in the Making
Night of the Comet is a fun, and slightly kitschy, blend of science-fiction and horror elements. It’s a not-too-scary attempt to create a youth oriented film to appeal to the teenage filmgoing market, which was rapidly spending its money on other youth-focused films such as The Last Starfighter, Gremlins, Red Dawn and many more. The appeal of Red Dawn with the youth market is important since it was the first film to include the newest rating, PG-13.
Sparked by complaints from parent and civic groups over violence and horror elements in films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins (May & June 1984, respectively), the MPAA created a new rating between PG and R. This allowed, among other things, depictions of more horrific acts, increased profanity (including the infamous rule allowing only one use of the F-word), plus stronger violence or sexual elements. Red Dawn was the first to use this rating but studios found this was a great place to position horror or action films to include more of a teen audience. In 1984 films like Dreamscape, Trancers, Ghoulies, Dune, and Runaway all fit into this new classification, along with Night of the Comet.
Along with toning back the horror and violence elements, Night of the Comet also showcased a number of young talents from the mid-80s. Robert Beltran had made headlines as the titular character in the dark comedy Eating Raoul, and would go on to make more films before getting his best known role as Commander Chakotay in the TV series Star Trek: Voyager. Catherine Mary Stewart made a splash with sci-fi fans earlier in the year in The Last Starfighter, and would be recognized for her role in the comedy Weekend At Bernie’s before the end of the decade. And finally Kelli Maroney achieved widespread fame from her appearance here (even though her first role was two years earlier in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and the sci-fi horror film reviewed last week, Chopping Mall.
From its trailer to finished film, Night of the Comet presents a teen-centric view of the world. It asks the youth watching the film, how cool would it be to be the last person on Earth? Much of the movie is spent showing the upside of this question. But as with every upside, there’s a downside, and in this case it’s comet zombies. The film comes from a long lineage of apocalyptic sci-fi and horror films that present that same question, just not aimed at teenagers. Films like The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, or Dawn of the Dead (which like Chopping Mall has some horrific scenes in a shopping mall) were some of the more famous versions. Night of the Comet takes the story and sensibility from these earlier films and passes it through the 1980s prism of making the teenager the hero.
Sci-Fi Saturdays has talked in previous articles about the fear of scientists vs the fear of the government. Since the 80s seemed to feature a lot of films with youth, the enemy often became adult authority in some way. Here, the bad guys are the secret government think tank, run by scientists. It takes care of the labeling by making sure not to trust anyone over 25. The film sets the group up as a potential savior, helping to rescue survivors, but that potential trust is severed when the truth that these scientists are using the blood of kids and teens to try to keep themselves alive. And not in even in a good way, such as “we’d like you to take part in this experiment.” It’s more of a “sorry we have to make you braindead so we can just use you as a blood bag.” You can’t trust the man!
Night of the Comet also taps into some early interest in Haley’s comet which was due to pass back by the Earth about a year and a half after this film. Comet’s were still a mysterious stellar object that not much was known about. They would influence at least one other sci-fi/horror hybrid that was reviewed earlier in the month, Lifeforce. As talked about there, this comet is just another harbinger of evil and death. Unfortunately, it’s for the entire populace of Earth.
As for social commentary, Night of the Comet has a pretty dark and dry sense of humor about it. It shows two sides of the spectrum depicting the party-like atmosphere that could be possible after a major apocalypse (playing video games, shooting guns in the street, and “shopping” in stores for whatever anyone wanted) versus the horrific “survival of the fittest” aspect against mutated comet zombies. It’s wish-fulfillment meets reality as the youth realize that they have to grow up a lot faster than they were expecting too. The quote above perfectly encapsulates the maturity that the teens have gained, specifically Regina, after surviving the events of the film.
From the standpoint of the adults, the think tank group, it’s a horrifying reality. Their outlook seems to be that the youth will inherit the earth whether they like it or not. While many different types of people died in the comet flyby, adults that survived seem to be in two groups: mutated zombies, or potential mutated zombies. In actuality this process is happening to all the characters. Hector’s run in with the zombie kid in San Diego and Reg and Sam meeting the stock boys in the mall show that everyone is heading to a dismal end. Eat or be eaten.
Night of the Comet also has a simple take on consumerism and commercialism. It’s not as well formed as the ideas presented in Chopping Mall or Dawn of the Dead, but still creates a commentary on the growing fad. Here, in an apocalyptic hellscape, with red skies and mutant zombies, the two protagonists of the film still find solace in going shopping at the mall. Everything is free and they can get whatever they want, except that the stores are now guarded by roving bands of dying stock boys who guard the merchandise as if it were worth something. The ingrained need to accumulate “stuff” still exists in a world where stuff is not important anymore. The film even takes place at the height of the holiday that celebrates consumerism: Christmas.
The Science in The Fiction
Early I said that the film was light on the horror elements. However, it’s also really light on science elements! While a coming comet could potentially disrupt communication equipment as it passes by, as happens in the area around Newfoundland, there’s a lot of other impossibilities. As everyone knows, a communication disruption can mean only one thing–electromagnetic interference. It might be possible for the comet to create such a disturbance depending on how close it travelled to the atmosphere and ionosphere. But the comet does a number of other things that may just not be possible. Ignoring the infectious properties of the comet, and the red dust (calcium dust as one of the scientists says) it leaves behind, the comet is on a 65 million year orbit of the galaxy (universe?) or further. Is that even possible?
The infection that is spread appears to be airborne pollutants in combination with possible radiation. Since the main characters all spent the evening in a metal or steel bunker of various types (projection booth/tool shed/cargo container) there were unaffected by the comets near instantaneous disintegration of carbon-based life. Those that were protected in some fashion (the homeless man, stock boys, and scientists) breathed in some after effects and began to mutate into zombie creatures. The film suggests that a nice cleansing rain is capable of washing away any of the pollution; just like it does with smog in Los Angeles. That may be possible, and it could leave people safe after the fact, since the radiation would be gone with the comet. Since the end of the film is intended to be a happy(ish) one, audiences can assume that the effects were unfortunately limited to that one evening.
The Final Frontier
Night of the Comet scares don’t seem to be on the level of other horror films reviewed this October. Part of that may be the PG-13 rating but also it wasn’t trying to be a downer of a film. There are only four major scary parts of the film. There’s the initial zombie attack on Regina, Hector’s chase from the zombie boy (which comes off as humorous even), the moments playing Russian roulette with Samantha, and the scariest moment, Samantha’s double jump-scare nightmare. The double dream within a dream is not something that was commonplace at this time. Not even the original A Nightmare on Elm Street had gone that far. So, this really is a bit of a shocker. Additionally because the setting returns to the radio station where we last saw the character, and many in the audience may be paying attention to Kelli Maroney disrobing and not thinking that there’s another fright coming.
With only one week left in the 2020 edition of 31 Days of Horror, there’s still plenty of frights and scares to come. I have another edition of H-Origins, plus some other great films to watch. Please keep joining the discussion here on Retrozap.com every night!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.