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At a time when nuclear anxiety was both real and common, Thom Eberhardt went against the grain and made a quirky genre movie about the end of the world. Of course, the catastrophic event shown in Night of the Comet wasn’t the result of unleashed weapons of mass destruction. No, this story’s obliteration of (most) life on Earth was brought on by a less obvious force: a passing comet on par with the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Hollywood and the like have never been opposed to putting fears of nuclear strike and fallout on screen, but nothing made back in the ‘80s quite compares to Eberhardt’s doomsday tale of two valley girls looking for signs of life in disaster-stricken SoCal.
The filmmaker behind 1984’s Sole Survivor, the disquieting hidden gem about one woman’s brush with death, later returned that same year with something lighthearted, albeit deceptively so. Contemporaneous apocalypse movies look even more severe when juxtaposed with Night of the Comet. However, that’s not to say this story is all frivolity; fans know those more carefree junctures are often sandwiched between heavier moments. Nevertheless, Eberhardt was adept at finding a balance between the two opposite tones in his offbeat movie.
The ways in which Night of the Comet shows its melancholia tend to go unnoticed in favor of the goofier set pieces. For starters, wiping out the near entirety of mankind just days before Christmas is harsh. The sunny and urban sprawl of L.A. doesn’t immediately read as festive; the narrator’s ominous foreword as well as easily overlooked decorations and signage are the biggest indicators of the holidays. Of course, the characters here are admittedly too preoccupied with celebrating the approaching comet to care about anything as routine as Christmas. It’s only when everyone ends up vaporized or zombified that the old and unappreciated practices become desirable again.
This movie wouldn’t be as effective or enjoyable without its two main characters. Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, who respectively played teenage sisters, Reggie and Sam Belmont, don’t come across as ideal survivalists, but looks are deceiving. These siblings indeed know how to take care of themselves. That’s one thing their MIA father taught them before voluntarily enlisting again rather than raising his two daughters back home. These Belmont girls know their way around MAC-10s, and they can hold their own in a fight with the occasional zombie. It’s easy to see how Night of the Comet’s protagonists inspired the creation of Buffy Summers.
While more agreeable than most on-screen sisters, there is still a discernible disconnect between Reggie and Sam’s relationship early on. On the eve of Earth’s ruin, Sam is half-hearted in her support as Reggie tries to dupe their wicked stepmother Doris (Sharon Farrell) into letting her stay out late. There is also Sam’s jealousy of Reggie’s would-be romance with a fellow comet survivor, the eligible truck driver Hector (Robert Beltran), which suggests a history of sibling rivalry. Nevertheless, one beautiful aspect of Night of the Comet is the deepening of Reggie and Sam’s sisterly bond. After losing their birth mother, being practically abandoned by their presumably dead father, and enduring the wrath of Doris together, the Belmont sisters now only have each other. The fact that almost everyone else has since perished gives Reggie and Sam no choice but to become closer, however, Eberhardt took no shortcuts in getting to that point.
“What if you woke up one morning and everybody was gone?” Eberhardt presented this question, his pitch for Night of the Comet, to several fifteen-year-olds before writing his script. To his surprise, this improvised focus group showed little to no remorse and instead was more intrigued about the possibilities of living in such a world. That adolescent perspective then became the driving force for Eberhardt’s story. Reggie and Sam found juvenile ways to occupy themselves at first — from practicing their gunfire in the streets to playing dress-up inside a barren mall — but they eventually realize their own growing loneliness.
In an affecting scene set against the vivid and foreboding red sky, the Belmont sisters reach an understanding as they chat on the hood of a police car. Maroney’s moving monologue about her character never getting the chance to learn if a school crush liked her or not strikes a nerve. Not only for Sam but also for those of us watching. That sort of delayed regret is relatable at any age. This sudden actualization on Sam’s part was influenced by Eberhardt’s continuing discussion with his young respondents. To them, everyone else being dead was only enticing until they grasped the fact that the widespread body count could very well include their sweethearts.
In addition to Reggie and Sam’s heart-to-heart is the sad bit where Hector races home to only then find his mother and family all gone. The scene lingers so audiences understand the weight of Hector’s loss. Unlike his new acquaintances, Hector was on good terms with his family. Now, uninitiated viewers who have seen their fair share of “zomedies” may be caught off-guard by this and other rather joyless moments in the movie. They likely expected to see two armed ditzes battling hordes of the undead — technically speaking, they’re not really zombies here — in Night of the Comet. Yet truth be told, this isn’t exactly that kind of movie.
Making up for the lack of action is a “sinister scientist” subplot. Character actors Geoffrey Lewis and Mary Woronov play two of the several researchers who bring back survivors like Reggie and Sam to their underground facility. This being an ’80s movie about the fall of civilization, though, their motivation for helping is obviously nefarious. Having said that, Eberhardt’s original fate for the Belmont sisters was ultimately (and thankfully) changed at the request of several parties, including his wife. This development is just another example of the favorable optimism found throughout the movie.
Night of the Comet channels all the cheesy sci-fi flicks that came before it while also putting its own spin on the apocalypse subgenre. Assuredly, longtime fans return to this cherished cult classic for a slew of reasons, which include a cast of likable characters, the focus on families (those by birth and by choice), and the effective blend of levity and poignancy. On top of those merits are the movie’s solid sense of world-building and high production values done on a low budget. Overall, Night of the Comet doesn’t deliver the usual doom-laden thrills inherent to other empty-city horror stories; it offers more character-driven drama than action. And perhaps most appealingly, the movie finds a way to laugh, love, and carry on even as the whole world is falling apart.
Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.
The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.