Night of the Comet
Thom Eberhadt’s upbeat apocalypse movie was a modest hit – 65th for the year might not sound like much, but it grossed twenty times its budget – and has attained both cult and influential status; disgraced Joss Whedon cites it as a primary inspiration when coming up with Buffy. If Eberhardt’s subsequent career was unexceptional – Without a Clue, Captain Ron – it may suggest the limitations here were the mother of invention, as there’s a certain can-do brio to Night of the Comet.
Kim Newman respected its blend of ’50s SF with ’80s zombies, referencing Target: Earth and Day of the Triffids as influences. The latter definitely came to mind – anyone who stays up to view the comet is affected by it, turned either to red dust or progressively zombified en route to the same ultimate fate – as do contemporary pictures such as the following year’s The Quiet Earth, another of the “deserted city” genre, and the same year’s irreverent Repo Man.
Of the latter, the leading girls, Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and sister Sam (Kelli Maroney) are referenced as shallow materialists, a “monument to consumerism”, which fits in neatly with Alex Cox’s movie and its supermarket shelves stocked with de-branded goods. Cox introduced the picture on Moviedrome (09/07/89), noting the profuse time-lapse photography but criticising the lack of “driving, manic purpose” and “failed attempts at humour”.
Night of the Comet doesn’t quite hit the peaks of either the Geoff Murphy or Cox pictures – it’s too content to slum it with the valley girls, to be its own unfussy thing – but it’s easy to see how it influenced Whedon; the female protagonists are strong-willed, can take care of themselves, but most importantly, never lose sight of their priorities as girls who wanna have fun (Cyndi Lauper appears on the soundtrack). Equipped with bad ’80s perms, they’re equally adept at overcoming zombies and mad scientists, and the arrival of Robert “Chakotay” Beltran does nothing to shift the main focus.
To be honest, it’s Maroney, rather than more celebrated Stewart, who runs off with the movie, a sassy and unbreakable little sister who is first seen getting into a fist fight with her stepmom (Sharon Farrell) – dad is off fighting Sandinistas – and is later subject to a fake-out death scene as well as a John Landis-inspired double-fake dream sequence. Come the ending, with Reggie and Hector (Beltran) contriving a makeshift nuclear family (with a couple of kids they’ve rescued from the scientists), Sam is left to ponder “Maybe I could be a nun or something”. Cue the propitious arrival of computer-game rival to Reggie DMK (Marc Poppel of Christine) provides her own happy ending.
Eberhardt throws in the occasional cute movie reference – a poster for Red Dust starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable graces a wall of the cinema where Reggie works – and there’s a suitably portentous voiceover narration introducing the comet’s “return” and invoking standard bunk about, you know, comets, millions of years and extinct dinosaurs. Heading the scientists are Geoffrey Lewis and Warhol alum Mary Woronov (Hollywood Boulevard); notably, they’re in the positions of opportunistic Elite feeding off the blood of the populace, including children (as a means to hold back the effects of their exposure to the comet. Or, if you like, to preserve their youth).
Night of the Comet takes natural disaster as its inspiration, much like Day of the Triffids in that regard, although the real danger is seen to be man and his response to it in both cases (be that a triggered condition or basic inhumanity). However, while we’ve seen numerous apocalypse movies that beat their protagonists down – not least the likes of The Omega Man, also running with the theme of a city full of goods at the sole survivor’s disposal – it’s refreshing to come across that rare one where they’re seen to thrive on the environment and just get over it all. “The burden of civilisation is on us, okay?” Yeah, whatever.