When I was a kid, we had a VHS copy of Night of the Comet at my house for a while. I don’t remember where it came from–maybe one of my older brothers owned it, or maybe a friend did–but I don’t think I ever actually watched it, I just remember the VHS cover. For a long time I thought I had seen it and had simply forgotten, but watching it now, I’m pretty sure I would have remembered, well, anything about it, if I had seen it before. After all, it’s tough to forget a Valley Girl version of I Am Legend from the director of Captain Ron…
(Captain Ron, on the other hand, I watched about a million times when I was a kid. Because we did own a copy of it on VHS, and because it had Kurt Russell in it, mostly.)
I decided to give Night of the Comet what I thought was a second look and what proved to be a first due in no small part to Trevor Henderson sharing that above piece of delightful art by Andrea Kalfas. That, coupled with Scream Factory releasing the flick on Blu-ray some time back made me think, “I should check this out.” And I’m glad I did.
Night of the Comet is one of those movies that is so firmly rooted in its time that it somehow becomes almost timeless. The story prominently features an arcade cabinet, what appears to be a single-screen movie theatre (where the ushers still wear uniforms), lots and lots and lots of pop music on the soundtrack, and a radio station. Not to mention more neon than you can shake a stick at, which I love. In fact, the colors in Night of the Comet are frequently pretty great, alternating between the strange toxic orange glow of the LA skyline in the wake of the titular comet and the interior of the radio station with its neon hues.
While Night of the Comet could–and probably should–be easily classed as a zombie movie, there aren’t actually many zombies in it, with the creepiest ones showing up in a layered dream sequence. I compared it to I Am Legend instead of a lot of the other zombie fare of the era because, like that book and some of its cinematic successors, the focus here is less on the threat of the zombies themselves than it is on the effects of being essentially the last person(s) on earth.
Which is not to say that Night of the Comet doesn’t do some interesting stuff with its “freaked out zombies.” The sunken-eye effect is pretty potent for something so simple, and the fact that the zombies are degenerative–being people who were only partly exposed to the comet, who slowly turn from normal to zombie–means that it beat Return of the Living Dead‘s thinking, talking zombies to the punch by a year.
Even with all that, Night of the Comet wouldn’t be much without its protagonists, who are given the task of carrying most of the movie literally by themselves. From the moment we’re introduced to Catherine Mary Stewart’s Reggie, I kind of want to be her when I grow up. She’s working as an usher at a movie theatre–“You ever been hit with Dots? Milk Duds? Those things hurt.”–and her primary focus in life seems to be beating every high score in the theatre’s Tempest arcade cabinet, including an odd gag that only really pays off at all in the movie’s last seconds.
The best thing about Reggie and her sister Sam is not that they’re able to take care of themselves, though they make that pretty clear, casually beating up guys and zombies more than once, and knowing their way around guns better than most of the men in the movie, thanks to training with their military father when they were little. (“Daddy would have gotten us Uzis.”) No, the best thing is that the movie never pokes fun at them for who and what they are. Capable of switching between shallow and complex, the characters aren’t treated as jokes or stereotypes–though they often hit the notes of stereotypes–but instead as just people. And after all, if we’re really honest with ourselves, who among us wouldn’t raid the shopping mall while blaring “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” if we were the last people on earth?
[This post originally appeared on my Patreon.]