Night of the Comet (1984) d. Thom Eberhardt (USA)
The good doctor grew up in a house devoid of cable (or even much in the way of network television), so many of the nostalgia items that make up many of my fellow genre fans’ ’80s pop culture bedrock were not available to me, at least not in the heavy rotation kind of way. Such was the case with writer/director Eberhardt’s cult classic Night of the Comet, which I only encountered decades later via MGM’s bare bones DVD release. While I wasn’t displeased, the “Valley Girls meet the Apocalypse” saga didn’t instantly burrow its way into my heart, in spite of the terrific offbeat cast of Catherine Mary Stuart (The Last Starfighter), Kelli Maroney (Chopping Mall), Robert Beltram (Eating Rauol), Geoffrey Lewis (Every Which Way But Loose) and Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000, among many others). However, after recently gorging myself on Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition BR/DVD combo release of the film, stuffed to bursting with special features that genuinely live up to the name, I can definitely say that I’ve been won over in a big, big way.
The slight tale’s premise is that a mysterious comet (much like 1985’s ballyhooed return of Halley’s) will be making a return visit to Earth’s nighttime heavens for the first time in 65 million years. The event provides the excuse for global reveling, with drunken interstellar enthusiasts lining the streets by the millions (since this is a low-budget effort, we only see about 25 people gazing skyward, but you get the idea). Unfortunately for Mankind, the red-hued gases that accompany the big-headed celestial traveler prove fatal, sucking the water right out of every living creature and leaving only a pile of dust behind.
But hope for our species emerges in the form of two sisters, Reggie (Stewart) and Samantha (Maroney), who rebelliously elect to skip the astronomy gazing portion of the evening and accidentally save their skins in the process. Seems that the gases can’t penetrate steel, and since Reg is “making it” with the hunky projectionist (Michael Bowen) in the metal-lined booth of the cinema where she works as a videogame-obsessed usher, and Sam has taken sulky shelter in the backyard equipment shed after a literal knock-down fight with her stepmom (Sharon Farrell), the two are safe...barring the occasional morning-after encounter with random, partially exposed zombie-types. Truck driver Hector (top-billed Beltran) also appears on the scene, but then takes off to discover the fate of his own family, promising to return as soon as possible.
Far from the downer version presented in 1971’s The Omega Man, this is a bouncy and joyful romp where the girls (who’ve been instructed in survival techniques by their absent-in-Nicaragua commando father) make L.A. their personal playground by taking over radio stations, raiding shopping malls, and riding newly acquired motor vehicles to their heart’s content. Of course, all that changes once a group of scientific heavies (led by Lewis and Woronov) show up to harvest the precious bodily fluids of the survivors.
To be honest, the plot doesn’t really hold up to close scrutiny, but this is far from hard sci-fi fare – the invitation is to join the fantasy adventure of teens being left unsupervised in a major metropolitan area and the enthusiasm is undeniably infectious. The film doesn’t necessarily excel in any one area, but it does feature engaging lead performances, a lively soundtrack, a few effective moments of fright, and oodles of low budget can-do personality.
Much of the latter element is explored in depth throughout the bountiful extras on Shout! Factory’s latest issue, providing a rich context for how this apocalyptic charmer came into being. We get not one, not two, but three audio commentary tracks which miraculously manage to avoid the same stories as well as providing different viewpoints. Edwin Samuelson of the A.V. Club and The Cinefiles shares the mike with the chatty Maroney and Stewart, who discuss the challenges of early dawn/middle-of-the-night shoots (in order to achieve the isolated atmosphere) and the benefits of having come from soap opera backgrounds, where preparation is key and a second take can never be counted on. Both hold the film in high esteem for its positive portrayal of strong female characters, and the thrills and fun inherent to its escapist setting.
Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher takes us around the track with writer/director Eberhardt, who shares his various inspirations such as 1954’s Target Earth and the “Where is Everybody” Twilight Zone pilot episode, and openly states that he wasn’t looking to make any kind of lasting social statement, but rather just an enjoyable slice of entertainment. Though the funds were meager (approx $750,000), collective morale and imagination were high and the results still hold up. He also reveals that much of the “movie magic” of his deserted Los Angeles was accomplished by shooting in less-frequented neighborhoods, nabbing lulls between stoplights, or scheduling a shot early Christmas morning.
Felsher then sits down again with production designer John Muto (Home Alone, Species). This track proves to be the real surprise, and hats off to Felsher for having the foresight to track Muto down because the man is a wealth of practical information on how the simplest things can create mood and atmosphere. Several practical visual effects are explained, both simple (graduated red filters placed on the camera lens in order to achieve the pink-orange skyline) and advanced (trick shots involving matte paintings, miniatures, and double exposures), but even more important is the true understanding of what a production designer does and how his/her work can influence an entire film. Fascinating stuff that rises above mere trivia (although, oddly enough, no one ever references the omnipresence of Diet Pepsi in this new world order).
The other bonus features (all produced by Red Shirt) kick off with “Valley Girls at the End of the World,” a 15-minute featurette with Maroney and Stewart. We don’t gain much new intel that we didn’t hear on the commentary track, but our daring duo prove just as appealing onscreen 30 years later. In “Last Man on Earth?”, Beltran reveals that it was he who suggested his Rauol co-star Woronov, as well as the fact that Hector was original conceived as much more of a “cholo” stereotype, which the actor wasn’t interested in repeating. As a result, the character’s ethnicity, while still apparent, becomes a non-issue in a surprisingly prescient multicultural way. “Curse of the Comet” showcases makeup f/x designer David B. Miller (who also famously designed Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger and worked alongside heavyweights Greg Cannom and Craig Reardon on Dreamscape that same year).
We also get two photo galleries and the original theatrical trailer, topped off by brand new artwork by Nathan Thomas Milliner.
Night of the Comet is available to own November 19, 2013 from Shout! Factory and can be pre-ordered HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine