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It Was the Last Thing on Earth They Ever Expected.
Often nostalgically remembered as a vestige of the Punk '80s, Night of the Comet made its mark by offering something other clever low-budget science fiction shows didn't have -- engaging personalities. Whether being chased by chainsaw-wielding maniacs or caught in a futuristic conspiracy, characters in '80s genre fantasies didn't have much time to behave like normal people. In terms of action and spectacle Thom Eberhardt's colorful thriller barely makes the minimums. But he give us people we care about, and that's always an achievement.
Eberhart's post-apocalyptic show skips most of the preliminaries of movies about nuclear or chemical annihilation and goes straight to the, 'hey, how come the people have all disappeared' scenes. Taking both its beginning and ending from John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, the story conveniently turns literally everyone on Earth to red dust, after being exposed to the light of a passing comet. 1
Jubilant revelers greet the comet in downtown L.A., which is represented by a shoot outside the El Rey Theater on Wilshire Blvd., plus what looks like some swiped shots from New Year's Eve in Times Square. Just one or two quick cuts of slit-scan distortions in the sky represent the actual comet's passing. The film instead belongs to a pair of sexually active Valley Girls. The Belmont sisters Regina and Samantha (Catherine Mary Stewart & Kelli Maroney) happen to survive the comet's radiations by virtue of spending the night in steel-lined rooms. It also seems that other survivors only partially dosed, are in various stages of zombie-like disintegration. Regina's boyfriend falls victim to one of these. While taking in the weird reality that they may the last women on Earth, the sisters meet surviving truck driver Hector (Robert Beltran). Samantha is unhappy when her older sister, as usual, stakes a claim on this new 'last man alive', but they have much bigger problems to worry about. Some surviving military scientists up in the desert foolishly left an air vent open during the comet's passing, and are themselves beginning to disintegrate. But if they can capture and exsanguinate enough healthy survivors, they might discover a quick cure.
Night of the Comet can hold up its head with pride, as it did well in a real theatrical release when many more expensive pictures bombed. When compared to the average Charles Band picture of the time, it's a masterpiece. The screenplay consists of only a few rather leisurely paced scenes -- a full half hour passes before the Sci-Fi premise gets seriously underway. Screenwriter Thom Eberhart uses a lot of sketchy shorthand to set us up with a pair of interesting action-gal heroines. Taller Regina has hair like Farrah Fawcett and a thorny personality: her militarist father has abandoned the family to fight Sandinistas (!), which conveniently makes both his daughters into weapons experts. Is this perhaps the beginning of those videos devoted to women in lingerie firing machine guns? Regina also knows how to fight dirty. Younger Samantha is a fun-loving high school cheerleader type disenchanted with her trampy mother Doris (Sharon Farrell). While pop's away playing soldier, suburb dweller Doris has got a sex affair going with the neighbor.
The parents are initially mourned but not really missed -- when it comes down to it, you know, the past is so yesterday. While Hector takes a quick trip home to San Diego, Regina helps Samantha keep the nightmares away by doing what comes naturally to L.A. teens when "The stores are open!" The sight of the young women dancing in their underwear in the aisles of an abandoned department store is apparently the image of Night of the Comet that caught on; they even model clothing to the song "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The Valley Girl angle is probably what got the film made in the first place, as the executive producers had just had a sizeable hit with Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl, with Nicolas Cage.
The balance of the show is given over to gun battles with some crazed ex- stockroom boys, another run-in or two with zombies, and their 'rescue' by the researchers from the desert. Dependable cult star Mary Woronov is Audrey, a scientist who sympathizes with the teens against her predatory associates. Just when it looks like Samantha has been murdered by lethal injection and Regina set up to be a brain-dead permanent blood donor, Night of the Comet cheerfully opts out of a nihilistic finish. Too spunky to be fooled by the big bad medico Carter (Geoffrey Lewis), the girls free a little boy and girl being prepped as guinea pigs and make a dash for freedom.
By any fair estimation the show is thin in all departments, yet its likeability holds it together. We see a bare minimum of 'empty city' scenes, some of them accomplished by staging action on elevated roadways and parking structures. The wholesale annihilation is suggested by piles of clothing and red dust scattered on the streets. To convince her sister that Mom has been pulverized. Regina must pick Doris's white dress off the street and shake the dust out of it. What's left of the world seems to be skyscrapers and red-tinted skies.
The action scenes are also on the lean side. A shotgun and machine-gun battle in the department store results only in the shattering of a display case and a few mannequins. Director Eberhardt keeps things lively and lighthearted. Only with the final act do we realize that the show will not have any spectacular science fiction scenes. The passing of the comet happens practically off screen and the scientist's underground lair is suggested by just a couple of matte shots.
Overall the show gets a big boost from the creative production designer John Muto (Forbidden Zone). He and visual effects specialist Ted Rae (Apocalypto) make less seem like more throughout the picture. The desert complex is in fact little more than a room, a sliding door and a hallway; clever additions make it seem like a cavernous facility. Although we never see a fully deserted city as in The Quiet Earth or The World The Flesh and The Devil, we see enough to amuse us.
Ms.'s Stewart and Mulroney are certainly charming. Mary Catherine looks just young enough to be a slacker theater usher, playing video games instead of doing her job. Kelli has the perky chipmunk cheeks and amused smile of everyone's dream high school date. Mary Woronov is somewhat underused, and anybody would be depressed wearing the boiler suit she's been given. Yet it's nice to see her in role where she's neither a silly victim nor a snarky murderer. Writer-director Eberhardt's good scenes between the sisters make up for occasional weak exposition and a klunker line or two. 2 If he tried to make the movie more serious it would be a bore. We instead get a well judged 'cute' ending that stares down the old End-Of-The-World cliché of a new Adam and Eve repopulating the world. "The burden of civilization is on us." "Bitchin', isn't it?"
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Night of the Comet is a flawless HD presentation that saw a Region A release last year on the Shout! Factory label. Color is excellent, erasing memories of grainy flat cable TV transfers. Deluxe Digital has done a fine job with their encoding.
The original monaural audio is also in fine shape, highlighting the film's knock-off music cues (no Cyndi Lauper) and a couple of effective original compositions. When reviewers associate the movie with the punk sensibility, it must be because of the girls' generalized unhappiness with their parents. The rebellion is displaced against faceless technological enemies. When the warrior sisters are reunited mid-battle, one of them still greets the other with a cheery, "What a great outfit!"
Arrow's extras mirror those on the American disc. Stars Stewart and Mulroney host / interview the main making-of featurette, while favorite Mary Woronov wins us over with her assessment of her short tenure on the film. Unfortunately, she has no real scenes with Robert Beltran, her co-star from Eating Raoul. The make-up artist gets a big plug in a separate piece. The color souvenir booklet has a jokey insert essay by James Oliver, while Arrow's signature reversible sleeve gives owners a choice of original artwork or a new and gorier graphic design.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The comet roughly aligns with the meteor shower that blinds the Earth's population in Triffids. At the end of Wyndham's book, the 'good guys' make their escape by booby-trapping some bad militarists in their own vehicle, just as Robert Beltran does here.
Oh, and the filmmakers slip in plenty of in-jokes. The theater projectionist is pirating a print of It Came from Outer Space. Plastered to the walls of the theater are posters for Forbidden Zone and Red Dust. In HD more of these details are readily visible.
2. Didn't I read the other day that writers who use the line, "There goes the neighborhood" are now being taken out and shot? Last year it was, "Let's get outta here!"
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.