It is almost Christmas, and the Earth is about to pass through the tail of a comet that has not been seen, says the opening voice-over, since before pre-recorded history. Most people stay outside to watch the light show, and they are reduced to dust. The unlucky survivors, caught in insufficient shelters, have a worse fate. They are doomed to lose their sanity and turn into zombies. Like sisters Regina and Samantha Belmont, a much smaller group survived the apocalypse entirely thanks to circumstances putting them in the right place at the right time. How will two Los Angeles valley girls survive the apocalypse?
There are so many lazier directions The Night of the Comet could have gone. The “valley girl” was a common unflattering, derisive stereotype in the 80s and 90s. Fortunately for us, writer/director Thom Eberhart had a different goal in mind. He wanted to write a fun movie with strong female characters. But before doing so, he interviewed real teenage girls about how they would behave in a zombie apocalypse. The result is a movie that is neither pandering nor patronizing. Reggie and Sam may not be rooted in reality but are grounded in a teenager’s fantasies. This is so much more fulfilling than the jaded stereotypes of cynical adults.
Perhaps the best thing about The Night of the Comet is how the movie violates our expectations, but quietly. It’s become common for films to twist tropes and blend genres in the last couple of decades. Early attempts, like A New Nightmare and Scream, operated on a self-consciously satiric level. “Hah!” the directors say. “You thought we were going to zig, and we zagged!” They set up the story beat, and then they undermine it. When they twist a character stereotype, they make a massive deal about taking it in another direction. Night of the Comet violates expectations by… just not doing that thing.
An example might help illustrate the point. In the opening scenes, we see Regina at work in a movie theater. She is playing a video game, and her boss is trying to get her back on the job. He keeps hassling her, but she’s intensely focused on that game. When it ends, we see that the high scores are entirely hers, except for one line item. This annoys her. This is her scoreboard, and we know she intends to take it back.
In another script, we might have had surprised boys doing double-takes. A girl is playing a video game! Maybe she’d square off against one of the boys. Perhaps they’d tell her the arcade was no place for a girl. That’s not how Eberhardt rolls. That’s just who she is, and we don’t need dancing arrows saying “look! A girl playing video games!” to make the point.
Night of the Comet does this time and again. The elevator pitch sounds nothing like how the movie plays out. The movie bears more resemblance to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series than it does the original film.
The script is witty, the tone light, the creature effects decent, the other visual effects hilarious garbage. There are other great character actors like Mary Waronov and Geoffrey Lewis. Robert Beltran, Commander Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager, is the male lead, but he never claims center stage. Given all of the other great movies from the 80s, this one is easy to miss. But if you’re a genre fan, especially genre films from this decade, Night of the Comet deserves some space in your collection.