Death from Spaaaaaace!

I am sure that everyone has a movie that he’s meant to see but never gotten around to.  Moreover, I’m sure that there are plenty of people out there who are weirdly obsessed with the possibility that they may watch a certain movie, yet never seem to get around to watching.  Or, as my father often says, they’ve seen “bits and pieces” of certain films.

For years, whenever I would walk into Sayville’s Video Empire with my dad, the first place I would check out would be the science fiction/horror section.  The reason for this was twofold: Star Wars movies fell under this classification and they were located along the right-hand wall next to the new releases.  On the shelves were always random movies that to this day I’m sure nobody ever rented (ah, the early days of video stores where inventory meant whatever was actually available at the time) as well as the popular flicks.  One of those was the 1984 movie Night of the Comet.

A film about teenagers having to make it in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, Night of the Comet didn’t do much at the box office and I would never had heard of it if I hadn’t been watching At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert on a regular basis and saw their review, which was pretty good for a movie that was nearly a B movie and didn’t do that well at the box office. 

But the concept intrigued me: everyone in the world has been wiped out, a few teenagers seem to have survived, and all is not as it seems.  Plus, the poster (and the subsequent video box) was really cool looking.  How could you go wrong with this?

Well, it would take me more than 25 years to get the answer to that question.  I don’t know if it was because my parents wouldn’t let me rent the movie when I was eight years old or if my allegiance to Voltron videos followed by my soon-to-be-found love of all things Ahnuld eclipsed the new-wave apocalypse, but from the time Video Empire opened in 1984 to the time it closed, circa 2000-2001, I never once picked the box up off of the shelf, walked it to the counter, took it home, and watched it.  And even when I got the chance in college, when I was staying in the Charlottesville Econo Lodge and it was on HBO, I wound up having to leave after the first twenty minutes because it was time to go eat lunch (and the cleaning lady seemed pissed that I was there).

So I got on Netflix last week, threw it in my queue, and while my wife was away the other night, threw it in.  Sadly, it’s one of those 1980s movies that didn’t survive very well beyond the 1980s.  While the plot is pretty good, the budget is considerably low and that means as far as science fiction-based zombie movies are concerned, it’s pretty sparse.  A comet comes by the earth and turns everyone on the planet to dust except for those it winds up turning into zombies and a handful of people who were smart or lucky enough to spend the night in steel-reinforced structures. 

The main survivors in that latter group are Regina (Catherine Mary Stuart), a video game-playing army brat who works at a movie theater and spends all night with her boyfriend in the theater’s projector booth; her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney), a vapid cheerleader; and Hector (Robert Beltran), who the girls run into when they go to a radio station after hearing a deejay’s voice only to find that the deejay is on autoplay.  The zombies are out there and also following them are a group of scientists that had purposely gone (literally) underground at the beginning of the film because they thought it was suspicious that the last time this particular comet passed by the earth, the dinosaurs got wiped out.  Although the researchers apparently forgot to close the vents in their underground facility, so whatever cosmic dust the comet brought with it to kill everyone seeped into the facility and they’re all slowly turning into zombies and are draining the blood of survivors in order to hopefully find a cure.  Regina and Samantha wind up in their clutches and the last 1/3 of the movie is their fight (with help from Hector) to get away from them.

One of the best zombies from the film is featured in one of the best fights in the film.

I don’t want to say that I was disappointed in the movie, because I enjoyed the 90 minutes I spent watching it.  I just kind of wish that they had a bigger budget.  When Regina wakes up from her night with her boyfriend and there’s a knock on the door, the guy who is there is a zombie, and not of the Romero or Danny Boyle varieties, but an angry zombie that is conscious and actually has lines (I believe this is around the time that Return of the Living Dead was released) and he and Regina have a pretty sweet fight in the alley behind the movie theater.  Things even stay pretty cool when Regina and Sam do one of those “crazy shopping” montages (set to a cover version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, which is only eclipsed by the cover version used in the actual movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun) and they are accosted and nearly eaten by a group of zombie stockboys who have taken over the mall.  Even if they resemble members of Soft Cell or The Cars while they’ve got Regina and Sam chained to a forklift and are about to go to town. 

But once the whole part of the plot involving the research scientists who couldn’t be bothered to check the vents gets going, the lack of a budget really begins to show and the movie’s last act is a bit lacking.  Or maybe that’s just because I’m not used to seeing just a couple of zombies in a movie but hordes of zombies.  Seriously, if you think about it, most zombie movies you’ve seen involve massive numbers of the undead roaming about, so when you really see just a handful here at there, it’s disconcerting. 

There also weren’t a lot of other things I was used to from other, more recent sci-fi and horror movies: no long scenes of dialogue that provided the necessary background and opposition so that everyone knew all of the back story and what was going on instead of simply having to figure it out by paying attention to the movie; no self-aware and “ironic” teenage dialogue; and no prologed apocalypse segment, either.  All the director and editors do is show skyline views of Los Angeles with loud colors of different light for the comet scene, with some shots of people starting to feel weird by never spontaeously combusting.

Ah, Kelli Maroney. You were Buffy way before that concept was ever thought of.

Then again, that’s not why you necessarily watch Night of the Comet.  The beauty of it, if there is a beauty, is that the movie kind of knows how B-movie it is but without being too self-aware.  There’s a bit of camp in here but never once do I get the sense, like I do with so many current horror/sci-fi movies that are played for laughs a little, that everyone’s “in” on it.  Which is I think what would happen if you remade this film for today’s audience, like so many other 1980s horror/sci-fi movies.  In fact, I’m amazed a remake hasn’t been greenlit because you’ve got three things for a decent box office take: the apocalypse, zombies, and girls who kick ass.  But we’d get some watered down piece of crap starring Megan Fox or something.  So I am glad that it has more or less stayed where it is.  And I’m glad I finally got around to watching it.  Because how could you not love a movie where a cheerleader holds a gun?

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