I'm not ashamed to admit that when I saw the movie the roulette wheel spun up for me this week, I couldn't resist smiling. Thom Eberhardt's ebullient Night of the Comet (1984) is a film I remember fondly. I remember seeing it when it was in theaters in a crackerbox twin theater in a town in podunk, Missouri, back when independent movies were still likely to be interesting genre efforts like The Terminator or The Hidden or crap product from Cannon Films like Tomboy and Avenging Angel. That's all gone now, and movies like Night of the Comet don't show up at the multiplexes anymore. Or if they do, they show up as bloated remakes. Blech.
Night of the Comet is the living end of the "last man on earth" subgenre, what you might get if I Am Legend were filtered through a John Hughes movie. Instead of hardboiled survivor types getting on with the business of, well, surviving, the heroines of this movie are a couple of self-reliant teenage girls whose first instinct upon arriving at the end of the world is to go shopping at the mall. Their main story conflict isn't survival, but who gets to "make it" with the last guy on earth. It's not a film that takes its subgenre seriously, though it never really mocks the subgenre, either. It's a lot more fun than many another more stomach-churning zombie film.
At the very least, it's a time capsule, an effect heightened by the film's long absence from home video during the 1990s and early 2000s. The cultural signifiers of the Reagan era are all in the foreground, from the big hair and shoulder-padded fashions to the hints of illegal wars in Central America to the conspicuous consumption to the empty synth pop of the post-New Wave to an emphasis on video games. Having played second fiddle to the master gamer Lance Guest in The Last Starfighter, Catherine Mary Stewart graduates to the role herself. The whole thing has an ersatz feel to it appropriate to its time. Lending the film some gravitas--if you want to call it that--is Mary Woronov, whose character suggests a different kind of survivor: a survivor of the B-movies of the 1970s. She projects a kind of tired decadence the likes of which is completely alien to our duo of Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney. It's a nice contrast.
The film's not without its faults, of course. After a while, the fact that the lights are all still on and that the roads are clear starts to strain the audience's credibility. For that matter, the degeneration of the partially exposed victims of the comet creates some convenient plot turns (as well as an excuse for some zombies). On the whole, though, it makes the best of its modest resources. Its portrait of an abandoned Los Angeles is certainly creepy and indelible, while its hand-crafted make-up effects are as convincing as they have to be.
This is a movie that doesn't think too hard about the nuts and bolts of the Apocalypse. In this film's universe, the machine still works even after people are removed. It would be interesting to see what these characters do once the machine stops, but the film elides this at the end, when our sister heroines argue about crossing against the light. Civilization, the movie says, is in their hands and rather than be cynical about it, it's kind of hopeful. As the last line of the movie suggests: "Bitchin' isn't it."