If you haven’t delved into the works of writer/director Thom Eberhardt, you’re in for some of the most underrated gems of the 1980s. And if you’re already familiar with him, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a shame he never made more films.
1984’s Night of the Comet begins with all of Los Angeles, along with the rest of the world, preparing to watch a the spectacle in the sky as the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, an event that hasn’t occurred in 65 million years. Teenager Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) couldn’t care less about the comet, so she spends the night with her boyfriend in the steel-lined projection booth at the movie theater she works at.
The next morning, she goes out into the street and there is no sign of life–only piles of clothing with a red dust underneath. She soon encounters a zombie who tries to eat her, but she escapes. Obviously realizing something is terribly wrong, she heads home, and to her surprise, her sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney), is there with no realization of what awaits her outside her house. Sam reveals that the night before, she hid in their steel shed outside after a fight with their stepmother, which must explain why she wasn’t affected by the comet either.
Everyone else in the world was either obliterated immediately (if direct contact with the comet occurred) or slowly deteriorating as zombies (if a more indirect contact occurred), unless protected by a steel layer like Reggie and Sam.
The girls are scared, but well-equipped. Their military father used to take them to rifle ranges and taught them hand-to-hand combat, which is comes in handy when facing a zombie apocalypse.
The girls don’t necessarily take a journey or adventure like you would hope. Cool things do happen, but not enough given the amazing premise. We see a good portion of this barren Los Angeles, but also the Reggie and Sam’s strategy at one point is to camp out in an abandoned radio station indefinitely, which they almost do the entire rest of the film. Fortunately for us, the plot ends up unfolding a little more.
At the radio station, they meet Hector (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who also survived the comet. We realize later that the long amount of time spent there is meant to develop the characters. At one point we even get a double dream sequence that takes up five minutes of runtime, rather than actually moving the plot along and building the universe.
We also get an inside look at a remote laboratory where scientists have Big Brother eyes on the girls while debating how to handle the situation. We aren’t exactly sure yet what’s happening or who these people are, but our interest is suddenly piqued.
Instead of becoming a full blown survival story, Night of the Comet turns into a conspiracy theory. Which isn’t necessarily a wrong turn. It pushes the boundaries of the horror genre, taking a Night of the Living Dead concept and adding a different variable.
Part horror, part ’80s teen comedy, 1984’s Night of the Comet does struggle to stick to one tone at times, but that’s also part of its charm. Though if I’d venture to guess, I’d say that its priority is the latter of the two. Eberhardt’s already proven he can do straight horror with his film Sole Survivor, released earlier that same year. Comet takes a very different approach.
We hardly get any zombies. Maybe four? This is the type of movie that, during battle scenes, likes to have its characters warn their opponents with a taunt before attacking instead of catching them off-guard and winning easily.
Though Night of the Comet loses steps here and there, it’s masterful at exuding a 1980s feel: malls, movie theaters, arcades, and radio stations. What makes the movie so great is that considering its low-budget disposition, it refuses to be complacent with being just that. Instead, we get a wise, well-thought out film with a B-movie spirit. The best of both worlds.