Night of the Comet doesn't have any right to be as doggone enjoyable as it is. For one thing, it's an overly simple pitch: The Omega Man with Valley Girls. Instead of disease, we've got a different end of the world event - a Haley's-type comet that turns everyone to red dust - which leaves only a few survivors and a plague of pesky zombies. And unlike Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the survivors don't hole up and go slightly mental - they go to the mall in a "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" montage!
While not a major hit, first time feature director Thom Eberhardt's action-comedy zombie-apocalypse teen film really captured the adolescent imagination and became burned in the mind of pretty much any kid growing up in the 80s. It tainted a lot of reality for me, and for years I thought that all radio stations were heavily decorated with neon (false), that cheerleaders holding automatic weapons were pretty hot (true), that steel would protect me from evil comets (possible), and that movie theater projection booths would be an awesome place to have a tryst (no comment).
Re-watching the film as an adult, I'm struck a bit more by the movie's mellow pace and enjoyable tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. And God bless low budgets, because instead of annoying over-effects, we get simpler tastes of post apocalyptic life: a red tint in the air, piles of clothes (like a Christian scare film), empty streets, and zombies that aren't the drooling, decomposing, over-the-top undead - but merely the angry, slightly decomposing undead.
Unfortunately, the small budget does mean a selection of crappy non-hits for the soundtrack. Listen to: Thom Pace, "Virgin In Love"
Unlike many a comedy thriller, the first half of the film offers plenty of character development. The heroines are two sisters, the oldest being Regina (the rather bland Catherine Mary Stewart), and the youngest being sassy cheerleader Sam, played with completely endearing snottiness by Kelli Maroney. In fact, you could say that she pretty much steals the film, and creates the defining 80s cheerleader girl in the process (she was actually cast due to her other cheerleader role in Fast Times At Ridgemont High). They meet up with a hunky young male survivor (played by future Star Trek Voyager cast member Robert Beltran) and take up camp at a Top 40 radio station.
After the girls' aforementioned shopping spree is interrupted by a bunch of gun toting stock boys (watch for Dick Rude in a small part), the film shifts gears and the government subplot kicks in. A small group of researchers survived the comet and are searching for a cure to the "sickness" left behind. They want our heroes as guinea pigs. Most of the time when I talk to people about Night of the Comet, they don't really remember the second part of the film (which includes such great cult movie character actors as Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis), even with all the daring escapes, rescue of children, and explosions. That's how deep into our mind the sister's post-apocalypse valley girl adventure gets, and how sort of genuinely sweet and sincere the characters become.
For a low budget film, Night of the Comet has some surprisingly thoughtful visual touches. This bit of IMDB trivia explains why:
The production designer, John Muto, used what he describes a "comic book" sensibility for the film. Characters were given specific colors, with the bad guys in blues and grays and the girls in colors. Regina's colors were deeper than Sam's to reflect that Regina was more intellectual than Sam and that Sam was wackier than Regina. For example, Sam's cheerleading outfit is made in magenta and turquoise to make it really stand out.
After years of being out of print on VHS, Night of the Comet is now on DVD.
Kelli Maroney's official site - according to her site, she is producing her own kids show called SNUGGYBEAR© AND THE T-SHIRT KIDS©.
And finally, Siskel & Ebert preferred Night of the Comet to The Terminator in this look at 80s SciFi movies: