Night of the Comet
March 4, 2021
omorrow night will be one to remember. Get a load of this: for the first time in 65 million years, Earth is going to pass through the tail of a comet. Nobody’s very worried about it. Scientists have ostensibly made this once-in-several-lifetimes cosmic event sound like something you don't want to miss, even though the last time Earth and a comet made contact like this it made everything go extinct. In the first few scenes of
the southern California-set Night of the Comet (1984), it’s established that people nationwide are anticipating this evening as if it were an astronomical Super Bowl event. Neighbors will gather with neighbors, friends with friends, for comet-night functions replete with barbecue dinners and cheap comet-themed party store-style accouterments. It’ll hardly be any different from a fireworks show. You’ll be enchanted by a flash, and then you’ll go home.
We — and the rest of the world — come to find out that it might have been beneficial if that little something about those ill-fated dinosaurs were more stressed. (At the beginning of the movie an unseen narrator is the person sharing this anecdote; we suppose he didn’t disseminate his knowledge with the rest of the world.) When teenage sisters Reggie and Sam (Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) wake up in the morning after accidentally sleeping through the comet’s passing — Reggie spent the night in a projection room with her boyfriend (she works at a theater), and Sam slept in the backyard’s gardening shed after a bad fight with her and Reggie’s mean stepmom (Sharon Farrell) — they find the comet’s residue has overwashed the sky with a scarlet-colored haze. (The clouds look like ice in an unstirred glass of Crystal Light.) The sisters also find that everyone, apparently having gotten too close for comfortable comet contact, has been literally turned to dust. We know this because red powder-covered piles of clothing splotch the sidewalks. (The film humorously has one of the theater exit doors adorned in a full-length poster for 1932’s Red Dust — an inadvertent warning sign.)
Time shows these siblings weren't the only ones spared. If you happened to be in a steel-enclosed space when the comet soared through the skies, and/or if you happen to have something in you genetically that prevents disintegration, you might find yourself still walking around and talking like everything’s fine. If you were only “half” spared — whatever makes this happen the film isn’t especially clear on — you will less fortunately become a flesh-eating zombie. Not a mindless one, though. If zombified, you’ll still have the wherewithal to command a prospective victim to come here or sneakily whack them in the head with something hard to speed up the eating process. (That there are zombies in the Night of the Comet universe eventually comes to feel more than anything like set decoration.)
Reggie and Sam will initially have some fun with their Very Alone alone time. They will deplete now-unguarded upscale stores of the tony clothes and accessories they’ve always wanted. They will empty machine-gun canisters (their dad's an army man) on cars parked on city streets because they can. But in Night of the Comet the girls will eventually face the consequential, and not just what is existentially consequential, which is a given. (Stewart’s and Maroney’s performances are consistently imbued with an affecting what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-do-style sorrow; their work can be heartbreaking when we least expect it.)
While hiding out in a radio station, the sisters meet a guy close to their age. He's a handsome out-of-towner named Hector (Robert Beltran), and he seems to have eyes for Reggie; he'll add some seriousness to their misadventures.
(Sam can't believe her luck that there’s only one guy left in the world and he’s uninterested in her.) And as the siblings wander around downtown, a B plot comes to the fore: a group of scientists at a base in middle-of-nowhere America is on the hunt. Exposed to comet residue themselves and rapidly deteriorating, they’ve been grabbing any survivors they can find and running tests on them to save themselves. Testees are often left brain dead. The moral center of the movie might be Audrey (Mary Woronov), a scientist who, once it seems like her colleagues are fundamentally more self-interested than they are inclined to practice meaningful science, is eager — willing to die, even — to make sure they don’t rob someone of their now-more-precious-than-ever life.
Given that Night of the Comet is a B movie set in and released in the mid-1980s, one may worry ahead of time that writer-director Thom Eberhardt might condescend to his young woman leads the way some of his peers might. They’re Valley girls who count shopping and partying among their favorite pastimes. (Sam is a cheerleader, too: she spends most of the movie in her aqua-blue and pink Rebels uniform.) But Eberhardt never undermines the humanity of these smart and capable heroines; you sense a deep care for them. Eberhardt has said in interviews that he molded the sisters after Ginger Rogers — that is, characters he could imagine Rogers playing — and you can see some of her take-life-by-the-reins pluckiness in Reggie and Sam. Reggie at one point declares that she’s so strong-willed because she’s a cancer — an astrological sign she shares with July baby Ginger.
Night of the Comet loses some of its vigor once the action moves to the scientist base. By then it's become clear that the movie doesn’t need a sci-fi-typical climactic showdown to be effective; it really could just keep wandering. Night of the Comet is at its best when it’s simply watching its newly lonesome and totally autonomous heroines lolling about, trying to figure out what to make of their now-upside-down lives while also coming to realize how much they need each other.
The film’s best scene might be the one that finds them prowling an empty Bloomingdale’s-style store. You could see this section, in other hands, being played solely for laughs, especially since most of it is backed by Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and seems like it could at any moment start embodying one of the decade’s favorite — and fluffiest — teen-movie tropes: a cutesy getting-ready montage. But the scene is representative of the melancholic comedy that makes so much of the movie indelible. Night of the Comet has a sense of adventurousness and is frequently funny. But it never minimizes the sheer shock of realizing you’ve lived through an apocalyptic event. It made me a little emotional thinking about how there would be no one to whom Reggie and Sam would be able to show off their prized fashions from this mall, and how they are now living in a world where they have been robbed of experiencing any of the conventional fun Lauper — herself probably dustified — alluded to in her lyrics. But in this mall, where they have only each other, these plucky sisters are finding a way to power through. This might be the last time they'll feel carefree. Inevitably, the scene concludes not with them skipping
out of the store with delight but with a new threat announcing itself. B+