‘Night of the Comet’ (1984) – 35th Anniversary Retro Review

Night of the Comet
Written and directed by Thom Eberhardt
Starring Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran, and Mary Woronov
Released on November 16, 1984

The intro of Night of the Comet captures everything that was so wrong but oh-so-right in American culture in 1984.  After a serious scholarly monologue warning of a comet that could end all life on earth, cheesy synth music pumps in with a montage of downtown LA with people wearing tacky alien antenna headbands and carrying, “Don’t worry, the comet is safe!” signs.

After the comet wipes out a majority of the earth’s population, strong-willed Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart: Weekend at Bernie’s 1989) runs home to check on her vacuous sister, Samantha (Kelli Maroney: Chopping Mall 1986 – read our retro review here), and is surprised to find her alive and completely unaware of what just happened. When they venture out to find signs of life, they encounter wayward traveler named Hector (Robert Beltran: Star Trek Voyager TV series) who joins the Valley Girls in a quest to defeat zombies and evil scientists while having fun and looking damn good doing it.

Night of the CometCertainly not the only horror movie of the ’80s to ridicule consumer culture (see: Dawn of the Dead and Chopping Mall), Night of the Comet stands out by using sharp comedy, likeable teenage protagonists, and comic book-like lighting and framing to create a fun yet terrifying end-of-the-world scenario.

Writer/Director Thom Eberhardt (Honey, I Blew Up The Kid 1992) actually used the input of local female teenagers to set the tone for the film, a fact that shines through as the girls montage the hell out of the shopping mall, only to be interrupted by evil, gun-wielding, sadistic store clerks (“I’m not crazy… I just don’t give a f**k!”). Overwhelmingly, his test group thought that surviving an apocalypse would be a fun adventure instead of the usual fight for survival depicted in most films of its genre. Stewart and Maroney portrayed characters who were unaware of the responsibilities of adult life and reacted with the skills and knowledge of a teenager, making them endearing as opposed to annoying. And let’s face it: ANYONE would raid the mall and take over the local radio station if no one was there to stop them.

What would an ’80s movie be without a mall montage and a little “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” playing in the background?
Night of the Comet
Samantha dedicates her new radio show to all the teenage mutant comet zombies, which was the working title of the film.

The film was a commercial success, grossing twice its budget of $700,000 despite opening just one week after the original A Nightmare of Elm Street (also notable is that NOES star Heather Langenkamp auditioned for the role of Samantha).  Several happy accidents occurred as a result of this low budget that became some of the most notable features of the film:

  • The actors were advised to improvise for any unexpected events to avoid additional takes. When the gun fails during Samantha’s target practice, her line, “See, this is the problem with these things. Daddy would have gotten us Uzis,” was ad libbed. Stewart plays along perfectly with the impromptu situation.
  • When people are turned into “calcium dust” by the comet, the filmmakers opted against expensive effects and instead used common brick dust to depict the red puffs of the deceased.
  • Most of the mall scenes were filmed in the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a place that offered a cheap shooting location as long as filming was done after hours. The mall can also be seen in Valley Girl, Chopping Mall, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Maroney is also featured in the two latter films, and one of the albums she pulls out at the radio station in Night of the Comet is the Valley Girl soundtrack.
  • The street scenes were all actually filmed in downtown Los Angeles instead of on a soundstage. They achieved the isolation by shooting in the early hours in the morning and timing their takes in between red lights.

Though low-budget veteran Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul 1982, House of the Devil 2009) dismissed the film as merely a product of its time that would not have a lasting audience, it has become a cult classic that influenced other cult classics, such as Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fan Greg Nicotero even paid tribute to the original alley zombie on an episode of The Walking Dead.

Orion Pictures is also currently developing a reboot of the film. After 35 years, this snapshot of 1984 still resonates with audiences. Stewart and Maroney frequently appear together at conventions and screening for adoring fans all across the world.

Stewart at a 35th anniversary screening at the Alamo Drafthouse (Photo courtesy of Danni Winn)

Are you a fan of Night of the Comet? Do you have nostalgic memories watching it in a cloud of Aqua Net and Love’s Baby Soft? Let us know in the comments below!

About Rebecca Rinehart

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