1984 was a good year for quirky science fiction filmmaking. The popularity of the genre in Star Wars-size blockbuster form made it possible for filmmakers to try out offbeat concepts at the box office, resulting in a string of films like Dune, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai, Repo Man and The Brother From Another Planet. Night Of The Comet was another sci-fi entry from this year and it became a small-scale hit, doing surprisingly well at the box office and going on to a long life on home video and cable t.v. Like the aforementioned films, it mixes science fiction concepts with a quirky treatment that gives them a novel spin.
Night Of The Comet presents a scenario in which the world’s population is decimated when it comes in contact with the path of a comet that has lethal effects on the Earth’s atmosphere. However, it is taken from a unique point-of-view, envisioned through how it affects a pair of teenage Californian sisters. Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) is a movie theater employee and Samantha (Kelli Maroney) is her younger cheerleader sister, whose life of hunting for boyfriends and arguing with their bitchy stepmom comes to an end when the comet strikes.
They quickly discover there are dangers to their new way of life – some people who escape the initial blast transform into “comet zombies” at varying speeds – but they find a fellow survivor in a truck driver named Hector (Robert Beltran) and do their best to adjust. Unfortunately, they are being monitored by the surviving members of a scientific think-tank led by Carter (Geoffrey Lewis) and Audrey (Mary Woronov), and they might not have the nicest plans for our teen heroes.
Night Of The Comet became a sleeper hit because it pursues its genre agenda in a savvy way, mixing its quirky ideas with a crowd-pleaser sensibility. Writer/director Thom Eberhardt would later become a director of Hollywood comedies and he brings a breezy wit to his end-of-the-world scenario, playing it as a teenage fantasy come to life. Indeed, the film’s most famous sequence has the heroines invading an empty department store and having the ultimate dress-up party while “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” plays in the background.
That said, the teenage fantasy angle of Night Of The Comet has some barbed edges that allow him to work in horror and action elements: Eberhardt pulls off an effective nightmare dream sequence that owes a debt to An American Werewolf In London and the aforementioned department scene is followed up by a suspenseful yet witty shootout in the same location. The film also closes with a nifty siege setpiece that mixes suspense, action and tongue-in-cheek humor with equal measure.
Best of all, Eberhardt populates his “apocalypse on a budget” scenario with unique, witty characterizations that the actors bring to life with a contagious sense of enjoyment. Stewart and Maroney were regulars in comedies and genre flicks during this era and their roles here allow them to use both skill sets at the same time: Stewart is fun as a tough yet romantically vulnerable archetype, Maroney brings screwball comedy timing to a sendup of the Valley Girl sensibility and the two have a winning, believable chemistry. Beltran makes a likeable back-up hero while Lewis gives a sly treatment to a sinister role and Woronov has one of her best supporting roles as a tough, clever scientist whose questionable allegiances keep the audience on its toes.
In short, Night Of The Comet remains a lot of fun thanks to its smart, genre-bending approach to familiar sci-fi concepts. No retrospective of offbeat ’80s sci-fi is complete without it.