The Savage Stack - NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984)

The New Wave apocalypse cult classic is possibly the most watchable movie ever made.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The sixty-second entry into this unbroken backlog is the New Wave zombie weird out, Night of the Comet...

Writer/director Thom Eberhardt's Night of the Comet ('84) wouldn’t feel out of place on a double bill with Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps ('86) or Albert Pyun's Radioactive Dreams ('85), as it shares a similar New Wave energy with those pictures while also keeping its cinematic tongue firmly in cheek. Eberhardt isn’t hitting the homage button as hard as Dekker, or showing his overt George Miller/Raymond Chandler/Sue Saad love like Pyun, but instead updates such ’50s schlock sci-fi classics as It Came From Outer Space ('53) with a heavy dose of ’80s neon. So, while Night of the Comet is certainly a time capsule for the decade in which it was made, there’s certainly much more to mine from the film’s brisk ninety-five minute runtime than a simple nostalgia trip.

Where George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead ['68], Dawn of the Dead ['78]) used the apocalypse as a pulpy means to smuggle in subversive themes about race, class and consumerism, Eberhardt utilizes the end of all things as a backdrop for Hughesian teen angst. The world watches the skies from various parties, waiting for the titular astral event to occur while, in a rundown Valley theater, Regina (the absolutely adorable Catherine Mary Stewart) protects her video game high score while “working” as an usher. She makes it with Larry (Michael Bowen of Kill Bill infamy) - the cute, muscular, hog-riding projectionist playing classic prints on the side - while her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney - cast as the ultimate '80s Valley Girl right down to the cheerleader outfit) wrangles with her probably philandering stepmother (Sharon Farrell) at home. Before doomsday even arrives, there’s enough opportunity for suburban malaise to fill a Sweet Valley High novel.

After the comet passes - reducing all those who were anticipating its arrival to red dust (the better to match the now blood orange sky) - Regina and Samantha’s biggest battle isn’t over how to survive in this new wasteland. It’s over who gets to be with Hector (Star Trek: Voyager's Robert Beltran), the hunky truck driver they meet at an abandoned radio station. For a film where zombies - who can talk, shoot, dress themselves and drive cars, mind you - are immediately made out to be the biggest threat to either of our heroines’ safety, the multi-functional flesh eaters are forgotten rather quickly. But that’s the best thing about Night of the Comet: the girls and their interpersonal/internal strife are the focus instead of standard undead antics. Regina reveals to Hector how hard life has been after their dad went into the military, leaving she and Samantha with their stepmom. Meanwhile Samantha falls into a pit of depression, dreaming about zombies tearing her apart and sulking whenever she witnesses her sister’s blossoming relationship. For these kids, life, love and loneliness go on, well after Judgement Day. 

While the angst, comedy and soundtrack - this is produced by the team behind Valley Girl ('84), after all - make the movie a rather idiosyncratic delight, the other part of Night of the Comet's appeal is that Eberhardt doesn't push these elements too far, letting the horror and violence overtake the picture when necessary. This pastel and synth anti-reality is quickly overrun by mutants and marauders, who try to take the Uzi-firing teens down following a mall shopping spree. Suddenly, the big hair and cheerleader outfits no longer matter; these are just normal kids trying to shoot their way out of a life and death situation. Boys don't matter, only survival against the steepest odds in this hazy, lyrical dream of Los Angeles. 

Unfortunately, the third act revolves around the girls being abducted by an all-seeing group of underground scientists - headed by delightful character actor icons Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul ['82]) and Geoffrey Lewis (Bronco Billy ['80]) - abruptly putting a halt to all of the high school melodrama. Suicidal after their ventilation system lets in a dose of deadly radioactive meteor dust, the two girls must escape and rescue the other immune children before they’re euthanized. The oddly heroic tone, while impressive, doesn’t quite match up with the synth pop-scored whole and takes away from the coming of age movie atmosphere Eberhardt creates. It’s not that the finale is bad, per se (an extended epilogue almost redeems it completely), it’s just that the manufactured conflict halts the momentum of a much more organic and interesting movie.

The bastard offspring of an entire drive-in era, Night of the Comet is one of the most unique motion pictures from any age, and it’s a wonder that more modern filmmakers haven’t used it as a cinematic template. Beyond taking a distinct POV regarding the apocalypse, Eberhardt's movie is impeccably designed. Each set has a personality, from the shadowy, fluorescent-slathered radio station, to the scientists' equally stark, sterile bunker, Night of the Comet stretches every dollar of the film’s meager budget into ten (there’s even a cheap cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” scoring one of the film’s most memorable scenes). Regina and Samantha become icons in their own isolated universe, road warriors of hormone-infused desolation who still just wish they could just find a boy to kiss. 

Night of the Comet is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory. 

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